Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Tale of High Adventure

Last weekend, as the wife was out of the house for a long evening meeting, I settled in with my teen boys to watch one of those films that I'd been wanting to share with them for a while.  It was Conan the Barbarian.  Not the recent thing, which never seemed worth my while.  Instead, it was that utterly delightful bit of swords and sorcery silliness from the early 80s.

As a pastor, I suppose I shouldn't like films like this, but Lord, I just can't help myself.  It could easily have been a terrible movie, easily.

But despite launching Aaaahnold into cinematic stardom, it somehow managed to be a really rather epic yarn, one that's held up in the thirty years that have passed since I first viewed it.

It wasn't shabbily written--Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay.  It was also capably directed.  Those who could act--James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow--were given room to do so.  Those who couldn't?  Well, they were given space to glower and flex.  And unlike many of the films of that era, it has a sweeping and visceral soundtrack, one that evokes the steppes and Cimmeria in ways that just work.

The boys, sharing their dad's XY chromosome, loved the film.  It's a Manly Man Man Film, but of the peculiar sort that honors strong, smart, and capable women.

And that soundtrack?  It stuck in my head, as it had years ago when I first saw the film.

I found myself listening to it today, streaming it through my earbuds as I moved through the tasks of my day.

It was delightfully absurd.

Here my audioscape was filled with the great sweeping sounds of high adventure and ancient lands of mystery, of mighty and laconic warriors and inscrutable gods.

And me?  I'm scrubbing the dishes in the sink, and schlepping laundry around the house, and paying bills.    Or I'm struggling to work through quadratic equations with my eighth grader, sharing earbuds, teasing our way through the problems as if we were infiltrating the tower of a serpent-cult.

It was amusing, juxtaposing the sounds of wild adventure with the mundane actions of my simple day.

Funny, how the right soundtrack can change the feel of a life.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Destroyers of Gardens

Last year at around this time, the little strawberry patch in front of our kitchen window was just starting to bloom up.  I'd put it in a year previous, and it had become a riot of plants.  I'd not mowed them under as some recommended, but instead let them rest under a thick blanket of insulating leaves as they overwintered.  

After I cleared the leaves and they got to berrying in early summer, the results were better than I'd expected.  More berries than we knew what to do with, so many that I found myself making jars of delicious homemade strawberry jam.  It was amazing, so amazing that I even found myself doing the church-metaphor thing.  

Wouldn't it be awesome if churches were as vigorous, sweet and simple as strawberry patches, I thought, and I wrote a little bit of whimsy to express that thought.

But then the varmints came.  

Not the chipmunks, who'd been there all along, sneaking berries, slipping like furry ninjas under the fencing.  Not the birds, who couldn't get in through the netting.  Not the ants, who'd take a few of the berries here and there.

The varmints were woodland voles.  Cute little beggars, they are, but they are death for a garden.  Voles don't go for the berries.  They're burrowing nibblers of all green and living things, and what they go after is the life of the plant itself.  They devour the whole thing, leaves and stems and all.  After they're done, the plant is dead, and they move on to the next one.  I noticed that some of the strawberries had been eaten down to the nub, out on the periphery of the patch.  Then more.  Then more still.  Within two weeks, they had burned across the patch like a fire.  

The patch was obliterated, and they moved on to the second patch I'd put in. I found their holes, and filled them in, but they returned.  I had a few traps, purchased to clear the winter-nesting mice out of our house, and I deployed them, but they caught nothing.  It was too late.

Our harvest was destroyed, two dozen everbearing plants reduced to stumps, like Oncelers set loose on a forest of Truffula trees.

This season, about a half-dozen survivors had struggled back to life in our primary strawberry patch.  To bring the patch back up to speed, I repopulated it with extra plants that I'd put in a couple of overly shaded planters in our back yard.  

Within a day, two had been devoured, an old vole burrow hole now freshly cleared right next to them.

They were back, and I was ready.  By the entrance of the hole, I lined up two small nonlethal mousetraps like two barrels of a shotgun.  They were sheltered under some bricks to feel "safe" for the voles.

Within a day, I'd caught one, which I took a half-mile down to a patch of woods and released.  It's a woodland creature, after all.  It is welcome to be there.  I reset the traps.  Overnight, I caught another, which had up and died in the nonlethal trap.  Panic?  A heart attack?  Starvation, perhaps, as that tiny little body consumed itself with its own hungers?  Hard to tell.  I dumped the tiny carcass in the back yard, cleared the trap of the stench of tiny death, and reset it.

And again, I found myself thinking metaphorically about church.  

This Wednesday, I go to a mandated Presbytery training, one that I've already been to twice before.  I know, ugh, you think, but this one is both necessary and valuable.

It's required for all Presbyterian pastors every three years, and its purpose is straightforward.  It refreshes us in our commitment to maintain a healthy care for the garden of our own bodies and souls, so that we won't fall prey to the soul-devouring hungers that lead to sexual malfeasance.  

If we are anxious, isolated and unbalanced, inattentive to our physical and spiritual disciplines, bad things happen.  We can yield to the temptation to cross boundaries, in ways that destroy our covenant commitments to loved ones and our communities.

It also reminds us to be attentive, to be watchful for the signs of the selfish devourers, the ones who would come into the garden and destroy the new life we are so carefully tending.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Succeeding at the New American Summer

With summer rapidly approaching, the hum and flutter around the nation's capital has to do with a major challenge facing our culture.  Here we are, the most educated, most driven, most competent community in these United States (if we do say so ourselves), and we're wrestling with an existential question that faces every household in America:

What in the name of the Sweet Lord Jesus are we supposed to do with the kids?

Summertime is when our agricultural past comes smashing up against our dual-income present.  The schools let out, just like they always did in the early twentieth century, and the kids come home to help with the planting and the weeding and the harvest.  They'd help, and then they'd run feral, playing and hunting and mucking about.

Only now, that ain't us.  We've got multiple jobs, both spouses, because we've got those huge mortgages to pay on our overpriced houses.  Plus, there are our connectivity bills, and those payments on the cars we need to get to the jobs we have to pay for the cars we need to get to the jobs we have to...well, it goes on like that for a while.

Sort of like pi, only more anxiety-inducing.

And we can't let the pups just go play in the creek, because, well, we're afraid.  We're afraid of danger all around, as the stress-profit-media pours anecdotal woe into our minds.  We're afraid that they'll fail to keep up in a society that is unforgiving to the weak and the slow and the unfortunate.

So the summer must be filled with activities, camps and tutoring sessions.  We tell ourselves that this is for enrichment purposes, that we are creating opportunities, but really?  That's only a part of it.  We do it because God help us, we have work to do.

There are a couple of ways to win at this strange game.

One involves plans and structures, ones that are well into their pre-staging at this point in the year.  This is, of course, the route that most inside-the-Beltway parents take.  There are charts and spreadsheets.  There is color coding.  There's logistical sophistication that reaches planning-for-D-Day levels of complexity.

This is the New American Summer.

When it works, the New American Summer is like an elegant dance of moms and dads and minivans.  It can be a delightfully satisfying contraption, sort of like the wind-up-music-box-feel of a Wes Anderson film, only with camps and children.  Look what we're accomplishing!

