A Mother’s Prayers, 2018

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am rerunning a previous blog from a few years ago.

For those of you who only know me as an adult, this may surprise you, but I was not the easiest child to raise.  I tended to find trouble if it could be found.  As a preschooler, I became well acquainted with the ruler my mother used as a “spanking stick”.  Even in my early school years, I drove some teachers crazy.  Mostly it was due to excess energy and not mean-spiritedness.  My fourth grade teacher had me write, “I will not talk”, thousands of times.

But all the way through my life, I never got into serious trouble.  It was not because of anything in me that tried to avoid it.  It just seems that, other than breaking a few windows, I never ventured far down the road toward juvenile delinquency.  I broke curfew and had a few minor auto accidents, but that was about all.

And for years, I wondered why I was so protected.  Don and I did some dangerous stuff as children and he ended up with some serious bumps and bruises.  But other than having our tonsils out and my cutting the end of my thumb off in shop class, I did not see the inside of a hospital, even to this day, seventy years after my birth.

Then one day, years after my father died, my mother said something in passing that answered that question.  She did not say it as some great revelation, but to me it was the key all my wondering.  She said, “You know that from the minute we knew you were conceived, your father and I prayed for you every day.”  And then she went on to some other subject and never mentioned it again.  And I am sure she continued to do so until the day she died.  I know they did the same for Don and Barb.

So that was the reason.  It should not have come as a surprise to me, but it did.  I knew my parents loved me and I knew they had great faith in the value of prayer.  But somehow, until that moment, I had not realized how much.

I am sure there are parents who read this who have been faced with difficulties with your children, either physically or spiritually.  But don’t give up praying for them.  It works.  I am living proof.

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Can I Please Use Your Bathroom?

One afternoon, Deborah and I were in the back of the house, watching TV.  We were startled by the sound of the doorbell.  The doorbell seldom rings, and most of the time we are expecting someone when it does.  Then it started ringing repeatedly.  Before I could get to the door, a loud insistent knock began.  I thought somebody must be mad or else in real need.  When I opened the door, there stood a young boy, about 8 or 9 years old.  He said, “Mister, I live just up the street, but I have to go to the bathroom real bad.  Can I please use your bathroom?”

I looked outside and saw his bike laying on the ground just at the edge of our lawn.  I saw no one else.  So what do you do?  Especially since he asked so politely and seemed in such need.  I directed him to the guest bathroom which was only a few feet from the front door.  He stayed in there several minutes, then came out and began looking around the house.  He looked in the guest bedroom, which was just to the left of the bathroom and by its furnishings said, “I bet you have two daughters.”

I said, “Yes, but they are grown.  We used to use this room when the grandchildren were young.”  I could see he wanted to carry on a conversation, but I directed him back to the front door and out.  And we went back to watching whatever we were watching.

Then the doorbell rang again, followed by the pounding on the door.  I opened the door to see the same boy.  He said, “I forgot to go number 2,” and rushed past me to the bathroom.  By then Deborah had joined me and we were kind of dumbfounded.  After several minutes he emerged again.  I think he said thanks as he rushed out.

We were talking about how strange this was when we saw him talking to a woman who appeared to be his mother standing by his bike.  He apparently was explaining why she had seen his bike on the ground with no sign of him and we could see him pointing toward our house.  The mother was rather upset and you could see the concern on her face as she talked to him and gestured wildly.  We half expected her to come to our door and apologize for her son’s actions but she didn’t.  She just walked behind him as he rode his bike down the street.

I guess she told him not to do that again.  He never came back again.

As I think about this, it is strange from two aspects.  First, we have become a neighborhood of strangers.  We don’t know many of our neighbors any more.  I had never seen the boy or his mother before or since.  I don’t know for sure that they live “down the street”, but I have no way of knowing that they don’t.  And we resent intrusions into our privacy.  When the doorbell rings, it is not usually a welcome sound.  It usually means someone wants to sell us something.  Or it may be a delivery, which we are expecting.  But it is seldom a friend or neighbor just dropping in.  Even ministers are finding an unexpected call on a parishioner is not always welcome.

