Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Down with Religion"

Good piece called "Down with Religion" concerning the religious rhetoric and extremism in our current climate, and the divine between the right wing with moderates and independents.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Talking Point on Obamacare

Good news summary: " 'Obamacare,' despite conservative protestations of a government takeover of health care, remains to date the most comprehensive free-market approach to tackling the problem of uninsured Americans who receive emergency care and pass on the costs to taxpayers."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"That" Pentecost Passage

If you’re a regular Bible reader, the book’s contents have guided and helped you, so naturally the Bible can trigger memories in a similar way as postcards and photographs and music. The connection may be emotionally strong but purely personal, like the way Mendelssohn’s music always reminds me of Maryland and Schumann’s with Arizona.

Here are two verses that remind me of my grandma Crawford:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23-24).
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by then; for then you will have no reward from your Father  in heaven (Matt. 6:1).

Grandma could be stubborn and hard to please but she had a kind heart and took the initiative to do good things and to correct difficulties between her and someone else. Also: she never told this to anyone, I heard about it secondhand, which made her witness all the more effective. (But if I remember correctly, Grandma never quoted a single verse of the Bible in my presence.  Christ certainly worked through her, though.) '

At the other side of the human spectrum, I find the Parable of the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16) and recall a relative on another branch of the family tree. I won’t name the relative, who led a less than exemplary life. The person, when dying and fearful, called upon a local pastor and was baptized. Does a deathbed conversion count? If we’ve been hurt by a person, we may not want much leniency for that person. But grace is unearned, and God’s opinion of a despised person may be completely different. Those of us with good character and excellent reputation don’t deserve God’s grace any more than a person, like my relative, who repents in late desperation.

On a lighter note, I’ve a host of memories of kinfolk with whom I associate this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

 My relatives, who belonged to a denomination that practiced only adult baptism-by-immersion, insisted that this text proves the necessity for immersion.  After all, when we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why.  I was relieved when a Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any means and yet was promised salvation. I read a little further in Colossians and read this:

Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command,” the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to hold to Christ alone and not upon any rituals and practices, important as some of them may be. Fulfilling religious requirements is never as important as opening our hearts to God for God’s powers (Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I could’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not really a debater.

Some scriptures remind you of people you never met, but you connect with their lives in some way through a Bible passage. I never met a certain pastor, suffering from cancer, but a mutual friend mentioned that the pastor often turned to Psalm 30, with which I wasn’t familiar. Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?  The psalmist bargains with God! “Alive, I praise you … Heal me, and I can praise you all the more …” What a wonderfully human response—in a book that is God’s word to us.

Do you associate particular Bible books with churches and study groups to which you’ve belonged?  A class to which we belonged tackled Esther, Proverbs, and several other books.  I associate this class with the Corinthian letters because we studied them straight through and realized, together, that we’d had enough of Paul’s writing style for the time being, all those tangents and heart-on-his-sleeve defenses!

Ecclesiastes reminds me of a particular church that I served, because I was called upon (at short notice) to teach the senior pastor’s morning study group. We had a nice time. Another enjoyable group that I taught met on certain evenings, following supper. One evening, a couple felt tense concerning the family meal, lasagna, which had turned out less satisfactorily than desired. We were studying the epistle of James, in the old RSV. I read a section aloud and came to 4:1:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? 

Afflicted with Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” I said, without thinking, “Lasagna!” and everyone roared, including the couple. It was a “you had to be there” moment, but those moments shine in one’s memory.

In fact, I associate James with two or three Bible study groups. The epistle lingers in memory because, among its several incisive teachings, James cautions us about the power of words (James 3:1-12). The teaching is quite clear in Scripture: Jesus teaches the power of our words as barometers for our soul (Matt. 12:33-37), and Ephesians links truth and love, for our words are not true unless they are kind words that build people up (Eph. 4:15, 25-32). Many of us Christians, apparently, have lots of trouble with our big mouths!  I recall occasions when my churches friends and I sighed in self-awareness as we read these verses from James and knew, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3).