Assuming that nothing unexpected happens.  No one gets a stomach flu, or has an unanticipated deadline at work, or has a vehicle break down.

Meaning, it sort of works, some of the time.  And the rest of the time, we bark panicked orders on the smoking, burning bridge of our family starship as the red alert klaxons wail, and wonder what we could possibly have done to avoid this outcome.

For those who manage to pull this off most of the time, I salute you for your ninja parenting skills.

I prefer another approach.

I'm convinced, because I see very little countervailing evidence, that trying to play the game the way our society asks us to play it doesn't work.  Oh, you can force it to work.  You can pour energies into making it work, like pouring fertilizer and insecticides into a Monsanto field.  But I don't have the sustained energy for that Sisyphian task.

So we haven't played the dual-income-with-kids schedule game, because to me it feels like a Kobayashi Maru simulation, one that cannot be won if you play it by the rules.

Our summers for the last decade or so of multi-childing it have involved a balanced level of activity.  There's been the occasional sleep away scout camp, and the everpresent neighborhood swim/tennis team commitment.

And underlying that is an existence that...while busy...makes room for transitions and the inescapable intrusions of entropy.  We're moving quickly, sure, quickly enough to get where we're going.  Warp factor three.  But we're not squeezing every last drop out of the engines at every moment.

My wife?  She works and goes to meetings and presses hard to build her career and her networks.  I don't quite so much, part-timing it, because "success" in this stage of life for me does not mean the striving to clamber up that ladder.  It means: are we together feeding/clothing/sheltering/enjoying this brief time when our offspring are children?

That's the goal.  No one starves.  We don't freeze to death.  And life is worth living, to the point where we wouldn't feel like we'd wasted our lives on scrabbling stress if it all went south. Because you never know when that mass-extinction-event asteroid will come flaming in through the mesosphere.  Maybe tomorrow afternoon, when we're stuck in traffic on our way from baseball practice to that tae kwon do belt ceremony.  Oh, man, we'd say, as our world gets bright.

So to make this possible we have a smaller house, and humble and efficient vehicles.  We have no cable, just a cheap big pipe for the net.  We have a job-and-a-half, and both of us have sacrificed career for stability and nearness to family.  There are tradeoffs, sure.  I do not travel to meetings, or make a point of developing connections.  This is by intent, by discipline.  If I fret that I've not made a name for myself, or worry that maybe I should be doing more, more, more?  I remind myself to step back.  We move a little more slowly.  A little bit.

What is success, after all?  It is reaching a goal.  My goal?  A life of living into my created purpose, instead of a life of striving driven by socially-inflicted anxieties and stresses.  My goal is being in balance enough that stress does not hide my love from my loved ones.  My goal is sanity.

Sometimes, I think that makes me a little crazy.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Perceptronium Paradox

Max Tegmark's latest book is up there on my need-to-read list, and for good reason.  He's the MIT cosmologist whose writing and thinking are front and center in the conversation about the multiverse.   He's a pleasant, thoughtful fellow, with a playful mind that seeks and explores.

He's also more than willing to take wild and speculative swings at things, which I can totally appreciate.  As he's made the rounds pitching his book on the fundamentally mathematical character of being, he's made some interesting statements, ones that seem less about physics, and more philosophical/theological.

Like, for instance, his musing about the possibility that the seeds of self-awareness are somehow woven into the structure of the universe.  Perhaps into a substance, he suggested.

"Perceptronium," he recently called it, the most fundamental unit of sentient matter, which must somehow be part of the mathematical structures of existence.

This is--um--interesting, in that it sounds a little too much like something out of a Marvel comic.  You know, like it's the stuff Professor X has more of in his bloodstream.

"Sorry...Scott...I....just tried  My...cough...perceptronium reserves are...cough...dangerously depleted."

This is just Tegmark spitballing, of course, taking a wild swing at the peculiar nature of sentience.  And scientists are allowed to do that, now and again.  When it comes to sentience, the self-awareness of being, it's particularly important to swing wildly and often, because empirical science really struggles with it.

There's a deep paradox to our awareness, one that only deepens as we grow more and more engaged with the mechanics of our universe.

On the one hand, empirical science--tested, experimentally provable science--has so far been completely incapable of either creating or finding the ground for sentience.  The more we get into neural processes, the further we seem from grasping it.  What makes a self cohere as a self?  What gives us integrity as beings, and allows us to both recognize and differentiate ourselves?  The more science has chased this, the more it has become lost in mechanics.  Instead of finding the self, it has reduced awareness to unaware constituent processes.

On the other, hand, sentience is the one irrefutable truth of the Enlightenment, the conceptual ground on which everything stands.  Cogito ergo sum, as Descartes put it.  You cannot deny the existence of self awareness, because to do so is internally contradictory.  It is a truth that must exist, even in the statement of the question about knowledge and knowing.

And so there's this yearning frustration of science itself, our art of knowing.  There's a grasping after a state of being that is both fundamentally necessary and yet seemingly immune to the experimentation of scientific method.

If that grasping starts seeming a little less like science and more like storytelling and theology?

Fine with me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earth and Life and Dirt

Mixed in with several loads of laundry, shopping, and doctoral project prep, I spent much of yesterday out in our yard, doing the things one does when you're trying to get a garden in order.  I had no idea it was Earth Day.  I was just doing what I needed to do.

I watered and weeded and inspected our two everbearing strawberry patches, both recovering from a relentless assault of voles last fall.  Pesky little varmints.  There's some replanting that will need to happen, but the few survivors seem to be bouncing back nicely.

I trimmed and shaped and sorted, moving the leafy debris to a few piles in the wooded area behind our house.

I circled the periphery of our front yard, and found that five of our six blueberry bushes are budding up nicely, with the largest already going to flower.  The sixth, well, I think it looked too much like a stick to a neighbor's mowing crew.  Oopsie.

I watered and weeded the patch of peas that I started a week or two back.  As I did so, I realized that the soil probably should have been enriched again before I planted.

That implacable, drably tan Virginia clay just isn't giving up its spare nutrients lightly.  It's cracked and dry and hard, even with the good rains we've been getting, and the young peas aren't happy.  I'd done what I could in the fall after I was done with the beans I'd been growing there, turning in organic matter, but it wasn't enough.  We'll see what the crop looks like.

I'll need to do something to that soil, if things are to thrive.  Though I've started composting and have started a new mulch pile in our back yard, the richness of that newly formed dirt won't really hit its stride until this time next year.  I'll need it before that, particularly if I'm going to try for another round of beans on my little plot come mid-summer.

Shoulda started my composting last year, I thought to myself, ruminating on the silliness of buying trucked-and-plastic-wrapped dirt from Home Depot.

So I was thinking about earth, about the complex organic mess of minerals and the former stuff of life, as I climbed up on the rooftop of our house.

Rains were forecast in the afternoon, and with the trees dumping tree-stuff all over the house in the spring, it makes for clogged gutters.  I clambered about on the shingles, popping the wire covers off of the gutters and scooping matter away from the downspout intakes.  In the gutters, there was dirt.  This was not the clay of the garden.  It was a mix of pollen and seed and leaf fragments, blown dust and rain. There in the gutters of my home, it was moist and warm, rich and dark, perfect soil, so close to life that it was almost alive itself.