And the other aspect that is troubling about this kind of experience is that it is not safe for children to ring a neighbor’s doorbell.  The days of feeling safe in your neighborhood have been replaced with the real danger that people going into houses they are unfamiliar with sometimes don’t come out.  Or it may result in the homeowners’ death or robbery.  Even “nice” neighborhoods contain some bad characters.

I don’t think this is good, but it is reality in the 21st Century.  Our air-conditioned sanctuaries where we hide behind locked doors and alarm systems have turned into prisons.  We have lost a sense of community.  I make it a practice to wave at every car when I am walking Churchill.  I may never see the car again, but I want someone to see a smile and a wave and maybe that will make their day begin with a smile.  And most of them wave back.  I have one neighbor who honks her horn if I don’t happen to see her going by.

The Bible talks about welcoming strangers and being hospitable to travelers.  “For some have welcomed angels without realizing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)  I’m just glad the little boy knocked on my door and not someone who would react badly.  Even if it was not a wise thing to do.

 

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The Revenge of the Egg

Every once in a while, I like to make a fried egg sandwich for lunch.  Recently, I ran into a very uncooperative egg.  This egg had a bad attitude.  It began early.  As I cracked the egg on the edge of the frying pan it sprayed out onto the surface of the range.  Not a lot, mind you, but enough to have to clean it up.  I have never had that happen before.  I don’t know what caused it, but it should have been a warning.

Most of the egg went safely into the frying pan and cooked up to a good consistency.  I like it with the yolks still a little runny but the white solid.  Then I placed the eggs onto the toasted bread and prepared to eat the sandwich.  When I bit down, the egg gave me its second surprise.  Somehow, the runny yolk squirted out all over my face and hands and clothes. I was left with egg on my face.  Literally.  That egg just had a bad attitude and it did not want to go down without a fight.

Nevertheless, I persevered.  And it was delicious.  But that egg was a bad egg.  It did not want to be eaten and it put up a good fight.

Okay.  Funny story.  But where is the spiritual significance?  Wait for it.

Sometimes things don’t go the way we plan.  Sometimes obstacles appear in the path.  Sometimes eggs do their best not to get eaten.  But how do we react to these situations?

There are two responses that come to my mind.  You may think of others.  As Christians, we sometimes see obstacles in our path as signs from God that we are on the wrong path.  And that is sometimes correct.  Sometimes when we try something and it does not work, we need to realize that we made a mistake and not keep on going.  We may have started a new project and it just will not work.  Maybe this is a sign that we are going the wrong way.  Maybe we need to take a step back; look at the situation and see what went wrong and why.  Maybe it is not too late to go back to where we made that wrong turn and get back on the right path.

There is a second response however.  Sometimes the difficulties come, not because we went the wrong way, but because the right way is not the easy way.  Some may even see the obstacle or opposition as coming from the devil or spiritual forces of evil.  Maybe discouragement comes from a lack of faith or a lack of clarity about where we are going or why we are going there.  Maybe the best thing we can do is not to give up but to give even more effort.  Redouble our prayers and renew our strength to overcome the obstacle and reach the goal.

The tricky part is figuring out which is true.  Now in my silly egg example, I did not allow temporary setbacks to deter me, and in the end I was rewarded with a delicious lunch.  Although I needed to wash my face and change my clothes.

In Genesis, Jacob wrestles all night with God or his conscience, and in the end he prevails.  He wins the blessing and his name is changed from one who deceives to Israel, one who wrestles with God.  Yet from that day forward, he walks with a limp.  The price he paid was real.  But because he persevered, the Hebrew nation was born.  There would be other struggles along the way.  But Jacob survived the test and overcame the struggle.

I wish I could give you an easy answer about how to discern which response is right, but I can’t.  There is no simple answer.  Sometimes it takes much prayer and “wrestling in the night”.  But I believe God will reveal the truth if we seek it.  The spirit of Christ in our hearts will confirm with our spirits which is the answer.  I tend to be obstinate.  I don’t like to quit.  I need to be hit over the head to make me realize that I am going the wrong way.  But when that happens it becomes impossible to ignore.  Meanwhile, if the obstacle is temporary and only meant to make us stronger, that will become evident over time as well.