In the several churches I’ve served and/or attended, including our current church, this passage is a classic.  It was read this past Sunday morning, in fact.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine" (Acts 2:5-13).

Why a “classic”? An essential scripture for Pentecost, it’s nevertheless quite difficult to read as Sunday scripture from the pulpit---unless you’ve rehearsed well. All those long names! Woe unto the liturgist who decided to “wing it” that week.

The passage’s artificiality also inhibits good pulpit reading.  People don’t talk like that, listing their nationalities, geographies, and ethnicities in unison.  I’ve joked with several folks, in different churches, about hard this scripture is to present.

And so now the passage reminds me of folk who also heard the Gospel in our own language: Illinoisans and Virginians, residents of Missouri, and Arizona, and parts of Ohio once belonging to Connecticut, and visitors from other churches, and …

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Civil War Ancestor

A Memorial Day Weekend post from three years ago..... I traced my mother’s family, the Crawfords, when I was in high school. I started to research the Strobel family but became busy with college and didn’t get very far.  When I traced the Crawfords, I had several great-aunts and older relatives to interview.  But on the Strobel side, my grandfather and his siblings were all long dead, so their memories were lost, a fact that also discouraged the project.

Recently, though, a friend who still does genealogy sent me my great-grandfather Strobel’s obituary. (The surname was misspelled on my father’s birth certificate, so my name is different from my relatives.) In honor of the upcoming original Memorial Day, founded by a Civil War vet, I’ll copy the obit.

“John Strobel died Friday, August 26, 1932 at his home north of Vandalia [Illinois] of senility. A short funeral service was held at the grave in Ramsey [Illinois] Cemetery Monday afternoon. A number of World War veterans from Vandalia and Ramsey attended the services in a body. The following grandsons were pallbearers: Kark E. Schaefer, Delmar, Fred and Paul Strobel, Leo Holdman and Stanley Miles.

“Mr. Strobel was a veteran of the Civil War, having served with Co. D, First Missouri Cavalry. Mr. Michel, aged 90, of Altamont, who served in the same company with Mr. Strobel, attended the services Monday afternoon.

“Grandpa Strobel as he was familiarly known, was born in Germany, Jan. 1, 1840. At the age of 4 he came with his parents to this country, settling in Madison County.

“On June 20, 1865 he was united in marriage with Emma Hotz. To this union ten children were born, two dying in infancy and one daughter, Mrs. Lizzie Schaefer, died in 1904.

“Besides the aged wife he is survived by the following children: Mrs. Lena Hoffman, Ramsey; Mrs. Amelia Holdman, Avena; Geo. Strobel, Peoria; John, Charles, Andy and Edward Strobel of Vandalia.

“The Family wishes to thank all of the neighbors and friends for all kindnesses extended them during their [illegible].

"Th [sic] following out-of-town people attended the funeral: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hotz and daughters and Chas. Hotz, Edwardsville; Mrs. Mary Dumbeck and daughter, St. Louis; Mrs. Margaret Winters, son and daughters, Highland; Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Strobel and daughter and Edward Strobel, Altamont; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ferrell, Pana, and Mr. and Mrs. Ward Stowell and Mrs. May Litchenberger, Decatur.”

My father-- “Paul” the pallbearer mentioned above-- remembered many of these people fondly. Dad was 20 in 1932. He recalled that his grandfather made several gallons of wonderful homemade sauerkraut every year. It would be interesting to know what kind of difficulties my great-grandfather faced in America at a time when German immigrants (and he was German Catholic, at that) faced prejudice.

I should add that I had two ancestors in the Civil War; the other was George Washburn (1826-1880), my grandma Crawford's maternal grandfather, who is buried in the Bolt Cemetery near Ramsey, IL. According to family tradition he lost an arm while fighting on the Union side. 