Because the best earth was once alive, rich with the complex stuff of life.  It takes time, and life's own self-sacrifice.

And you find it in the darnedest places.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Diet of the Planet of the Apes

This month's Scientific American had within it a whole sequence of fascinating articles, but one of the most intriguing was an article exploring the connections between hunting, meat, and the evolution of human intelligence.

Human beings, or rather, those progenitor species that came before homo sapiens sapiens, were originally not meat-eaters.  Australopithecus and the like were primarily consumers of fruits and/or vegetables.  We lazed around, noshed on stuff, picked nits, and tried not to get eaten ourselves.  We were smart, but not that smart.

With the gradual introduction of hunting, though, came the opportunity for more protein and more physical development.  We grew stronger and smarter.  Those with shoulders more suited to throwing fared a little better, and ate a little more.  Those who could run longer and farther after a wounded prey-animal fared a little better, and ate a little more.  The healthier and stronger we were, the more we could support a large and energy-intensive brain, which allowed us to create more effective hunting tools.  Tools which we learned, quickly, to use on one another in the quest for territory and power.

It was a cycle of predation and the calories that came from predation, suggested the article, that pushed human beings from being a smarter-than-average animal to being what we are today.

This was interesting, but what struck me in the reading of it was the peculiar parallel with the archetypal stories in Genesis.  I've often marveled at the harmonics between the narrative of Genesis and what we're learning about the nature of our universe, up to and including the latest theories in cosmology.

What leapt out at me in the reading of the article was the way the scientific evolution of hominid diets mirrors the evolution of diet in Genesis.  We began, or so those ancient sacred stories go, as eaters of fruit and veggies.  Only later, after the fall and the flood, did our ancestors turn to meat.  From my understanding, that was one of the more accurate features of that recent Noah movie, which I'll look forward to watching on Netflix one of these years.

Is that diet narrative some primal echo from our collective subconscious, a remembrance of the meatless Eden in which we first glimmered into self-awareness?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  It's too imprecise, hardly so matchy-matchy as to be cause for anything other than a slight Spock-like arch of an eyebrow.

But it's an interesting harmony.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Lengthening Lent

Lent ended, and nothing changed.

This was a good thing, at least so far as my Lenten disciplines were concerned.  For years, my approach to Lent had been to give up my much beloved hoppy fermented beverages.  It was a nontrivial way to mark the season, and both made every evening 1) a reminder of another commitment and 2) tended to involve me dropping a pound or seven.

But this year, my focus had been a bit different. It had struck me, as the years had gone by, that perhaps celebrating the Risen Christ by banging back some beers on Easter afternoon just didn't mesh with the theology I was endeavoring to live out.

Finally, He is Risen, so I can get back to drinkin'?

Just seemed not quite right, somehow, as if I were celebrating an Easter that fell on 4/20...and in which the primary lectionary reading was drawn from the Fourth Gospel, Twentieth lighting up the big ol' doobie I'd been denying myself for 40 days.  It'd be a strange time to be a pastor in Colorado these days.

This last year, I'd already backed way off my modest but regular alcohol consumption.  It was part of a personal discipline to reduce my total body mass, and laying off of what tended to be several hundred empty calories nightly seemed a great way to help cope with that.  That's been good for the self-care, but it's not the primary focus of my Christian walk.

And so, this season, I've made other changes, shifting habits and patterns in ways that I plan to continue.

For example, I committed to a little more frequency and intentionality in my prayer disciplines.  And that change hasn't changed, now that we're out of that liturgical season.  Nor should it change, I think.  It's actually rather important that it not.

Because the entire point of the season of Lent isn't preparing you to not be in the season of Lent.  It shouldn't be a time that leads you back to the place that you've already been, a few pounds lighter.

Easter, and the preparation for the promise that it represents, should go rather deeper into us than that.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Doves of Easter

Earlier in the week, Tuesday it was, the weather had turned again, turned rough and ugly.  From balmy to sub-freezing, it had plunged over forty degrees.  The winds had howled, and the rains had poured, turning our yard into a flowing wintry bog.

At the head of our bed, there is a window.  On the ivy-covered ledge of that window, a dove hunkered down.  At first, it was just the rain and the wind, but then as that rain turned to hail, then sleet, then snow...dear Lord, snow in mid April...she tucked in more, and her feathers fluffed out huge to create a warming pocket of air for the new life beneath her.

From beneath her, a little head poked, her one child for the spring nest.  It would peer out, slightly damp, and then tuck back in to the mother's breast.

"Do you think the baby will be OK," my soft-hearted wife asked.  "Should we set up a heater or crack the window or something?"  I assured her that we should not.   I'm not quite Picard-hard-core with the Prime Directive when it comes to wild things, but I'm close.  Plus, it's a couple of degrees warmer right by the house, and the ivy and the overhang keep off most of the rain.  They would be fine, I said, and I felt the odds were mostly in their favor.

All day long, the wind gibbered and scratched at the house, and the trees rocked, and rain spattered against the window.

Late that afternoon, I checked in, and the chick was alone and wet in the nest.

I wondered where the mother had gotten to.  The father, well, he hadn't been around for a bit, which is strange for doves.  I had seen them together in the nest in the building of it, but not again for a while.  There are cats and several hawks in the neighborhood, and I wondered if perhaps that might be the cause of that.

And so the mother had left, presumably to get food.  I checked in again at dusk.  Still no mother.

But the next morning, she was there, fluffed plump to warm her storm-bedraggled little one.  I looked up dove parenting techniques, and discovered that the she was a he, as dove parents switch off incubation duties and foraging duties, with the father taking the morning shift, and the mother the night.

I know how that is.

In the morning today, the little one was by the father's side.  Then, mid-morning as I puttered in the house, it was walking the ledge.  It was fully formed now, blossomed from dust into something alive in just days.  It was a small dove in its own right, a new living creature.  It looked ready to test its wings, and the father watched with his calm dark eye as it walked back and forth, back and forth.

As the sun fell in the sky, bringing to an end this day in between Good Friday and Easter morning, I looked again to the ledge of the window.

The nest was empty, a simple circlet of twigs.  The doves had flown.

It felt right, somehow.

Faith in the Great Dark Deep

It's a strange balance, faith is, one I feel strongly here in the shadows of the Easter vigil.

On the one hand, it needs to speak to the humblest moments of our existence.  It needs to give coherence to our actions. It guides and shapes how we function in the world.  It needs to work on our scale, and within the intimate framework of what it means to be a human creature.

On the other, it needs to be coherent given what we observe about the universe. If our faith crumbles to nothing when we look heavenward, or when we peer back into the depths of spacetime, then it is nothing.  If our stories of the nature and purpose of being cannot stand against the Deep, then they are unreal, shadows of our own imaginings.

I am reminded of this whenever some event stirs one of my more overeager co-religionists to shout about how this sign or some other sign is a sure indicator of the End of All Things.  Jesus is coming back because 1) there was a blood moon 2) Russia is mucking around with her neighbors 3) my breath smelled oddly like ham this morning.

It's right there in the Bible!