Whatever happens, we need to pray for discernment and direction.  We need to pray for clarity and wisdom.  And occasionally, we can even set out a “fleece” or two, like Gideon.   Just remember, the egg sandwich is all the more fulfilling if we have struggled to get it into our mouths.

 

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Three Score and Ten

Yesterday (if you read this on Thursday, when the majority do), I passed a milestone:  seventy years on this earth.  As Eubie Blake said (and later Mickey Mantle), “If I had known I would live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”  Although, I have to say, I feel pretty good for an “elderly” person.  It is still a little jarring to hear a news report about some elderly person who has been the victim of something and realize they are younger than me.  I am the oldest living person in my immediate family.  I have always been the oldest on my dad’s side, being the first grandchild of my grandmother Martha Soule.  (I know the Reynolds clan is mostly older than me, but we are “twice removed” cousins and the Hills are even further removed.)   And on my mother’s side, all my first cousins were older, but they have all died.

As some of you may know, I set two goals for myself when I was about 12.  One was to be 6 feet tall and I reached that in 10th grade (since then I have begun shrinking).  The other was to live to 100.  So I am 70% of the way there.  Up until this year, my wife Deborah, who was several years older than me, used to look at me and say I was still young.  She always reached those milestones before me.

But since I have reached this exalted age, I may as well accept my status as tribal elder.  There are a lot of advantages to being “a certain age” as the meme on Facebook says, kidnappers are not interested in you and if you do get kidnapped with a group, you will be one of the first let go.  There are several others, but right now I can’t remember them and I don’t feel like looking them up.  That is one of the perks of age, too.  You can say you don’t feel like doing things and people let you get away with it.  I also get to move up in running age categories.  I do a 5k on Saturday and it will be the first in which I finish in the over 70 category.  Woo-hoo!  Watch out you old guys, I’m right behind you.

So, I guess, as long as I am still here, I may as well do something with the time I have left.  I am blessed by having a lot of friends and family around and I intend to drop in on some of them in the days ahead.  I plan to make a trip to Minnesota in August and have notions of driving up to the northeast (D.C. and above) next year to catch up on all the cousins and others that live there.

But mostly, I will just keep doing what I have been doing for 70 years.  It has worked pretty good so far.  I will keep exercising.  I will keep teaching and preaching.  I will keep writing.  I will keep taking pictures.  And most of all, I will thank God for every day I wake up.  I will try not to take it for granted.  I have been blessed beyond measure and I need to remember that every day.

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In Between

Several years ago, when my friend, Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster, was the pastor of a church I had been pastor of previously, I used to receive their monthly newsletter.  I remember one article she wrote about a trip she had taken with her two (then) young sons to Birmingham.  As kids like to do, they asked every few minutes where they were.  Once, when they were in the open country, they asked that question once more.  Dorothy Ann replied, “We’re in between.”

She wrote that she was not sure whether it was because of her Southern accent or not, but that caught the funny bones of the boys.  They continued to talk about whether they were still in “Betwain”, or whether they were someplace else.

It reminded me an incident when my brother, Don, and I were young.  We were riding with our mother to or from the Twin Cities when we passed through the small town of Le Sueur, MN.  Of course when we asked where we were, our young ears heard, “We are in the sewer.”  That got us started about whether we were still in the sewer or had gotten out of it.  No matter how Mom tried to straighten us out, we loved calling it “the sewer” and it drove her crazy.

I mention this for two reasons.  First, last Sunday was the day that many churches in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church heard that their pastor was moving and that a new pastor would be coming in by the end of June.  For those pastors and churches, they are now living in the new land of “Betwain”.  And for many, this is not a very comfortable place to live.  Things are going to change soon, but they are still not there yet.  And the next two months will be times of unease.  It is sort of uncomfortable to know a change is coming, but is not yet here.  We either dread it or look forward to it, but the transition can be stressful.  People we have grown to know and love, sometimes for several years, will soon be apart from us.  While we know it is possible to continue to keep up friendships, it becomes a little more difficult, and getting together becomes a process, when it used to be so simple.