Pentecost, Kindness, and the Spirit

Whenever I teach world religions, I’m inspired by Buddhists’ emphasis upon kindness----and I wish kindness was emphasized more in Christian faith. After all, kindness and gentleness are esteemed in the New Testament as essential qualities (Romans 3:12, 2 Cor. 6:6, Gal. 5:22-23, 6:1, Eph. 2:7, 4:2, Col. 3:12, 1 Tim. 6:11, 2 Tim. 2:25, Titus 3:4, James 3:13, 1 Peter 3:16), and these are the qualities of God and Christ, too (Romans 11:22, 2 Cor. 10:1, Titus 3:4)! One of my favorite verses has to be 1 Corinthians 4:21, where Paul sarcastically says, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

When I say “emphasized,” I mean I wish it was preached more as an essential quality of a Christian. I wish it was esteemed more among church folk as a biblical, non-negotiable teaching, and I wish church leaders were chosen on this basis in addition to other talents they may have. We’ve all met (and some of us are) churchgoers who are blunt, my-way-or-the-highway, insensitive, scheming, full of advice instead of willing to listen, happy to catch others in mistakes, and so on---but meanwhile they have significant roles in the congregation and community.  Paul writes in Philippians, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (4:5), but we don’t think enough about why that should be the case, and whether or not we ourselves are kind and gentle----and if we’re not kind and gentle, are other aspects of our Christian witness cheapened?

So it’s good to ask ourselves: Do we show display kindness and gentleness? How do we display them if our jobs are such that we can't always be kind?  Whatever are our political and social views, do we also express kindheartedness?  Do we support people who are struggling (as opposed to telling them to “get over it”)? Do we gossip about people and feel good about it?  Do we praise the Lord in some conversations, and in others repeat the mean-spirited rhetoric and opinions of certain media commentators?

Not that I’ve been uniformly kind and considerate over the years, far from it, but my own failures taught me that we often have only one chance to make an impression of kindness to people.  I’ve met plenty of pastors and Christian teachers who failed miserably in being kind, and I’ve thought: What the hell are you thinking? Don’t you realize your words are going to linger in other people’s hearts? Don’t you realize this is the only impression you’ll have on those people? You may be able to tell that I’ve had my feelings hurt in this regard a few times, and have soul-searched myself, and that I’ve now taken this on as a strong reminder.

I’m working my way here toward Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the church.  The gift was understood as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where God’s spirit would be poured out to all people; the gift also fulfilled Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8.

The spiritual gift of glossalalia, speaking in languages, was the first evidence of the Spirit in Acts chapter 2.  But that gift quickly began to take precedence in people’s minds over other gifts---and this was a tendency Paul addressed, especially in 1 Corinthians. People at that church boasted in this ability, but Paul reminded them that there are many spiritual gifts, and he actually places tongues-speaking at the end of his list of gifts.  He tried to get the Corinthians to be kinder, more loving people, not so status-conscious and elitist.

Today, Paul would address other issues in our contemporary congregations, but he would probably remind us of the same things as he did in Galatians 5:19-25: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”

Any of us could recognize one or more “works of the flesh” in our lives, and as we grow in the Lord, we can also rejoice when we see degrees of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control being evidenced in our daily routine.

If we connect the Pentecost gift of the Spirit in Acts 2, with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-26 (including the admonition to avoid envy, unhealthy competition, and conceit among ourselves).... and if we toss in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 for good measure, then we have powerful reasons to say that Pentecost is a holiday about kindness and gentleness, patience and love and peace.


