Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

A Word About The Poor

I recently saw a post on Facebook that caught my attention in a special way.  I don’t recall who posted it and I don’t know anything about anybody who had anything to do with producing it.  The post in question appeared to be British, and was a video.  In this video a young man was wearing a sandwich board with a very offensive message written on it, and there is no way to sugar coat that message and still convey the power of the overall post.  I could report that the sandwich board said “SCREW THE POOR”, or I could write that the message was “F___ THE POOR”.  I could say it in Spanish too:  “CHINGA LOS POBRES”, or Latin; “PEDICABO EGO AUTEM POIR”, and if I really want to be obtuse in Chinese; “TA MA DE QUONGREN”.  In this manner I could tell you what the board said but that would not tell you what the video meant to expose, which is entirely wrapped up in exactly what was written on that board, and that message was “FUCK THE POOR”.

The person wearing the sign was a young white guy.  He was walking around at what appeared to be a bus station or some other sort of node of public transportation.  People were walking by and some of them were profoundly upset by his message.  I couldn’t really hear their comments, but by the expressions on their faces and the few words that I could read on their lips the passersby were telling the young man that, among other things, he could go f___ himself.  The clip went on for one or two minutes, which seemed like a very long time if you were watching it.  Finally the scene faded to black while a well-dressed young woman was jawing away in the man’s face.

The scene faded back in a few seconds but it was instantly clear that things had dramatically changed.  The same young man was now wearing what was very nearly the same sandwich board but with one very big difference.  Now the sign shouted out in big capital letters “HELP THE POOR”.  Same location, perhaps the same people, but clearly a different response.  No anger, no outrage, no getting into the young man’s face.  In fact, the young man might as well have not been there.  Eye contact was assiduously avoided.  People flowed around the young man like the water of a river flowing around the concrete base of a great bridge.  The young man couldn’t have found more solitude if he had scaled a Himalayan peak and found a vacant cave up there.

Now comes the hard part.  What does all of this mean?  Clearly, when the sign just came out and said “F— THE POOR”, people were stung by that harsh message and were moved to seriously reprimand the bearer of that same harsh message, but when the sign called out to help the poor, the obvious message sent by the passing throng was “F— THE POOR”.

Is it that we don’t really care about the real poor people in our midst and around the globe?  Maybe we love the poor when they are an abstraction; two urchins under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present, or a family fleeing the Oklahoma dust to find their fortune in the golden fields of the Golden State.  “Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there—” says Tom Joad while relatively well-off moviegoers munch popcorn in comfortable theater seats and Henry Fonda, a great and deserving actor, deposits very nice checks for his work on Steinbeck’s classic story,

Somehow, when the reality of poverty confronts us real-time and in the flesh it is less glamorous and less likely to start a crusade.  The bum holding a sign at the freeway offramp is smoking, which is an expensive habit, no doubt drinks too much alcohol, and smells bad in the bargain.  The couple on the bus, him scrawny and shaggy and her overweight, wearing her pajamas and sporting a poorly done tattoo of a red rose on the top of her right boob, using “colorful” language as they ride to within walking distance of wherever they are going.  The old guy sitting on the porch of a house on the “poor side of town” while a profanity-laced argument is heard coming out of the open windows.  The poor can be a much more uncomfortable commodity in the flesh than they are in the abstract, and perhaps that’s why our charity for them usually stops just before we actually meet them.

Oh, what a radical step it would be to actually make myself vulnerable and available to the poor!  The “needy” is one of the names that we give the poor and a good name for them it is.  The poor really do need.  They need resources, and if I engage the poor those resources, or at least some of them, must come directly from me.  The poor need to be acknowledged as having value, and I may not be able honestly to see any value in them if I only see them through my comfortable, material, middle class eyes.  It won’t take them long to know if i am faking it either.

The poor need governments that will help them rather than warehouse them in prisons, control them so that they don’t pester “good folks”, or divert effort, time and money to enrich patrons of government.  A person uncomfortable with too close a proximity to the real poor may at least demand that government tailor its delivery of services more towards those who really need them the most and away from those who are doing just fine already.  I am not writing about soaking the rich; only about not deferring to them first, and all American governments do that to one degree or another

So how do we move beyond this state of loving and defending the poor in the abstract and ignoring them in the flesh and blood?  I do not know the answer to that question, or should I say that I don’t know the millions of answers to that question, as the answer is undeniably complex.  When does help lead to dependency?  When does helping hurt?  How do you know that your help is genuinely needed and when you are being scammed?  Is your help being appreciated?  Does that matter?  The list of questions is a very long one and I can’t answer any one of them for you.  Hell, I can’t even answer most of them for myself.