Secondly, when many of you read this, I will be on the road beginning a several day road trip.  So I will be in between home and my destination for a couple of days.  I am looking forward to taking a trip to a state I have never been to (the only state of the 48 contiguous states that I have yet to set foot in), it will also be my first solo trip in many years.  The last time I went farther than 200 miles by myself was when I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree in Dayton, Ohio, twenty years ago.

I am looking forward to going, but also a little apprehensive.

But the truth is, we are always living “in Betwain”.  We are between the cradle and the grave.  We are between one phase of our life and another.  We are between many places.  And within a few weeks, many will be graduating from high school and college, and enter a new phase of their lives.  Some may not have a next step arranged.  And so, we must learn to live with the uncertainty.  We must live with a trust in God that where we are going is where we need to be and what we are leaving behind, though painful, may be better for our growth and development.

One of the most encouraging words for this time comes from the ancient Hebrew scriptures.  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)  But in order to access these plans we must allow God to take control.  The passage in Jeremiah continues,  “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  (Jeremiah 29:12-13)

May we seek God with our whole hearts as we step into unknown futures.

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Spring, 2018

Many of my friends live in places where April has arrived in dress of white.  Several have complained that this April Fool’s prank has lasted too long.  It brought to mind an April, many years ago.

In 1968, I was part of the Male Chorus from our college, Bethel College (now University) in St. Paul, MN.  (You can sometimes get our recordings on ebay if you are interested.)  We went on our spring tour to Colorado that year.  The weather was perfect.  We arrived in Denver on Easter weekend after singing in a few churches on the way.  The temperature was in the low 70s and people were out in the parks having a wonderful spring weekend.  There was a glorious Easter sunrise service in Red Rocks Amphitheater.  In my first visit to the mile high city, I was impressed.

From there, our bus took us up into the mountains and we were treated to some beautiful views as we crossed the continental divide.  All of the cameras were pointed out the bus windows as we made our way to the little town of Steamboat Springs.  Then the snow began.  It was beautiful at first, but it kept coming.  However we had made it to town safely and were greeted by a quaint mountain hamlet.  This was long before it was a glamorous ski resort.  It was just a small town in the mountains with not much to offer.

I could not wait to get back to Denver where we had a few more concerts scheduled.  But when we returned, the high plains were blanketed in a foot of white.  It was just warm enough that it was the wet slushy snow and not the soft powdery kind.  What a dirty trick!  I was dreaming of a warm spring and got a cold winter instead.

The rest of the tour through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa was mostly cold and wet.  By the time we got back to Minnesota, we had had enough!

One of the lessons from that trip was that life can be unpredictable.  Make that will be unpredictable.  We have wonderful days and think it will always be that way.  Then the snow returns.  And we have to make the best of less than perfect situations.  But our attitudes make a big difference.  Many times the stormy days can be as blessed as the sunny ones.  Sometimes sitting around a roaring fire with friends while the wind howls outside can be as enjoyable as playing with a frisbee in a grassy park.  If we only focus on what we don’t have, instead of what we have, we will always be disappointed.

Spring will come.  Eventually.  So focus on something else.  And be thankful for warm clothes, cars and homes.  And Lord, please send better weather to my friends in the North.  Because what we don’t need in the South is “caravans” of millions of Yankees fleeing the cold.

 

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The Cross Makes All the Difference, 2018

A while ago, I read the sentence, “The cross makes all the difference,” and thought that sounded like a great theme for a souletosoul blog.  (It’s also similar to the title of a Bill and Gloria Gaither song.)  But the more I thought about, the less true I believe that statement is.  Certainly the cross makes a great deal of difference, but by itself it is only a historical fact.  It doesn’t mean much more than that.  It is the resurrection that gives meaning to the cross.

I had a friend in college who believed firmly in the resurrection of Christ, but she was an English literature major. She said the story would be a great classic tragedy if it stopped with the death of Jesus on the cross.  God sends his son to redeem the world and the people kill him.  End of story.  A great tragedy indeed.

But what would make that story unique?  The Romans used crucifixion widely throughout their empire.  Roads were lined with crosses where enemies of the state had been executed by this particularly gruesome method.  What would have made the crucifixion of Christ any different?