I found some old research I did for an issue of FaithLink a while ago. According to The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the Greek word pentecoste means “fiftieth” and refers to the Jewish festival Shavu’ot (“weeks”), which follows the Passover by seven complete weeks.  That holiday is described in, among other places, Exodus 23:14-17 and Deut. 16:16-17, and is referenced in 1 Cor. 16:8 and Acts 20:16. On the Christian calendar, Penteocst is the fiftieth day after the resurrection of Christ.  Another name is “Whitsunday” because persons baptized on that day wore white.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wallace Stegner and the West

Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Here is a book review which originally appeared in Springhouse in 1994.... Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 and died in 1993. He was the son of a speculator who spent his life drifting from western town to town, looking for bonanzas which never materialized and entering one boondoggle scheme after another, while doing “more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime” (p. xxi). Stegner’s fifth book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, was his first literary success in 1943 and is based on his rootless, childhood years.  I remember from grade school reading the chapter “The Colt,” which has been widely anthologized. In this volume the essays “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood” and “letter, Much Too Late” poignantly describes Stegner’s childhood. He taught at Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford and wrote several novels and nonfiction works, most with western themes. One could scarcely find a better life’s work than Stegner’s: reflecting upon a region which one loves deeply.

This collection of essays concern western literature, identity, and environment. The book that its title, as does the 1943 novel, from a 1920s hobo ballad which celebrates a dreamt-of land of plenty, where “the handouts grow on bushes...and the sun shines every day. Stegner writes that his experiences of drifting, with his father, gave him a lifelong passion for the West---in American consciousness, the mythic land of abundance and opportunity---as well as a keen awareness of the consequence of human exploitation of the western environment. Early in the book he posses a ludicrous-sounding situation---imagine several millions people living in a desert region with no source of fresh water closer than 200 miles---and responds that this situation is, in fact, the case for Los Angeles and other western metropolitan areas, and that the droughts of that region had not slowed the growth of those areas. His father’s eagerness for economic gain and his disregard for the consequences of his actions seem an uneasy metaphor for the rapid growth of western cities.

What will be the consequence of such a situation? Stegner fears the worst, for the western environment, unlike non-arid regions, does not easily heal environmentally. “Damaged by human capacity to carelessness, it is more likely to go on to erosion gullies and desertification than to restore itself” (p. xvii). In the interesting essays “Thoughts in a Dry Land”, “Living Dry”, and “Striking the Rock”, he considers the theme of aridity in the history of western settlement, including the various federal agencies that have tried to preserve particular lands or which have developed dams and reservoirs to “engineer” aridity “out of existence” rather than adapt to it.  The dry “open spaces of the West are areas which many, including such perceptive authors as William Least Heat Moon, consider “the true West,” even though 75% of the West’s population live in large metropolitan areas far from fresh water sources. 

Interestingly, Stegner sees western literature as symbolic of the cost to western environment, and the resurgence of western literature in recent years as a metaphor of what could be, in the future, a more responsible approach to western economic development. In several essays that examine Owen Wister’s The Virginian, John Steinbeck’s “Flight,” Walter Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Stegner shows how the western literary tradition reflects the regional experience. The West uniquely mirrors the American experience (at least that of Americans of European descent) of entering an abundant, new land where laws and social structures are not yet in place. The literary genre of “the Western” is popular because this experience of taming---both socially and environmentally---a new land still holds our imaginations. The unquestioned morality of The Virginian (a character Stegner doesn’t like), the lynch-law of The Ox-Bow Incident, and the pipe-dreamers like Stegner’s father embody the risk, and the lack of social and environmental responsibility, which the west has inspired. Stegner prefers authors who write appreciatively of place and “stewardship”---Larry McMurtry, George R. Stewart, Wendell Berry, Louis Erdrich, and others---because the West needs boosters with those qualities.

Stegner makes important points in these interesting essays.  I’m not an active environmentalist beyond the everyday chores of recycling and turning off lights, etc, but when my family and I lived in Arizona, I was chagrined that support for education, mental health, etc. was defeated at the polls one year (“let’s not throw money at the problem,” piously noted a Phoenix television editorial) even though plenty of money was “thrown” at economic development for rapidly growing cities. I don’t want to say development is automatically a bad thing, nor economic and energy needs, but other human needs tend to be lost in public debate, as well as needs of the environment such as clean air (which Phoenix lost years ago), water, the forests and desert.  The challenge has grown more dire in the years since I read this book, in our current mood toward deregulation, unhindered corporate growth, and the curtailment of government programs (even pension plans). I have no solution and neither really does Stegner, except for “stewardship,” a quality which could catch the public imagination as deeply as the West already has.  Poignantly (considering he died shortly before his collection was published), Stegner hoped he lived to see the West so revitalized.

