We had a toy when we were little called “Hot Potato.” They still make them today, but the ones made today are all squishy and safe. The one we had was made of hard, heavy plastic, which left nice welts on your arm if you were hit by it. Ah, the joys of growing up in the 1960s..
Anyway, the game started when someone wound the timer on the back of the potato, and then began passing it around the circle of potential victims. The goal was to NOT be caught holding the potato at the end of the timer, when a large buzzing sound occurred. Although you might not think so there was a strategy in playing the game – did you just quickly pass the potato on, so to avoid most any chance of it buzzing you? To do that, of course, meant that the potato could easily make its way around the circle, and catch you on the second time around. Of course, another strategy, usually played out by our big brother Ray, who was a bit of a bully and had a sadistic streak in him, was to simply hold on to the potato for way longer than should be held, and then at what seemed to be the last second, pass it along to the victim to your right, a millisecond prior to it buzzing. The best time we played it, however, was the time Ray held on to the potato just a moment too long – he was kind of cocky – and before he could pass it along, it buzzed him. We all laughed uncontrollably. Do you remember the “welt” factor? That was an occasion when the potato moved from a toy to an indoor missile. It was still worth it.
So, you ask – what does that game have to do with the title of today’s column? The fact is, we are in the midst of a huge game being played out in our front yard, even as we write. The game is called, “When?” and the center of the game is the 30-year old maple tree standing in our front yard. Autumn of course is the time when the weather changes, and the temps get crispy, and the sun comes up way after 7am – and the leaves fall. Oh, they fall big time. If you were to walk around our yard, you’d notice a variety of trees, and you could gauge the rate and timing of the leaves getting shed. Of course, the ash trees are the first to go – they start dropping leaves right after Labor Day, it seems, and although a pretty yellow hue, they drop fast and furious, long before any others start thinking about de-leaving. Next would probably be the fruit trees – apple, pear, cranberry and such – who really do turn lovely shades of red and gold, and those leaves seem to linger a bit on the trees even after changing.
Finally, we come to the maples and the oaks. We have a silver maple in our front yard, which is probably 30-35 years old, and is more than likely over 25 feet wide, and what looks like about 100 feet tall, although I could be exaggerating. It just sits there, like Ray hold the hot potato. Actually, at this point, all the leaves are nice and green. It almost looks like it is still summer, but you and I both know that deep within that trunk of that tree, the computer motherboard is churning out the mathematical formula which, if properly applied, will bring a massive amount of work to the front yard. I’ve gone online to figure out approximately how many leaves are attached to the one single tree, but everyone is scared to make an estimation, apparently. One brave soul did write that, with a tree this size and this old, there could be anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 leaves. On one tree.
This will be our sixth fall in this house, and I have seen the maple take two different approaches to dumping its leaves. One year, the leaves trickled off the tree like a small bubbling brook. It was constant, but consistent. Another year, however, it appeared that all quarter million leaves decided to fall within a two-hour time span! Of course, that was also the year when the first five inches of snow fell at the same time as the leaves, and covered the leaves with a freezing coat, and then the snow never melted until April. That was such a fun spring yard cleanup… after two years, the grass has finally grown back.
So I have my eye on the maple. Right now it’s a standoff, with the ash trees dropping their tons of leaves as a precursor. But the maple knows – and I know – that we are 8 days from October, and that means the hot potato is ticking. You can’t really feel it in the air, since we have a very unusual warm front over the last few days, and today will again be a high in the 80s. Will that lure me to let down my defenses? Oh no – it’s only a matter of time. They don’t call it “Fall” for nothing…
If we were to take a good look around our lives, we might be surprised and amazed at how much of our world we have no control over. Granted, it might feel like every time I get the car washed on an afternoon, we have an evening rain, even if it were not forecast, but more likely, it’s just gonna rain. The weather, the wind, the creaky joint one morning, or the lack of sleep one night all are part of the way things are, it seems. They are all hot potatoes, just ticking away, until they buzz and we are given the consequences of things out of our control.
Does that mean we are living accidentally? No. It is true that we don’t live in a vacuum, and that the actions of nature, and of other people, and sometimes just the random action of the world on our lives certainly seems to question whether we have control over anything as we live our lives. It feels like the entire universe is a hot potato, ticking along.
Our challenge, and our responsibility as thoughtful and perceptive persons, is to take that randomness, and active intentionally on it. Instead of thinking that we are helpless in the face of a world that seems to be against us – who asked for a pandemic anyway? – we are invited to make good decisions, not in reacting to anything and everything that comes to us, but carefully responding to the world, and sometimes taking the first initiative that fulfills our own vision for how our world could be more loving and hopeful, and full of joy, the way God intended.
Those leaves are going to fall – its up to me to then decide “What next?” and to act with courage and grace, no matter what occurs in my own life. I hope you will follow that same path – thoughtful, intentional and trusting in the God who loves you.
Word for the day: ramage. It’s an easy word to pronounce – it rhyme with damage – RA-mudge. It comes out of the Latin word, ramus, which means “branch,” and so the first right definition is “the boughs of a tree,” or the branches that hold thousands of leaves, ready to fall. However, ramage is a multi-definition word, so it also means “the sound of birds singing in the trees,” allegedly sitting on the branches as they do so. But it also means the line of descendants from a certain ancestor in a family “tree,” as in a “branch” of that tree. Our family of four is a ramage of four different ancestors, both my mom and dad, and Cheri’s mom and dad. It doesn’t take much to build those ramages.
Finally, the word, ramage, means “wild, or untamed.” This one shoots off in a different direction, but I guess it’s related to branching off on one’s own way… either that, or it describes the wild and untamed dropping of leaves…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.