And if that were all there were, he would be remembered even less than some of his contemporaries who met similar fates like John the Baptist or the Essene Teacher of Righteousness.  It would hardly be a blip on the timeline of history, much less the dividing point in the way time is reckoned.

The cross makes a theological difference in that, as Christians, we believe that Jesus died to take the guilt of sin away.  The death of Jesus made atonement for us and took the punishment we deserved.  But without the resurrection, who would believe anything special happened there?  It would be lost in the annals of history.

Instead, the resurrection, the first Easter, made that death significant.  It proved death is not the end.  The worst man can do is not greater than the power of God.  God’s gift of life triumphs over sin and death.  The grave waits for all of us, but that is simply a transition to something more, something better, it is not the end!

The resurrection makes all the difference.  Easter witnesses to the power of God over the power of evil.  Life is more than the few years we have here on earth.  God’s gift of eternal life means that what we know now is only a pale shadow of what is to come.

I will close with a quote from the late Rev. Billy Graham, posted on his website several years ago.  “The cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ.  From the cross God declares ‘I love you.  I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pain that you feel.  But I love you.’  The story does not end with the cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the cross to the empty tomb.  It tells us there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death and hell.  Yes, there is hope.”

Thank you Billy for those words of wisdom.  I believe it.  Do you?

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Things Are Seldom What They Seem

The title is a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, HMS Pinafore, where the Captain is mulling over in his mind what is really going on aboard ship.

About ten years ago, one of my churches gave me a variegated schefflera to celebrate my return for another year as their pastor.  It has sat in a corner of our dining room ever since.  I noticed that leaves seemed to be dropping at an accelerated rate recently and thought the problem was that I was not giving it enough water.  So I began to give it extra attention and loads of water.  The pot sat in a clear plastic bowl that had gotten brown with age.  One day, I noticed that the plastic bowl was almost running over with water.  I had to cut back on the watering.  I was almost drowning the plant.

It turns out the trouble was not lack of water, but lack room.  It had filled the original pot and the roots had nowhere to go.  I bought a larger container and added some fresh potting soil and it has been doing much better.  My original diagnosis was mistaken and I had to find a new one.

One of my favorite writers is Anthony Campolo.  In one of Tony’s stories he tells about an elaborate dinner party that was rudely interrupted.  It seems the host had gone out and gathered mushrooms and used them in the preparation of the meal.  During the dinner they heard a crash from the kitchen and rushed in to find the cat laying on the ground in agony, her stomach heaving.  The host thought, “The cat must have gotten into the food and the mushrooms were poisonous and it is causing her to writhe in pain like that.

So the guest all rushed to the nearest hospital where they had their stomachs pumped.  It was trying ordeal, but finally, they were sure everyone was free from the deadly mushrooms.  When the host family returned they remembered the cat.  They ran into the kitchen, expecting to find a dead cat stretched out on the floor.  Instead they found a very much alive mother cat, surrounded by a dozen newly born kittens.  She wasn’t dying, she was giving birth.

Tony’s point is sometimes we look at events and think they mean the end of something when really it is the beginning of something wondrous and new.

In a little over a week, we will remember Good Friday.  It is an awful event and if that is where the story ended, it would be a catastrophe.  God sends his Son to the earth to save humanity.  But instead, humanity kills the Son.  A tragedy of epic proportions.

What what looked like the end was really just the beginning.  It was the beginning of a new situation for the whole world.  Next week, we will look at the wonder of Easter.  But just remember, what looks like the end may not be the end after all.  Instead of dying, we may be giving birth to new life.

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St. Patrick’s Day 2018

I posted this blog last year, but it bears repeating, especially since my sister found out how much of our family descends from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.  If you read it then, you probably have forgotten the details anyway.

Growing up Protestant, we did not know much about St. Patrick.  All we knew was that in elementary school you were supposed to wear some green on St. Patty’s Day or you would get pinched.  But there is so much more to the story, even if some of it is kind of lost in time.

The dates are kind of uncertain, but he apparently lived through the early 400’s, growing up in Roman occupied Britain, although the exact location of his boyhood home is sometimes given as Cumbria, England, sometimes Wales and sometimes Scotland.  His family was Christian, but Patrick did not have a personal faith in Christ in his early years.  As a teenager, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to the Emerald Isle where he lived as a slave for years.   During that time he came to believe in Christ for himself.  After six years, he escaped and returned home to Britain.