I’m not sure whether Stegner gives sufficient benefit of the doubt to that American literary character, the rugged loner. True, such a character casts off identity, social and laws and thus potentially embodies irresponsible qualities. But another side of the character is the ability to triumph over insurmountable odds.  I take it from people who like, for instance, John Wayne, that his roles appealingly capture this quality. Stegner moves in that direction when he evokes Claude Dallas, the fellow who killed two game wardens and became in the process a folk hero. Stegner rightly deplores lawlessness and its “attractiveness” to some people, as well as the tendency for people to uncritically rally around even a violent folk hero.  Yet, might there be a new western character who, on one hand, faces great odds and seizes the public imagination, while on the other hand, rallies around issues of social and environmental import?

The idea seems odd at first---Marshall Dillon lobbying for clean air?---but, as Stegner writes, the West is in many ways still new and finding its identity. In so far as the West embodies many American values for both good and ill, perhaps we are a nation are, too.

Aldersgate Day

Nice article about John Wesley's famous conversation on this day (May 24th) in 1738.  My family and I visited Wesley's chapel and burial place in London this past summer.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ascension Friday

"At Easter.... it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God ...

"Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger fire and ravening beasts.... It is a faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead.

"Even the blessed apostles, though they had been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before. They were able to fix their minds on Christ’s divinity as he sat at the right hand of his Father, since what was presented to their bodily eyes no longer hindered them from turning all their attention to the realization that he had not left his Father when he came down to earth, nor had he abandoned his disciples when he ascended into heaven.

"The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as [human] he is inferior to the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.”

---St. Leo the Great, from The Liturgy of the Hours, II, Lenten and Easter Seasons (Catholic Book Publishing Inc., 1976), pp. 937-939

Summer Camp!

My daughter's college graduation made me think of times spend together in previous summers.  This post is from June 2011...... A commercial came on TV recently about a certain organization's programs for children. My wife and I looked at each other and said, "Summer camps!" What a bunch of memories we have, surrounding our daughter's childhood camps! Starting in the springtime, we'd watch for camp announcements, get calendars out, compare available weeks, make payments, and schedule all kinds of 9-to-noon or 9-to-3 adventures to bring variety to Emily's summer weekdays. I call them "camps" but only a few were overnight: week-long events when she was a teenager (unlike the dreaded, long and far-away camps in the Peanuts comic strip).

Her very first camp, when she was five, was a morning class at a historic site in Kentucky. After the sessions, she brought home her crafts and also a mint plant, which we planted in the back yard. Other camps blur in memory as to which summer was which, but I remember classes in soccer at the local Y ("our teacher said the girls hustled better than the boys," she proudly reported), various art classes, and I think a swimming camp. I don't remember any "duds," but there was a class wherein one little girl was a bully, and a music-related camp that turned out to be a week-long intensive rather than a class which combined recreation.

Zoo camp was an annual favorite. Our community had an excellent zoo, and we often enrolled Emily in two half- or full-day classes there. We even had the zoo host her end-of-summer birthday. The zoo's gift shop was a favorite stop after camp was over. Who knows how many animal-themed toys and books we purchased there? 

A momentous camp was a Humane Society camp, wherein the kids learned about pets, cared for animals, and cleaned cages. My wife and I agreed: what a great idea on the society's part, extra help around the center and the likely chance the kids would want to adopt a pet! Sure enough, Emily fell in love with a two-year-old female tabby named Oddball, a sweet, pretty favorite among the kids. Emily thought another girl was going to adopt the cat, but that wasn't the case: by the end of the week Oddball was still available. We adopted her, and she became an integral part of our family for twelve years. (See my 6/15/10 post.)