But nobody should be avoiding those questions, and Christians frankly are commanded by God not to avoid them.  I will not bother you with the Bible verses that refer to this but if you are a Christian you know them, or you should.  If you are not a Christian, something in your heart tells you that it is wrong to ignore the poor.  Even if your rational mind says that their poverty is their problem, you still would hesitate before verbalizing what was written all over the signboard in the first scene of the video mentioned above.

Helping the poor will be an endless and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  That cannot prevent us from trying however.  The solution to the problem of the poor begins with me, and you, and you over there, and there is no hope if I/we check out of the game without ever even getting into it.

Camping Tonight, Camping Tonight

One of the great failed experiments of my life was a brief stent that I did with the Boy Scouts of America.  I have loved camping and the outdoors for as long as I can remember and the attraction to an organization that represented pup tents and hiking and sleeping bags was irresistible, so in due time I and several of my friends contacted the Boy Scouts.  After a short while Mr. Saysack made contact with us and our parents and we were placed together, along with several guys from the margins of our neighborhood, into something called a “pack” or “troop” or “patrol” or something like that.  While I don’t really remember what they called our little group I can clearly remember that we were number 926.

The goal of the Scouts is to turn out boys who become good citizens and the Boy Scout Oath says it all:  “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  The Scout Law mentioned above states “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty.”  If I was to cudgel my brains for a week I don’t believe that I could come up with a group of kids less likely to succeed in this endeavor.

The core of our group were myself and my friends Wes Miller, Brian Nosanko, Butch Martin and Larry Gerrow.  I don’t know what Butch’s real name was, but I suppose that it could have been Butch.  I knew Butch through my friendship with Wes, and can’t say that I ever really liked him very much, if at all.  Butch lived with a single parent and used the freedom that that condition gave him to run completely wild.  Butch knew nothing about truth, honor, kindness or anything else of that nature.  I lived in a very authoritarian family situation and the utterly unencumbered freedom that Butch enjoyed seemed appealing to me, but any amount of time spent in his presence led me to believe that he was not a person whom I would ever call a friend.  In later years Wes, who stuck with Butch into early adulthood, came to call him “The Worm”.  It was an accurate name.  I have no idea what happened to Butch after we were all about 22 or 23 but I am certain that it wasn’t good.

Brian was more fun to be around, but he had his issues as did all of us.  Brian’s issue was that he was an enormous liar.  Now all of us would tell a fib every now and then in order to get out of trouble, impress a girl or something like that, but Brian would tell whoppers that were breathtaking in scope simply for the pleasure of telling them.  Most of Brian’s corpus of work I have forgotten, but his dad’s rubber blowtorch and his ability to take the head off of a wasp with a BB gun, or maybe it was a bow and arrow, stood out from amongst the throng.  One time Wes and I tried to count all of Brian’s lies and, with a little enhancing of our own, arrived at the number of 1,000.  Brian, who we called “Fantastiko” in a modification of his real last name, was outraged by this activity.  “It’s not more than 700″ he declared.  I’m not making this up!  Brian was last seen wandering burned out, befuddled and homeless on a beach in San Diego many years ago.  I doubt that he is alive today.

Larry was just a normal guy, for our neighborhood anyway.  He had an edge about him and would not hesitate to fight over issues that I could not see the worth of, but he also had a good heart and was a lot of fun to be around.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out, daydreaming and competing with each other to tell the biggest lies about our significance, frequently with an eye towards impressing Susan Smith, who was not nearly as impressed with either one of us as we were with ourselves.  Larry moved out of our neighborhood in my early teens and I lost track of him.  I was told that he walked into a liquor store that was in the process of being robbed and was shot and killed, and I assume that this story is true.

If you have read any of my other stories you know about Wes.  He was also from a single parent family and was a handful for his mother, but Wes had a better grip on life than did Butch.  Wes always did have a sense of order and of right and wrong, and in the end turned out very well indeed.  We still write to each other to this day.