And yet, as I encounter that yearning, I wonder what it has to do with anything.  I don't believe it's particularly relevant, frankly, certainly not to the scale of my life.  It does not make me kinder, or gentler, or more compassionate.  It does not make me a better steward of creation, in that small corner of it I inhabit.

At the larger scale, though, the scale on which our Creator operates, I find the yearnings of popular apocalyptic even less relevant.

For this, I spin out the fevered imaginings of John of Patmos to their literal conclusion in my mind.  Everything he says comes to pass, in the non-symbolic actual way that so many folks seem to desire.  Beasts and false prophets rise like Godzilla from the sea.  There are signs and portents, and some Rapture-esque thing.  Yeah, I know that's loosely cribbed from Luke, but it seems part of a package deal now.  Then armies of angels and horsemen and the whole thing comes to a great crashing end.  Jesus returns, resplendent in his robes of glory, and c'est fini. C'est tout.  That's all she wrote.

All of human history, every moment of human remembering, shattered and replaced with the Divine Realm or the Lake of Fire, depending on whether you went to the right church.


On Earth.

But elsewhere in the immensity of what God has wrought, say, on the little goldilocks world of Kepler 186b, none of that would matter.  Sentient beings there might see a little flash of light there, 500 or so years from now, as we're torn from this reality.  Otherwise?  Nothing.

And of the billions of similar worlds in our galaxy, if even 0.001% of them are inhabited, what would such an event matter to the beings there?

I can't bring myself to imagine that the end of everything we know would mean much of anything at all.  Nor can I delude myself into thinking that all of creation's vastness exists only for us, for the tiny flicker that is the still delicate and young story of humankind.  Such selfishness, there is, in that way of thinking.

That does not mean faith is irrelevant, though.  Nor is it delusion.

Because the Easter that will dawn tomorrow matters, on the scale of the intimate.  It sets us towards an understanding of ourselves that shatters our fear.  Here, look, the most terrifying thing, for we mortals.  And it means nothing, nothing at all next to the path that Jesus taught.  Death and suffering should not turn us in fear from the path of compassion, because they have no power.

It can also frame our understanding of our place in the vastness.  Here, in this Jesus who shows us a form of life that overcomes death itself, we have the key to the way sentient life anywhere should live.  It is the path of grace, no matter where a self-aware being finds itself in the universe.  As such beings--I hope we are, anyway--this principle would stand, no matter where we found ourselves.

And so we stand vigil, in the darkness of the day, in the Great Dark Deep of our time and space.  In this place, we hope a new day brings a different form of life.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Christians and Seders

The other day, I read a blog post being circulated by Bruce Reyes-Chow.  It was written by J. Mary Luti, a UCC pastor.  In it, she begged Christians to please, please stop having Christian seders.

I'm a Presbyterian pastor who is married to a Jewish woman.  I've raised two Jewish boys.  I've married into the family of Moses, rather literally, given that my wife's last name is Mosher.  And from that perspective, I had two reactions to the post.

First, I think Luti is dead on.  Many Christian communities that are interested in having seders do so as a way of celebrating Maundy Thursday.  The "meal" we celebrate on that day is the remembering of the institution of the communion meal, which may or may not have occurred on Passover.

As well meaning as the Christian seder is, Passover is a different event.  There's a specific context being remembered, and a specific reason for the ritual.

I attend a seder every single year, usually at the home of my in-laws.  There, we read through the haggadah, and drink the four cups, and taste the herbs and the salt water, and retell a very specific tale for a very specific purpose.  It's the Exodus story, the story of deliverance from slavery and oppression.  It is told for a particular reason, to remember a particular and archetypal event in the history of the Jewish people.

When Christian communities fuse that telling with our own narrative about Jesus and the Lord's Supper, we muddle the story, decoupling it from its original purpose.

And sure, yeah, Jesus delivers us.  There are powerful resonances between the story of Moses and the Christian story of spiritual and existential transformation and liberation.  I get that.

But the story of Moses and the escape from Egypt has integrity on its own as a faith narrative.  The story of the Passover needs to be given voice to speak on its own.

In my own congregation, we do an agape meal, a recounting of the Last Supper that does not confuse the stories.  It feels clearer.  Less muddled.

When I think to the integrity of the story of the Passover, though, I find myself in a place of difference from Luti.  She suggests that the story of the liberation from Egypt is a uniquely Jewish story, that can only be understood from the context of Jewish identity.

This feels off.  

It's well intentioned, in an NPR sort of way, but off nonetheless.

The story of liberation from Egypt is unquestionably the story of the Hebrew people, but it is also a narrative that speaks powerfully to the human condition.  When Jews tell this story, it speaks into the hearts of any who hear it, to the promise of liberation.  Wherever human beings are suffering or oppressed, that story speaks to the yearning for freedom.

Around the seder table on Monday, I was reminded of this.  We read and recited, and we sang in Hebrew, tunes and words that I have learned over the years.  But at one point in the haggadah, we also sang a song in English.  My voice mingled with the voice of my Jewish son, as Christians and Jews around the table sang that old spiritual together.

Go down Moses, we sang, way down in Egypt's land.  Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.  It was the song of a people oppressed. They were not Jews, but heard the Passover tale as their own hope.

If you are oppressed, this story speaks the truth you know.

This truth is fundamentally integrated into the Jewish telling of the story.  In every recounting of the liberation from Egypt comes a reminder: there are those who still yearn for deliverance, and all who retell this story are called to remember what it means to suffer. It is a story that builds bridges of understanding.  Wherever human beings experience political, racial, or economic oppression, this story has a voice.

And for those of us blessed with liberty, it says: Remember that you were once strangers in the land of Egypt, it says.  Make sure you're not being Pharaoh, it says.

Which is why the story is worth retelling, and honoring, no matter what your tradition.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Blood Moons and Signs in the Heavens

In the dark of the early morning on the East Coast, behind a veil of clouds, the sky turned to blood.  It was a blood moon, following an eclipse, on the very first night of Passover.  This Pesach Blood Moon has freaked out many of the more-easily-freaked-out amongst my co-religionists.  A sign!  A message in the heavens!  Jesus will return soon!

I'll admit it's a cool conjunction.  Even more cool, given Pesach, is what the earth would look like.  If I'm interpreting the science correctly, the cause of the blood moon is our atmosphere, which filters out light in the blue spectrum.  That leaves the red light to pass through our atmosphere and to bathe the moon.  Meaning: viewed from the moon, the Earth would be surrounded by a brilliantly glowing, blood-red ring.  It would look like the sky of our blue-green world had turned to dragon's blood.

Please don't tell this to John Hagee.  It won't help.

But what this cool event does not appear to be, in any meaningful way, is a sign.  How could it be?  Why would it be?

The smaller member of a binary planetary system in orbit around a modest yellow star passes into the shadow of the larger planet.  It is bathed in certain wavelengths of light, producing a color that just happens to mirror the color of oxygen-bearing hemoglobin, the complex metalloprotein which supports the pulmonary processes of the arguably-sentient bipeds that are the dominant life-form on the larger planet.

Why this would have anything to do with the heart of Christian faith is beyond me.

It does not speak to the scale on which we live and choose and act.  Faith is what guides our actions as free beings. It is the heart of our ethical and moral behavior.  It is our purpose.  The actions and cycles of the moon have nothing to do with that.