When we moved to Akron, OH (Emily was 10), she enjoyed camps at the Akron Zoo, a more modest facility (prior to its expansion a few years ago) but with a nice aviary and adorable red pandas, among other critters. For several years we displayed photos on our refrigerator of Emily handling a snake and a turtle. Another, science camp happened the high school she'd eventually attend. We were sad when an excellent camp at a local park had been scheduled during the first week of school in August; what were they thinking? Other summers, we packed her bags for the annual weeklong camp in the nearby Cuyahoga National Forest.

I don't want to leave out Vacation Bible Schools, always a significant summertime week. When Emily was in grade school, our church had a very nice program. After we moved to Ohio, she attended VBS at our own church and a Lutheran friend's church. At the latter, a motorcycle-riding pastor was a highlight one year.  Something that always amazes me about VBS is how the curriculum designers dream up enjoyable and different themes year after year.

An enduring memory of any summer event is heat (and its partner humidity). The camper received ample sunscreen, and she had two or three little plastic fans to carry on hot days (multiple ones because misplaced fans were replaced and then rediscovered). Her chauffeur seized the day and sometimes went barefooted.

Emily's "era" of camping merged into volunteer service as a VBS assistant, and also summer marching band practice. Marching band was a several-week commitment, more boot camp than summer camp.  Instead of "driving Miss Emily" around to different locations, we had only destination: the band room in the rear of the high school, and church during VBS week.

Camps were not part of my own childhood experience. My hometown was too small for such programs, and I've no idea if our denomination offered camps in Illinois, but I did love and was influenced by a series of VBSs. Our local library featured summer programs. Not until the summer between my junior and senior years of high school did I have an out of town class, a week-long training program for students working on yearbooks. The program happened an hour away at Eastern Illinois University, where we kids stayed in the dorms and attended classes (my interest was photography). The Steely Dan song "Reelin in the Years" reminds me of that summer. What a great time! I bitterly regretted not having similar opportunities earlier.  Interestingly, Emily (who took a college class in black and white photography) says that the photographic and development techniques I learned back then are pretty much the same now.

Fortunately, the many hours I've spent with Emily over the years means that I won't have the regrets of some parents who worked hard but neglected their kids.  I think my own dad had such regrets,  although he never said so explicitly.  I appreciate this article,, which calls dads to spend more time with their kids.

When we moved to Akron, the mint plant came with us. We planted it near the lake at the edge of our backyard, where it lasted nearly nine years (or nearly fourteen years after Emily brought it home) until heavy rains flooded the area. I saved a toy giraffe, though, from a garage sale pile, when I recalled its purchase on a cheerful afternoon in the zoo gift shop.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

College Graduation!

Our daughter graduated from college this month!  Of course, I’m thinking, “How quickly 21 years have gone by” since her birth.  So many family adventures, times of growing, times of stress, and many moments of sticking together as a little team.  While she was still in preschool, I knew I needed to reorganize my career in order to have more time with her, and I’m so grateful that opportunities allowed me to do that.

During her first year of college, we lived three hours away, but then we moved, and the trip to her college was 620 miles one way. A lot of the trip was on Interstate 70, the same highway I traveled thirty years ago when I was in graduate school. I even recognized a few places where I stayed while driving home for Christmas and summer breaks.

PTL, all our drives to her school were safe and incident free.  My anxieties about breaking down on the road (which has only happened a couple times my whole life) were unfounded.

Many of us go to college and our career paths begin to fall into place. It was certainly true for my wife and me.  The same happened with our daughter; dissatisfaction with a work-study job led her to another job, which in turn opened up areas of theatre work she hadn’t expected.  Now, she has the most amazing ability to design and sew theater costumes and outfits, in addition to her other training in production, music, and art history. A while ago she shared with me her material about her design assignments at her college, and I was proud of her skills and problem-solving processes. Among many other projects, she created a Chrysler Building dress for a recent season of The Producers. One of her pieces was featured in a news release.