So we became part of the group numbered 926, and Mr. Saysack began immediately to try to mold us into something like Boy Scouts (a fool’s errand if ever there was one).  None of us were any good at tying knots with ropes, starting fires with a bow, or any of that other merit badge stuff.  In fact, I am not aware of any of us even earning a single merit badge.  For my part I lacked the self confidence necessary to even conceive of so doing, and the other guys just didn’t care one way or the other about it all.  What we mostly wanted out of the Scouts was the hiking and camping, and hike and camp is what we certainly did.

Our experiences were pretty much what you would expect them to be.  We cooked simple meals over campfires, with the scoutmaster doing the more complicated duties and us ineffectually trying to clean up.  We pitched our tents and gathered wood, climbed trees and descended from lower branches by climbing down ropes, and best of all, we hiked.

I loved the hiking and often engaged in that activity with my father.  He taught me to take water in a canteen, wear a hat to keep the sun off of my skin which refused to tan, and most important of all, find and carry a longish stick to use as a walking stick and also as a snake finder.  The mountains and deserts east of San Diego are full of snakes, some of which have a diamond pattern on their backs and a big rattle on their tails, and father taught me early about the wisdom of letting them know of my presence well before I put my shoe down in the midst of their coils.  Rattling my stick in the brush as I walked would alert the snakes to my presence and they in return would rattle their tails to alert me to theirs.

On one particular hike I was more interested in goofing off with my friends than paying attention to details like those mentioned above and we found ourselves running single file down a narrow path through the low chaparral in the hills east of the city.  The scoutmaster and his assistant had told us to stay together as a group but of course we blew that instruction off as quickly as we could.  I don’t remember just why we were running down that path but running we were, and I most vividly remember what happened next.

I heart Butch scream a short distance ahead of me, followed by a shouted curse word by Larry and then the same from Brian.  Wes and I had time to pull up and then we crept forward to see what was happening.  A couple of yards in front of us we saw a small widening in the path with a huge rattlesnake coiled on the edge of it.  It seems that the guys burst into that clearing running at full tilt as the snake was crawling across the path.  Snakes, as you undoubtedly know already, cannot strike unless they are coiled, and this snake was surprised by the appearance of three idiots who flew noisily over his head before he could coil for action.

He was most certainly coiled appropriately when I pulled up at the edge of the clearing and was sending an unmistakable message that any further interference with him was going to be paid for in the most painful of ways.  The three boys on the other side of the clearing were howling for the scoutmaster and Wes and I ran back up the path to find him.

Mr. Saysack came back with us and calmly assessed the situation.  Picking up a large rock he advanced to as close to the snake as he safely could and threw the rock down upon the snake’s head.  He repeated that process with another rock and then, holding the snake’s head down with a stick just in case it was only playing possum, extracted his Boy Scout knife from its sheath and cut off the snake’s head.  We dug a hole in the dirt and buried the head several inches deep, since one can step on the head of a dead snake and still receive an injection of venom through its sharp teeth.

Mr Saysack then skinned the snake and ordered two of the other boys to make a campfire.  We all carried with us our collapsable mess kits which included a frying pan that could also be used as a deep plate, and Mr. Saysack proceeded to use several of these pans to fry up chunks of that snake, using its own fat as oil.  Most of the guys indulged but I resisted eating any of that snake.  They said that it tasted like chicken.  No surprise there.

On another campout we were joined by several other groups of Scouts where we enjoyed joint adventures and some competition.  I recall one boy from another group trying to get a swimming merit badge by entering a standard swimming pool, swimming the length of it, and exiting the deep end, all without making a sound.  This is an impressive enough accomplishment in it’s own right, but in this boy’s case it was made all the more so by the fact that he got nailed on the shoulder by a drowning honey bee while making his exit.  None of us noticed this until he was declared successful, at which time he hopped around that pool like a jumping bean.  The stinger was extracted and a poultice of shredded potato was applied, and the boy’s status grew by leaps and bounds even among our own group.

Later in this trip we engaged in a match of “capture the flag” with another group of Scouts.  I knew that I was no way close to being fast enough to dash up a low hill and capture the other team’s flag before they could catch me, so I hatched a plan to crawl through the tall grasses on my belly like a reptile and catch them by surprise.  I moved out to the right edge of the field which stood between our two flags and began to execute my plan silently and invisibly.