Why would they?  I mean, seriously, I say this as a person of faith who believes in God.  If God wants to talk to us, God talks to us.  God speaks through prophets, who speak our language.  God manifests in human beings, who tell us stories and challenge us to live into our purpose as beings that share God's gift of awareness.  God speaks through creation--and through us--in ways that do not require futzing around opaquely with orbits and eclipses.

Faith is also what gives coherence to our understanding of where we fit into the vastness of creation.  That creation is impossibly immense, manifesting reality on such a huge scale that our Earth and its moon are as significant as two pebbles on a rocky shore.

If, at sunset, I walk that shore, and on a promontory see a little blue rock casting a shadow on a little white pebble, that doesn't have anything to do with what Jesus came here to do.

If we want to learn that, there are other places we look.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Scale of Our Days

It's Monday.

My Mondays usually look much the same.  I wake, and after ingesting my coffee, I walk the dog.  I come back, and read the paper, and then I look to the debris field that the house has become over the weekend.  Two teen boys at home, plus whatever rushing around we've done?  It usually means things are a mess.

And so I settle in, and I gently sort the chaos into a semblance of order.  The pile of dishes in the sink slowly disappears.  Counters and tabletops are cleaned, and bits of paper that do not belong where they have been placed are either recycled or moved to a more logical location.

It's not a particularly impressive or unusual morning, to be honest.  I am not building a reputation. I am not wowing the world with the wonder that is me.  I am not shaking the foundations of injustice with the power of my prophetic witness.

I'm sweeping the kitchen floor.

Again, to be utterly honest, I like sweeping the kitchen floor.  There, on the floor, lies the detritus of several days in the life of our little home.  A bit of cereal here, by a clot of dirt from the garden.  A niblet of dry dogfood there.  I take the broom, and I sweep those leavings into a little pile, which is then neatly ingested by our dust buster.

It is a satisfying thing.

Then, I mop it.

As I mop, the stains of the days come up off of the tiles.  It is pleasurable, simple, direct and with clear result.  The floor was dirty.  Now, for a while, it is clean.  It has returned to order.

I am like a dream moving through the mind of my sleeping home, sorting its thoughts and memories into order again.

It is not a particularly impressive thing, this cleaned kitchen of mine.  But we are not impressive creatures.  What am I doing, I think, sometimes, as I clean.  Make a name for yourself!  Pour your energies into seeking acclaim!

But why?  Why would I tear myself to pieces chasing after something that is no more meaningful than the thing I am accomplishing?

I look to the heavens, to the great deep of creation, and I see how little personal glory would matter.  If I were the Emperor of the World, with a vast robot army and undisputed command over all of humankind, and all loved me and despaired, I'd still be a speck on a speck in the vastness.

I consider the complexities of the subatomic realm, in which our every movement is irrelevant to the elements and energies that comprise us.  What is fame, on that scale?  What, even, am I?  Less than a breath.  A cleaned floor is, on either scale, no more and no less significant than the life of Alexander the Great.

So I look to the scale on which I live, and take pleasure in my kitchen, cleaned and mopped and straightened.  What an excellent thing, I think.

And it is.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Having Time for A Walk

Spring was pressing in, the air just on the very cusp of warmth, the day shining, the sky blue.

In my office, the emails had been sent, phone calls made, and scriptures and commentaries reviewed for the upcoming sermon.  I stared at my twitter feed, open and streaming.  I looked at my email, still the same as it was five minutes before.  I looked through the window of my office at the day, alive and bright.

It was two hours until my next meeting.  Two hours that I did not need to spend on a laptop, immersed in the dickering whirl of an unreal world.

And so I closed the netbook, and left a little note on my office door, and out to my car I went.  From there, it was ten minutes to the river, over the gorgeous country roads that surround the little burg of Poolesville.

I tiptoed my Prius down the dirt road to the riverside, a road deeply furrowed and pitted from a long and rough winter.  I finally reached the river's edge, and parked in a puddle-speckled lot by an open field.

I took the few steps to the old canal towpath, slowed my breathing as I looked out across the Potomac, flowing fat from a rain-rich Spring.  Life was just coming into the trees.  In a few weeks, that path will be shadowed by a new canopy of delicate green.

I set a timer to put a boundary on my meditation, and began to walk, trying to center myself to an easy pace and to my breathing.  

But my brain was a-scatter with thoughts, and the life and movement around me kept stirring me to stop and observe.  The wind danced and rustled through the trees.  In the abandoned canal, splashes came ahead of me as I walked, as turtle after turtle plunged from their logs to escape this meditative interloper.  Some did not, and simply peered at me dispassionately from the warmth of their perches.

To my left, two trees caught my eye.  One, a sycamore, white as bone.  Another, a--darned if I know.  But the sycamore had grown around a large branch of another, and as I passed, it looked as if one tree was reaching into the heart of the other.  I stopped and marveled at that, and took a mediocre picture.

Still I walked, and I felt no more centered.  Some days are like that, when the focused breathing and the walking and the repetition of an inner prayer are not enough to still my nattering ego-self.

So I changed things up.

As I walked, I sang. A little tentatively at first, because, well, we don't generally do that in public.  But the path was empty in the middle of a weekday, and so I let my voice out a little.  Then a little more.  As I walked, I began with a version of the Lord's Prayer, a tune I alone sing, one I created years ago.  From that, I sang old gospel hymns and songs, one after the other, as they came into my head.

To the rhythm of my walking and my pace, I sang.

I did this to the point where I turned back, and halfway on my return.

When I stopped singing, I felt it, that blessed listening stillness of soul.  The trees moved slowly in the wind, and the birds cried out, and the shadows of clouds raced ahead of me like children playing on the path.

All of creation felt, in that moment, as you feel when your loved one comes in close.  But they stop, lingering, their face just a hair's breadth from your own.  You are not touching, not quite.  But you feel their closeness, more deeply than you would if they just up and kissed you.

It was a good walk.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jack Chick, Dark Dungeons, and Leveling Up

The other day, whilst perusing one of my social media feeds, I encountered a promo for an upcoming crowdsourced semi-amateur indy movie.

The film in question is an adaptation of a psychotronic comic-tract produced by the mysterious and elusive Jack Chick.  Jack Chick, if you're blessed not to know of him, produces those weird little pamphlets handed out on street corners by Christians who are convinced they are doing evangelism by just giving flyers and odd looks to passers-by.  

Chick tracts come in comic book form, and garishly represent the wildest and most insanely paranoiac version of Christianity imaginable.  

Global warming?  It's the devil at work.  Trick or treating on Halloween?  It's the devil at work.  Evolution?  It's the devil at work.   Being a race car driver with an Asian Buddhist wife?  It's the devil at work.  

Notice a theme?

The film in question is one based on one of his tracts: "Dark Dungeons."  That tract was produced in the 1980s, and was an attack on the then-new world of Dungeons and Dragons and role playing gaming.  Dice-and-book-games are how we become snared in the occult, it says!  These games control and destroy our lives, it says!  Those spells are real!  Burn your TSR books!  Throw away your dice!  Give up your satanic obsession and come to Jesus!