Her graduation had a very nice balance of social time, good-bye moments, affirmation, and accomplishment. I compared my own graduations unfavorably to the satisfying quality of hers!

Driving back on I-70, her car and my hatchback were full of her belongings. She noted with chagrin that guys have so much fewer things to move than girls.  She lived on the fourth floor of her building, accessible when you go down one first-floor hallway, turn right down another hallway, take the old elevator (with doors that you open and close by hand) to the third floor, and then walk down another hallway and carry stuff up to the fourth floor.  With my wife along this trip, the process of loading the cars took a little less time.

Now her stuff is ready to be unpacked at home, as she figures out job possibilities and gets ready for the next steps in her career.  College grads face a difficult job market these days, but we’re hopeful for her possibilities---and prayerful for all grads as they hope to match their talents with good places for work and service.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Floating in God's Tide

I like several Roman Catholic authors on spirituality. I tend to read them through my Protestant faith and skip over the “Catholic” parts, I'm afraid.  One book I’ve liked is Thomas H.  Green’s When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Ave Maria Press, 1979).  Fr. Green provides an interesting view of the spiritual life as “floating.” (It’s humorous, I suppose, that as I thought about this aquatic image, I dropped the book in a deep puddle during a torrential rain, soaking the book through. I promptly ordered another copy.)

Green compares swimming (which of course requires effort) with the effortlessness of floating, and concludes that “many people never learn how to float” because they “never learn to relax, to let their head be pillowed by the water” (p. 142).  He lives in the Philippines and comments that even natives of those islands have trouble floating. “Learning to float is counterintuitive; we have to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do” (pp. 142-143). Also, floating is “essentially to learn to trust,” which is also difficult (p. 143).

We must decide, spiritually, to swim or float, and we would prefer to do both, he writes, because we want to make our own way through life but to call upon God for help when we feel out of control.  But God, rather, “wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the [God’s] tide” (p. 144-145). Floating is when we “are totally secure” in God’s love and can thus “float free” and allow God to guide us (p. 145).

Green notes that we don’t necessarily understand “the mystery of floating” and we’ll likely lost confidence that floating isn’t just laziness, or that we’ll become lost in times of “the dark night” (p. 145). After all, “God is always just out of reach, far enough away so we can never settle down in comfortable complacently, and yet never so far that we give up the quest as hopeless (p. 148).

A few months ago, when I “hit” a certain notable, middle-aged birthday, I thought about writing a few things about my personal journey for a blog post.  But I had an article I wanted to post instead, and I didn’t return to the idea.  Thinking about Green’s idea of “floating,” though, reminds me of the numerous turns and paths of my career (to focus on just that aspect of my life). Several times, opportunities that I thought were wonderful were not or did not develop, while other, unexpected ones appeared and were amazing.  I’m sure it’s been that way for many others, too. I’ve even praised God for answered prayer for circumstances, only to find those circumstances fall apart and lead eventually to something better.

If you can be a “floater” who is anxious and fussy and uncertain while floating, that’s me!  Green assures us that it's not easy to trust God.  But Green’s image of floating is a powerful one, and looking back, I see many ways my family and I have been guided.

When I talk to people about prayer (often, these days, via Facebook conversations), I prefer to emphasize this aspect of faith and spirituality: prayer and faith puts one within God’s “tide,” and we should seek to relax if we can as the current guides us. I don’t want people to feel disappointed if their prayers don’t get answered right away, or if “the peace of Christ” they felt in their hearts doesn’t last, or if (like me) the prima facie answer to prayer doesn’t necessarily work out.  To me, it’s more honest and helpful (and more biblically, really) to assure people that God guides us over the long haul, and the wonders of God’s “current” may become obvious only after a period of years.