I don’t know how long it took for me to use what the Army would later teach me was a “low crawl” to cross that field and begin to approach that low hill where their flag fluttered in the breeze at the summit, but I would say at least a half hour and probably more.  I had crawled through thistles and the occasional cactus, with bees and wasps fluttering around my head and anthills everywhere to be avoided, but finally I was at the base of that hill, well rested and ready to explode out of hiding, race up that hill to where the flag was, and carry it past tired defenders to the accolades of my fellow Scouts.

It was at that moment that Tim Jensen, one of the members of our group from the margin of the neighborhood, popped into view from the other side of the hill, snatched up the enemy flag and ran whooping past the boys of each group.  Tim was a pudgy kid who had less athletic ability than even I did, so I cannot adequately express how greatly it vexed me that he used some stratagem similar to my own to earn the cheers of our side.  I arose from my hiding place and took my time coming in, dragging my feet and pouting all the way.

We didn’t exist as a group for long.  Mr. Saysack grew tired of wasting his energy trying to make Scouts out of us, and we were just hitting the years where girls and cars and music and smoking and everything else was successfully competing for our attention.  My parents separated then and now I lived in a single parent family too, with predictable results.

Rumor has it that the Boy Scouts retired our number, not wanting to take the chance that anything like us would ever come around again.  I don’t know if that is true, and in fact it probably is not.  But we really were not what Robert Baden-Powell had in mind when he started the movement over 100 years ago.  Still we had fun, and while we were Scouting, however poorly we accomplished that endeavor, we were not doing anything worse, and for that I guess the Boy Scouts of America deserves a round of applause and a tip of the hat.

Reflections on Lent, Day 35

Just because a person becomes a Christian does not mean that they will now be blessed with every good thing and will walk smiling through a life without troubles, wondering why everybody else doesn’t simply adopt their easy plan for love, money, and a life for the most part free from pain.  I know that this caricature of life as a Christian is pure bull caca, and it continues to amaze me that it is preached by some and accepted by great crowds of the gullible to this day.  Jesus and ten of the first eleven disciples (Judas excluded), seemed to miss out on the health and wealth aspect of this strange description of Christ’s mission on earth, so why on earth would anyone think that such a vision would work for a true Christ follower today?

This topic of pain and trouble has been dealt with already by writers and thinkers far sharper than Yours Truly.  Harold Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1978, and Rabbi Kushner did a wonderful job of explaining this topic.  I will not summarize that book here, but I encourage anyone wrestling with this issue to give it a read.   This is only a Lent reflection however, and not a book review.

During this Lent period I have been trying to focus more sharply on God and my walk with Him/Her (at ease now;  I’m not trying to be unnecessarily incendiary here.  I just believe that trying to apply gender roles and limitations to God is a fool’s errand).  At the outset of the Lent season I naively expected a significant spike in the quality of my prayer life, a quiet confidence that God was in control of the wildness and confusing randomness of my health, work and family life, and that maybe I would hit on the lottery.  As it has turned out, this has been one of the most trying months-and-change that I have had in a while, and if you consider that my last year included a heart attack and bypass surgery, that’s saying quite a lot.

I won’t go into all of the details of the trials which I have endured during this Lent season, and I also won’t try to say that I have not also experienced great spiritual successes and blessings too.  The point of this reflection is that we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, live in a bent and broken world, and that becoming a follower of Christ does not remove a person from that world.  All of the pain and wrongness which afflict the atheist or the Hindu or the Muslim or the Capitalist or the Vegan afflict the Christian too.  I don’t know why that is so, but I do know for a fact that it IS so, and nobody will gain anything by denying that fact, except perhaps silver-tongued preachers who prey upon the fear and greed and weakness of those who listen to them.  I am not judging anybody here (that would be way above my pay grade!), but I am not overly confident of those “preachers'” odds for a good outcome when the judgement day arrives.  I hope for the best, but I’ve got some doubts there.

With all of this in mind, it is probably reasonable to ask why it is a good idea to become a Christian in the first place.  I miss out on the sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, I don’t get to make fun of people who are different than me, and I don’t get to cheat on my taxes with a clear conscience if I buy into this Christian thing, and in return I get  –  What?  Maybe I’ll go to heaven if I get the luck of the draw (if Calvin’s caricature is right), or maybe I get a crutch to prop my weak ass through the life that everybody else seems to be living just fine (NB: they aren’t!) .  Maybe I’ll just get the prestige of being the adherent to a barely tolerated subgroup in American society and earn the right to get a shellacking in the next election if I decide to run for president.