It's a peculiar tract, particularly if you have any first hand knowledge of the game itself.  Role playing gaming is social, pleasant, imaginative, and totally compatible with Christian faith.  Evil?  Not even vaguely.

The film itself is even more peculiar.

It's being produced by avid gamers, who find Jack Chick's attacks on their pastime so preposterous and insane that they can't resist the opportunity to make a film out of it.  I can't blame them in the slightest.  It's a joke, but as they go to great length to explain, it's neither parody or satire.  They're just presenting Jack Chick, exactly as Jack Chick presents himself.

Which is why Jack Chick has given them the rights to make the movie.

It's bizarre.  Here you have "evangelists" who know that they are working with people who view them as self-parody.  The movie, like the tracts, will just make Christian faith look laughable.  And yet...the evangelists don't care.

It's hard to know how to process that kind of willful obliviousness.  

How do you respond to that sort of disconnect from the actual results of an action, without getting your dander up and saying bitter and mean stuff about the creators of these utterly counterproductive tracts?  How to be loving, affirmative, and gracious, and yet debunk their dark imagination?  It's a struggle, but it's one worth having.  Because we do not overcome evil with evil, but with good.  We don't overcome hatred with more hatred, but with grace.

Sometimes, though, you need to overcome bad crazy with double-extra-good-crazy.

It is for that reason, among others, that I have produced what I believe to be the single geekiest book in all of Christendom.  I say this with pride in my own geekitude, as an unabashedly and unashamedly geekish pastor who fondly remembers both gaming as a kid, but also gaming with his boys when they were little.

The title: Leveling Up: How to be a Christian Cleric. 

This short tome is a love letter to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, one that plays around with the conceit that in some odd way, Jack Chick was right.  D&D is real.  And in that bizarre place where it is real, one can choose to be not just a fighter or a magic user or a thief, but a cleric.

And not just any kind of cleric, but a Christian cleric.

With spells and all, ones that Christian clerics would use, and that actually kinda work if you think about them in the right way.

Being a level eight Presbyterian cleric myself, I'm just the right person to pull that off.

If that sounds entertaining, or at least silly, feel free to go to Amazon and snag a copy.  The eBook version is no pricier than the Diet Dr. Pepper you'll drink while reading it, although the formatting is a bit squirrelly.  I'm still fiddling with that.

You're better off with the print version, honestly, though it'll put you back the cost of couple of pints of ale.

That a problem?  If you're short on silver pieces, just hit me up at belovedspear at gmail dot com, and I'll pitch you a nice clean PDF for free.  

Reza Aslan, Bart Ehrman, and the Failure of Fundamentalism

Both of the two books that have been bopping around in the popular Jesus consciousness lately share a common characteristic.  There's Reza Aslan's Zealot, which I recently read and reviewed.  Then there's the latest output of Bart Ehrman.  How Jesus Became God would be on my plate if I hadn't already given him plenty of my processor time.

I have not read this work yet, but I've read lots of stuff by Ehrman.  I know from whence he comes, and this doesn't really seem to expand his schtick much.

Ehrman's a bible scholar--not a bad one, actually--whose work mostly revolves around using historical-critical method to cast doubt on the core dynamics of faith.

Doubt is at the core of his approach, because he's an agnostic now, on the hard side of it.  Meaning, his is not the doubt that resides as an integral part of an existentially authentic faith.  It's just doubt.

Like so many souls in our culture, he got his start in the fundamentalist community.  That's where he learned faith, a faith that mattered to him deeply.  The problem?  When he came into encounter with the actual historical process by which the Bible was formed and shaped, it blew a huge and irreparable hole in his belief system.  Reading his works, one still gets a sense of how cheesed he is at having been duped.  What he has now is just history, decoupled from any engagement with the transcendent.

What strikes me about both these books is that commonality.  Both Reza and Ehrman "came to faith" through the classical evangelical approach. The initial appeal was emotive, and the community into which they were received was fundamentalist. That, for both, defined their Christian journey.

And it also failed both of them completely.  When they reached a point of questioning, there were no longer answers that respected either their intelligence or reality.

Once you allow the reality of God's creation in, literalism comes apart like tissue paper in a typhoon.  That's why the walls and ramparts of presuppositional apologetics are so very high and so fiercely defended.  What lies within is as delicate and fleeting as a shadow.

And so a disappointed Reza returned to the Islam of his childhood, and Ehrman turned on the lie he knew as Christianity with the precise sword of his historian's training.

The terrible effect of fundamentalism was to inoculate both of them against the transforming power of the Gospel.  Let's set aside theology for a moment, they say, as if one can do that and not leave only a dead husk where there once was a living body.

I wish this were less common, but honestly, it happens all the time.  People think they're in encounter with the real thing, only to have their hopes destroyed and their passions made an embarrassment.  Why would they ever trust the good news again?  Or trust that the Spirit that tried to move in them was more real and more potent than what they'd been taught?

And that, perhaps more than anything, is the greatest failure of fundamentalism.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Irrelevance of Relevance

This last month, I passed the thousand blog post mark.  At an average of three hundred or so words per blog, that's a whole bunch of writing.  It's not quite the 560,000 words of War and Peace yet, but more than halfway there.

This blogging thing is a good discipline to have.  If you want to be a writer, then you have to 1) read and 2) write.  Don't think about writing, or consider writing, or talk about writing.  Write.  Do it whenever you have time.  Do it whenever you have even the tiniest flash of inspiration.  Just write.

Realizing that I've got over a thousand discrete thoughts that I've publicly shared, I've lately begun going back through my archives and reposting the ones that are still relevant through my #twitter account.  Way I figure it, I've amassed so many posts that I'm like the NSEA Protector, hurling itself through cyberspace towing a veritable minefield of content.  

Those with Galaxy Quest ears, let them hear.

That exercise--of going back over the writing of the last five years, and picking out what still has meaning--has been fascinating.

Why?  Not because I'm so amazing.  Nope.  It's because so much of what I've written in the last five years is now pretty much meaningless.  About one in three of the blog posts still have purchase, or seem worth re-reading.  Those fall into a couple of categories.  

Stories, where I have used this blog to post them, are still solid.  Narratives really do have staying power.  Slice of life vignettes, those brief impressions of existence that capture the poignancy of human life?  Those are still worth reading, because life is still life.  Big picture thinking, posts that talk about what it means to be faithful or alive?  Still good.

But there are so many posts that are a reaction to some event or online kerfuffle, that weigh in on the issue du jour.  They were relevant then.  They are, now, utterly meaningless.

That got me to wondering about the difference between being reactive and being creative, and of the strange irrelevance of relevance.

There is a powerful tendency, in this social media era, to want to leap onto whatever #hashtag is trending right now.  It's part of our culture of fevered, grasping self-promotion.  You have to weigh in, to have your say, to ride that wave of chatter to acclaim like you're surfing a huge roller of relevance.

Only then the next wave comes in.  And the next one.  And the one after that.

It's one advantage of having this medium, writ into the virtual world like the living memory of our story.

At some point it dawns on us, if we bother to sift through the story of our lives, that so much of what we think is pressing, vital, and urgent is not that at all.