He then studied for the priesthood.  After ordination, he returned to Ireland and lived out his life bringing the Gospel to the mostly pagan island.  Again, details are sketchy, but he walked from one end of the island to the other starting churches and doing acts of Christian charity.  It was said that when he arrived in Ireland the land was mostly pagan. When he died it was mostly Christian.  That is quite a legacy.

As non-Catholics, many of us are only recently beginning to appreciate the work of this early saint.  And since, at the time, there was only the Roman Catholic church in western Europe, he is part of our history as well.  There may not be any St. Patrick’s United Methodist churches (or Presbyterian, Baptist or Lutheran), but we can certainly learn much from this man who lived his life to spread the faith.

One of the things I really respect about Patrick is that he returned to the place of his original enslavement to share Christ.  That took extraordinary courage and love.  After leaving that part of his life behind, he came back to face the people who captured him and made him a slave.  Only the love of Christ would enable him to do that.  And he toiled for the rest of his life to bring the freedom of Christ to those who had once taken his freedom.  He brought a message of real freedom to those who were enslaved to their pagan beliefs.

He used the shamrock plant to illustrate the Trinity to the children and it became so identified with him that you cannot separate the man from the herb.

He probably did not drive the snakes out of Ireland.  There is no evidence snakes ever lived on the Irish island.  But he did drive out the serpent of unbelief and replace it with a vibrant Christian church.

So enjoy the parties, parades, and for those who partake, green beer.  But realize that the man behind the celebration was so much more.  And he is a part of all of our western Christian history.  Especially those of us who had an Irish grandfather and a Scottish grandmother.  Let us reclaim our history with the same kind of dedication that our spiritual ancestor showed.

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Sledding on the Street

Recent weather forecasts have shown that winter is not over for much of the United States.  So I still have time to share another winter memory from childhood.  As I stated in a previous blog, we lived in the city of Spokane, WA, from the fall of 1956 until around Christmas of 1957.  We lived in a neighborhood on what was called the “south hill”, which climbed from the Spokane River in the center of town up to a plateau at the south edge of town.  During the winter, the city helped us to make the snowy streets more fun.  A couple of blocks from our house was Ivory Street, a normally quiet residential street.  It ran from near the top of the hill at 16th Avenue down to our street, 1oth Avenue.  It was an uninterrupted hill for six blocks.  During the winter, at least for part of it, the city would block off Ivory from traffic going up and down it, and restrict cross traffic to allow the kids and adults to climb the hill and sled down for a good long ride.

They also provided warming fires along the way in big 55 gallon drums.  It was a wonderland for us kids.  We could sled down one block or get adventurous and climb all the way to the top of hill and slide to the bottom.  I don’t know how long they did that or if they still do, but for an 8 or 9-year-old, it was great and it was free.

And it was a great way to burn off energy.  There is nothing more difficult than pulling a sled up an icy street for several blocks.  But the payoff was the ride down.  The more energy used, the greater the reward.  As the old saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”

Sometimes, in life, we seek to avoid difficulties but by doing so, we also avoid victories.  There may be some joy in sitting on the sidelines cheering, but it is no substitute for actually participating in the game.  I enjoy being a fan, but I remember the joy of being on a winning team and it is much better.  Even losing, while giving our best, can be therapeutic.  And it can be a learning experience.  We learn what to avoid and what to strengthen.

What have you been afraid to do?  Is it something that might benefit you or someone else?  Why not make the effort?  Step out of your comfort zone and try something new.  You might find you like it, or you might find that it is not for you.  It could be something God has prepared you for all your life.  But you will never know until you give it a try.

When we arrived at Ivory Street, dragging our sleds behind us, we first took it easy.  Climbing one block and sliding down was actually exhilarating at first.  But after a few times, we wanted to go for more.  So we slipped and slid and climbed the icy street another block until by the end of the day, we had made at least one run from the very top.  It was a tough climb to get there, but the ride down was worth it.  And it made for lasting memories.

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