No, any benefit received by following the crucified Christ is not likely to be monetary, political or positional in society.  So what is it”  I have learned this Lent season that God is, as David Benner writes in “Surrender to Love”, madly in love with us.  Jesus does not stand between us and the shit that the world, the flesh and the devil throw at us.  Instead, He stands beside us, getting covered up in that shit the same as we are.  I count it a privilege to be covered in the same shit that the broken world threw on my God, and when He/She cleans me off some day I hope that He/she will clean off the world that was throwing it as well, and that all of us who will accept God’s grace will dine – no, dine isn’t the right word – will PARTY together, while those who chose to reject Christ to the end will nurse their grudges and drink their bitter cup in an outer darkness of their own choosing, in a prison or tomb locked from the inside.

So yeah, life can be a bitch.  So what?  That’s not news.  Put your tough pants on.  Life is also a gift, and while you can’t always dial up the life you want, you can always draw on His/Her power to make it reflect a little bit of Christ back into the world.  For me, that is enough.

Reflections on Lent, Day 33

This morning our pastor preached out of the passage in the Gospel of John which describes the period immediately after the death of Jesus.  The picture is this; the time is the afternoon before Passover, a most high holy time for the Jews, and it is an offense to have dying people on crosses hanging by their nailed extremities at this time.  The Jewish leaders asked the Roman governor to order the breaking of the condemned men’s legs so that they would be unable to push themselves upward in order to draw a breath, thereby dying of asphyxiation That way their bodies could be removed from the crosses before sundown.  The two thieves were indeed still alive and their leg bones were accordingly broken with a large mallet.  When the soldiers came to Jesus however they saw that He was already dead, which surprised them.  Just to be sure about things a soldier stuck a spear into Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed out of the wound.

Many years ago when I was coming to faith in God once again after a seventeen year separation a pastor spoke with me about my reservations.  I was a very rational and scientific sort of person and not at all likely to take things on faith.  That pastor sized me up very neatly and gave me a small stack of books which he thought would help me get over the materialistic hump.  I don’t remember what most of those books were but two of them rocked my world:  “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and “The Resurrection Factor” by Josh McDowell.  The sermon this morning reminded me greatly of reading the second of those two books.

McDowell went about discussing the whole crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection story as if he was analyzing it in forensic terms.  Many explanations by unbelieving individuals of the events of that day turn on doubt that Jesus really was crucified, doubts that He really died,  doubts that He was laid in a tomb, and doubts that He left that tomb alive.  I will not cover all of McDowell’s points but will limit myself to the doubt that Jesus actually died.

The Romans were very good at killing people.  In fact, all of the various empires and regional powers of the time were pretty good at that, but the Romans had become the masters of the entire Mediterranean world by being a little bit better at it than anyone else.  It is with great confidence therefore that I regard the words of John when he writes that the Roman soldiers found Jesus already dead.

John then goes on to point out that one of the soldiers stuck a spear into Jesus just to make sure he was a goner.  Now when I was a soldier, if I would have wanted to make certain that an enemy was dead I would have shot him in the head – especially if I suspected that he was a zombie – or in the area of the heart if he was only a common, garden variety Viet Cong.  Thankfully I never had to do any such thing, but that is exactly how I would have proceeded if I had found myself forced with the necessity to do so.  But Jesus was up on a cross and one would never try to stick a spear into a man’s head anyway, considering that his heart was a good deal softer and less protected by a skull and so on, so I have no doubt that the Roman soldier put his spearhead straight into the non-beating heart of Jesus.

And what do you suppose flowed out of that wound?  Exactly what you would expect, if Jesus was in fact dead.  Blood and water ran down the body of Jesus, according to John, to drip into the dust on the Hill of the Skull.  What this said to McDowell, and what it says to me too, is that Jesus was not only dead, but had been dead for a while when the spear entered his heart.  When blood ceases to flow it begins to separate into its liquid and solid components.  The solid stuff, the red and white blood cells and platelets and so forth, settle to the bottom while the watery plasma remains on the top.  When that spear penetrated Jesus’ body and entered the heart that fluid was released to flow outside, followed by some of the solid red matter mixed with plasma.