Meaningless, meaningless, as Ecclesiastes might say.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Showing Hospitality to Travelers

An old friend recently returned from a harrowing trip to the Sudan, where he worked as a doctor in a war-torn region of that struggling land.  He's not a person of faith himself, not quite, but he'd been volunteering at a Catholic hospital.  There, conditions are so desperate that the only doctors willing to endure it are the faithful, the insane, or some combination of the both.

On his return journey, he found himself in encounter with two other Christian relief organizations, both operating out of the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.  One was Samaritan's Purse.  The other was Voice of the Martyrs.

The story of his return struck me, as he shared it, because it speaks volumes about how Christians actually witness to their faith in the world.  There is the faith that knits up broken bodies, putting itself on the line.  There is the faith that efficiently cares for the lost and the homeless, listens with a sympathetic ear, and tries to help.

And then there are other ways faith expresses itself, ones that are less hospitable.

Each bears witness to a particular way of understanding what Jesus taught.

So here, I'll hand you over to him, and let him tell the tale.


In February 2014, I was stuck in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, waiting for a plane back to civilization.  The camp is a ghetto of refugees and NGOs, over 75,000 people uneasily crowded together in what used to be the middle of nowhere.  Hot and dusty and dirty, the most attractive thing about Yida is its airstrip.  Nothing sounds sweeter than the drone of a plane circling overhead preparing to land.  Planes come infrequently but when they do, crowds of people run to the airstrip and beg for a flight out.     

I was stuck in Yida because the plane I expected was itself stuck in a small village in Kenya, at an airport that had run out of fuel.  I was traveling on behalf of a Catholic diocese of Sudan, an "NGO" with not much money, so I was looking at spending several days or -- gulp -- even a week at our tiny camp in Yida, either sweltering on a cot in a tent or sitting at a card-table sipping warm water.  That was all there was to do.  The camp's single staff member Stephen couldn't tell me exactly when another plane might come.  Could be tomorrow, could be the weekend.  It wasn't safe to go outside the camp, especially at night.  Often rival soldiers or tribes fired their guns; thieves were everywhere.  Best stay put, I was told.  I had brought one book with me; a boring book at that.

As panic set in I thought about the sparkling UN compound I'd seen near the airstrip.  Tall white buildings.  A fleet of white trucks.  A solid wall all around it, the compound as big as a small city.  And in many of the windows -- air-conditioners!  Didn't they have planes coming and going all the time?  Could I catch a ride on one?

Sure, Stephen told me.  No problem.  We just needed to register five days in advance.  So if we registered now, I was guaranteed a flight out by the end of the week.  And I would have to pay several hundred dollars.

"But I'm a doctor on a humanitarian mission!" I cried.  "This is an emergency!  I'm needed at home!"

Emergency flights could happen in two days.  Still needed to register.  And pay.  

Screw the UN, I thought.  Puffed-up peacocks strutting around the sewers of the world blowing other people's money.  I didn't need them.

"Isn't Samaritan's Purse here?" I asked Stephen.  He nodded.  Samaritan's Purse was well-known in Yida.  They had a big  compound and were considered fair, efficient and dedicated as far as NGOs go.  They had in fact taken over management of the three wells in Yida and were dispensing water in an orderly way; this after another NGO bailed on the job.  That didn't surprise me.  I had heard good things about SP for years, since 2008 when I first went to central Sudan to work at the diocese's hospital.  SP didn't evacuate when things got tough.  They helped out staff from other NGOs if they could, including getting them on planes.  If anyone could help me, SP could.

(Funny aside:  The retired co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres visited the diocese's hospital in central Sudan and at one point needed a ride out.  He contacted MSF to ask if he could have a seat on one of their trucks.  At first they said yes, but then later told him unfortunately not, as it was against policy.  The co-founder!)

Stephen agreed to drive me over to SP's camp, and then to the UN -- to beg -- if SP didn't work out.  Our truck drove past countless filthy children dressed in rags, swarmed by flies; angry-looking Dinka toting rifles; makeshift home after makeshift home; and past multiple other trucks carrying white people from the many other NGOs on site.  

The Samaritan's Purse compound was large -- not as large as the UN's -- and impressive for its orderliness.  A solid external wall with a heavy security gate and staff at the gate to register visitors.  Inside, it was clean, organized and sparsely populated, as many of its staff were off working in Yida or South Sudan.  No tents to be seen, only real buildings of steel and wood.  We were directed to the main administrative office after asking to see the guy in charge.

The guy in charge turned out to be a twenty-something Californian named Jim.  Completely friendly, low-key and without ego, he listened to my tragic story of being stranded in Yida and how it was vitally important for me to get home at once and not have to spend more than a single night in that sweaty tent.  Did SP have any planes coming in?

"Not for a week or so," he said, shaking his head.  My heart sank.  "But..."  he grabbed a sheaf of papers.  "You might be in luck."  

Another Christian relief organization, Voice of the Martyrs, had a plane coming in tomorrow, bringing three staff members to Yida and going back empty.  Jim would check with the VOM guy in Yida to see if the seats back were free.  How did that sound?

"Thank you," I whispered.  "Thank you so, so much.  If there's anything you ever need ..."  

Later that night Jim contacted Stephen and told him he had confirmed with VOM that the three seats on the incoming flight were reserved for me and for the two aidworkers I was traveling with.  Our little group jumped for joy.  Due to security reasons, Jim couldn't tell us exactly when the plane would land but he advised us to be at the airstrip around noon.

The next day dawned bright and hot, as probably every day does in Yida.  We were at the airstrip by 10 am, staring hungrily at an empty sky.  Around noon we heard the beautiful sound of a single-prop plane engine; above us the tiny plane circled once, twice, then landed, shooting up a wave of yellow dust.  

Stephen hit the gas and our truck flew down the airstrip towards the plane at the other end.  Suddenly I noticed four other trucks racing along with us, full of refugees -- men, women and children -- all heading for the same plane and a ticket out.  No!  Those seats were meant for us, the Americans!  I'm a doctor! I thought angrily, selfishly, thinking of home and my daughters.

A large crowd surrounded the plane as it parked and powered down its engine.  The two pilots jumped out and unloaded cargo.  Meanwhile three white men -- the passengers -- climbed out of the back.  We hastily rushed them and introduced ourselves, thanking them profusely for letting us use their plane to get home.  Stephen surreptitiously handed our bags to the pilots, who began to load them.  Behind us the refugees stood muttering, many of them with papers clutched in their hands, likely documentation permitting their travel or indicating why leaving Yida was necessary.  

Poor bastards.

"Wait a minute," one of the VOM guys said, a guy named Rick.  "Hold on.  Nobody cleared this with me.  We paid for this plane.  Who are you guys again?"

I explained how I was a doctor just back with my two companions from central Sudan, where we had served hundreds of patients for several weeks, endured bombing and privation, driven for twelve hours through enemy territory to ---

"Yeah, yeah," he said.  "You guys do good work up  there.  But this is our plane."

"Jim from Samaritan's Purse told us the seats were already reserved.  He talked to someone named Abdel."

"Doesn't matter what Samaritan's Purse said.  It's not their plane.  Abdel decides who goes on the plane, and promises have already been made."

"Yeah -- Abdel.  That's who -- "

Rick turned to the pilots.  "Take their stuff off the plane.  Unload it!  We need to figure this out.  Abdel, come here."

The pilots dropped our luggage on the dusty ground.  It looked like I would have to get used to the tent.  A short, thin Sudanese man came up and seemed to have no idea who we were.

"Jim told us he talked to you.  We have a letter here from him -- "

"Abdel doesn't need to see that," Rick snapped.  "He's the one who makes the decisions.  It's up to him.  A lot of people want to get on that plane, and VOM paid for it, not Samaritan's Purse."

I noticed Rick talked a lot about who had paid for the flight.  "Well, uh, we could pay ... ?"  I offered weakly.

It felt like extortion.

"Come on, Abdel, let's talk," Rick said.  He put his arm around the smaller man and led him away.  A heated argument ensued.  Finally Abdel came back.  He stared at the crowd.

"The people going on the plane are ..... Him!  And Him!  And Him!"

And he pointed to our group.  The refugees groaned.

Ecstatic, we helped the pilots reload our things.  Abdel sidled up to me.

"How much you pay?" he asked.

"Oh - uh..."  I checked my cash.  $300.  "I can pay $300."

"OK, good, good.  Each of you pay $300."

The other two men agreed and we handed over the cash.  In a few minutes everything was packed and we were belted in the back of the tiny plane.  The crowd stared at us blankly, resigned I guess.  I didn't care.  I was getting out of Yida!  The propeller roared into life and we slowly rolled forward.  Technology, comfort, civilization!  

Rick ran up to the moving plane and hammered on the hatch.  The pilot stopped the plane.  Opened the door.  

"Hey!" Rick yelled.  "You guys were supposed to pay $300 each!  There's only $700 here!"

The three of us looked at each other.  

"I guess that's all we've got!" I said.  "Can't I send a check -- or use a credit card -- when we get back?  I'll --"

Rick shook his head, disgusted.  "Forget it," he almost spat.  "Get out of here."  He slammed the hatch shut. 

 The plane taxied and took off.  Thirty-six hours later I was home.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Of Bikes and Book Learnin'

It was a spring Sunday afternoon, and it shouldn't have snowed.  It really shouldn't have.

It wasn't in the forecast.  And it wasn't winter, dagflabbit.  But the gloomy rain that was pelting the windows of the sanctuary in the morning was by noon a sloppy mix of sleet, hail and flakes as a little group of stalwarts stuck around for our post-fellowship-hour discussion and study.

By the time I was finished up with my last bit of pastoring of the afternoon, the snow was coming down hard.  Though the ground was warm from the balmy day that had come before, the huge wind-blown flakes were hitting the ground so fast that they were piling up, one on the other, faster than they could melt.

The snow gathered on the grass quickly, but as I looked out at the road, it was gathering there, too.  It was also piling up on my motorcycle--which was, as it always is on days when there's no frozen precip in the forecast--how I'd ridden the thirty seven point five miles to my church.

Hmm, thought I.  This could be a little dicey.

I wandered out to the snow covered two-lane, and performed a traction test.  It wasn't ice underfoot, but the Slurpee falling from the heavens didn't exactly provide an adequate surface for two-wheeled riding.

For the time being, it was a no-go.  And so I waited, and contemplated my options.

During that contemplation, other offers came in.  Congregants offering cars to borrow, or places to lay my head.  Neighbors offering dinner.  I added those kindnesses to the options hopper, and watched the skies and the temperature.  I know winter riding, and the way to do it safely.  Part of that is experience, and part of it comes from having sat at the knee of masters and studied their teachings.

The best of the books I've read on the art of motorcycling is David Hough's Proficient Motorcycling.  It's the book for riders who love to ride, year 'round, no matter what.  We are the ones who couldn't care less about wheelies or stoppies or blowing by you at 135.  We don't care about chrome and shine and leather chaps.  We want to ride, and to ride safely and well, so that we can ride longer.  It is the Wisdom Literature of motorized two-wheeled transit.

Hough deals at length with how to approach inclement conditions.  Wind and intense desert heat,  rain and subfreezing temperatures?  You name it, he teaches it.   I've had a chance, over my 25 years of riding, to put many of his recommendations to use, and they've been remarkably effective.

I have appropriate all-weather gear, and a well-maintained bike.  Those are steps one and two.  A compromised bike or rider sets you at a disadvantage from the git go.

But for snow?  Well, first, you gotta know when to fold 'em.  Icy surfaces mean you stay where you are.  Period.  You have to have some way to maintain a trustworthy contact patch, either on dry powder or by pushing through slop to road surface.  But ice?  Ice means you're going down.

There are other rules, assuming a road surface that is suboptimal but viable.  You have to keep the speed down.  You have to stay loose, and be ready to respond appropriately and rationally to traction loss.  You have to use microconditions to your riding in the tracks of the vehicle ahead of you.

You have to know your abilities and road conditions in a bluntly objective way, devoid of ego or machismo.  That's hard.  If you can realistically sense a probability of Bad Things Happening, it doesn't matter how much you'd like to prove yourself as a rider.

So I patiently watched it snow, for an hour, and then for two.  I watched as the snow turned to mostly rain, and the road cover became grey and permeable slush.  I checked road surface conditions out front of the church.  The change came.  The road surface was viable.  The precip was different.  I could tell that I was a go.

So go I did, after sweeping the snow off of the seat and the controls.  And yes, it was a bit more technical than my typical ride, and required more focus.  It was cold, and sloppy, and surprisingly enough, I was the only motorcyclist out there.

But at no point did I ever feel out over the edge of my limitations.  A person's gotta know their limitations, as it is written in the Book of Clint.  Gender neutral New Revised Standard Version, of course.

In motorcycling as in faith, it's equally important to know how to blend experience and the teachings of wise elders to get something done.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Safe Place for Doves

I noticed them first, I think, at the whirring of wings in the morning.

I'd hear that sound, the soft beating of wings as a bird ascended or descended, as I was stirring in my pre-dawn semi-wakefulness.  But I did not realize exactly what I was hearing until a week or so ago.  I'd dumped out a huge pile of clothes on the bed for folding, one of those tasks that part-time pastors do on a Thursday in the middle of the day.

As I sorted them, I looked out the window.  There, on the ledge, two mourning doves.  They nestled with each other, and it was clear: they'd found a place for their nest this spring.

Our windowsill, like the entire southeastern wall of our home, is completely covered in English Ivy.  I know, it's an invasive plant that can muck with the brick surface of our home, but it also means an entire side of our home photosynthesizes.  A little extra oxygen is a good thing.  

Plus, it's a lovely habitat for birds, and it adds to the hobbitish quality I so value in a residence.

I've watched as they've built their nest, twig by twig.  I can press my face to the window, my face no further than the length of my index finger from the deep dark pebble of the doves eye, set into the gentle sky grey of her plumage.  She watches me, but remains still.  No flinching or nervousness.  Just still and calm, with my huge mottled pinkish primate face just inches away.  

It's striking, her stillness, but I suppose doves must be good at being still, if they are to get by as a peaceful, graceful creature in a world red in tooth and claw.

I like having them so close, these mated doves nestling together at night, so close to my wife and I as we sleep.

And I like that the place we call home is a safe place for gentle creatures.

It's something worth striving for in all the places we spend our time, I think.