This removes from the discussion any idea that Jesus merely fainted and was revived later, only to disappear into a far away country, take a wife, have some kids, and resume his occupation of carpentry while a new religion in His name was founded and slowly became the official religion of the entire Mediterranean world.  John’s description was too detailed and accurate for me to doubt it’s truth.  Jesus died on that cross, and over 500 people saw Him afterword alive and well before He finally ascended into heaven.

I have read many more convincing proofs that Jesus is whom He says He is, but this one came to me at a time of doubt and weakness, and will always be a favorite for me.

Reflections On Lent, Day 31

Last week, at a meeting with a group of friends who are studying Joshua Ryan Butler’s excellent book entitled “The Skeletons In God’s Closet,” we were speaking of hell and judgement and holy war.  These are three topics that cause a lot of heartburn for Christians and non-Christians alike.  I don’t believe that any one of these three topics are the star performers of the trio; they are all equally capable of stirring controversy any time that they are brought up in any sort of crowd which exhibits a bit of diversity.  I came home from this event pondering hell in particular though, and what Christians think about it and most particularly who gets in and who stays out.  My conclusion?  I don’t know.

I am no theologian, and I’ll state that from the very beginning.  I am aware of many verses of scripture which point to Jesus as the one way to salvation, and I accept this premise with a whole heart.  “No one comes to the Father except through me”, and “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”, and many other similar verses seem to narrow the thing down.  I wonder, however, if those scriptures are narrowing it down too much?  I’m not sure that I even have a coherent stream of thoughts on the topic.  I’ll let you decide.

A verse which stands out in particular to me is this:  “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement.”  That one gets hell and judgement in there together, sort of like a theological ‘twofer’, but I wonder about something.  What exactly does this verse mean by “to die”?  What?  Are you kidding me?  You don’t know what it means to die?  It’s when your heart stops, your brain quits and you assume room temperature.  This isn’t rocket science Glenn!

Yeah, I know.  I’ve seen dead people and I’ve seen people die.  I get that.  But what if there’s more to it than meets the eye?  Maybe there is a physical death and a spiritual death and they are not the same thing.  In the Garden of Eden God allowed Adam and Eve to eat anything that they wanted to except the fruit of a certain tree.  If they did not obey, God told them, “- – – in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”.  Well, you know how that went.  Adam and Eve just couldn’t leave it alone.  They ate the fruit – – – and then Adam lived another 900 years or so!  Eve probably lived even longer; that’s how those things usually seem to work.

But God wasn’t lying.  God doesn’t lie.  Adam did eventually physically die, but a long time after the fact and not at all “- – – in that day”.  So I wonder if God was referring to a spiritual death rather than a physical one.  Another example further muddies the water.  Jesus died on the cross for a number of reasons, among which was to conquer death.  “Oh death where is your victory?  Oh death, where is your sting?”  Once again I fully  believe God, through the Bible, isn’t wrong: isn’t lying.  Jesus really died on that Roman cross and defeated death.  The fly in the ointment however is that Jesus really DID die on that cross!  Soon afterward two thieves, one on either side of Jesus, died too.  And since then millions and perhaps even billions of people have followed them into the grave.  And then there’s Lazarus.  Was Lazarus judged right after he died, or was he judged after the second time that he died?

So what gives here?  Has death been defeated or has it not?  Was God lying when He said “- – – for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”?  Well, yes to the first question and no to the second, I think, and here’s why.  It seems just possible to me that the full reality of death is something that I can not clearly see from where I stand in the finitude of space and time.  Death, to me, occurs when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop drawing breath, and the neurons of the brain cease to fire the messages which keep physical life going.  I have seen death on the battlefield, in the emergency room, and at funerals for family and friends and I know what it looks like from where I stand.  But is that what death looks like from where God stands on the other side of space and time?  Perhaps God sees life and death in a vastly different context than I do, and this is a possibility which gives me some hope.

What if spiritual death is something that can occur when a person remains physically alive?  I am not judging – that is way above my pay grade – but I think that it’s very possible that people such as Adolph Hitler (everybody’s favorite example of a really bad person), Pol Pot, Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker murderer), and King Leopold II were spiritually dead and on a hell-bound train long before they drew their last breath.  Many others may also have shaken their fists in defiance at God and sworn “I will NOT serve you” and earned an eternity with little need for warm clothing.

But what of others who are not such obvious cases; who have not pointedly bowed their knee to evil but nevertheless have not sworn fealty to God either?  What about the Buddhist or Atheist, or the tribesman on the banks of a stream in the Amazon basin, who has done good to the extent that he or she knows good but has never felt compelled to acknowledge a God who they hardly know or do not in fact know at all?

I just wonder if it is possible that at some point after the physical death but before a spiritual death we will all be able to see the choice available to us in a much clearer light and at that point will chose whom we will worship, God or ourselves.  Those who chose to worship themselves will be given their wish and be sent to worship themselves and nurse their grudges and rage against what they perceive to be the injustice perpetrated against them by an unfair Judge in an eternal outer darkness, while the rest of us lay down our sinful baggage and accept forgiveness and healing in repentance in the eternal Kingdom of Light in the presence of God.

Like I said, I’m no theologian.  I could be very off base here, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness if I am.  This view just seems to fit God’s mix of love and justice better to me than one of a stern God who longs to bring the hammer down on everyone who doesn’t toe a very thin line.  I’ll have to present this idea to some people who are a whole lot smarter than me about these things, but i thought that I would share them with you first.

Reflections On Lent, Day 26

Today I enjoyed what was probably the best church service that I have ever had the excessively good fortune to attend, and I have attended many very good ones.  Of course, there were other very good services conducted nearby and elsewhere but I simply did not attend them.  No matter.  I have been a committed Christian for over thirty years now and have been blessed by truly wonderful services at a number of churches.  This is not about any sort of competition, and there is no material prize.  I am only saying that I was blessed by today’s service at House of Providence in ways that I have never been blessed before.

What particularly was so special about today’s service?  Particularly, there was nothing special about it.  The music/worship was wonderful, but then it usually is.  The sermon went straight to the point and spoke to where I am right now, but then then it usually does.  The people, the prayer, the Prayers of the People; all of it was as good as usual.  But for me, today, all of these strands were blended together into a whole that salved my wounds and nourished my soul in ways that don’t happen just every day.

I was greatly moved by the focus on Jesus’ last moments of life.  While hanging on a Roman cross, His life draining out of Him, Jesus looked down at John and Mary, His mother.  In paraphrase Jesus said “Mom, John is your son now,” and then He said “John, take care of Mom for me.”  Now that’s not what ancient gods usually said and did.  The Sumerian goddess Ishtar sends a bull from heaven to trash the Earth because the heroic Gilgamesh, king of Ur, doesn’t want to go to bed with her.  The king seems to prefer the company of Enkidu, a wild man also created by the gods to harass Gilgamesh but with whom he becomes best buddies.  It’s weird, but I ain’t judging.

In Greek mythology/theology Zeus and his cohorts are busy having sex with mortals and pouting when things don’t go exactly their way, causing shipwrecks and losses in battle and turning sex partners into cows to avoid the ire of jealous god or goddess spouses.  Other theologies were less comical.  Aztec priests, when dedicating a pyramid at the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, conducted between 10,000 and 80,000 human sacrifices in only four days.  Work out the math on that one.  And I will not disturb you with the details of Aztec human sacrifice, but it wasn’t pretty.

Jesus’ thoughts at this moment were not on bulls, or sex, or sex with bulls, or bloody sacrifice, apart from His own that is.  He was thinking about His mother.  Jesus knew that John was the only disciple who would live a long life and die a natural death.  He could have entrusted his mom to Peter, Mark, Matthew or, worst case scenario, to Stephen.  He didn’t.  “Mom, stay close to John (he’s going to be around for a while).  John, treat her like your own mother.”  Other religious views show superhuman gods with very human failings, which are amplified as only a god could amplify them.  Jesus on the cross shows the victorious God who defeats hell and death but also shows human tenderness and love for his mother, even over his own immediate problem.  That is a God that I can put my faith in.

Jesus also said that He was thirsty and that it is finished.  No doubt He was thirsty!  Blood had poured from his shredded back and He would have had no fluids since the night before.  But His thirst is nothing like our own.  Jesus was given sour wine to drink, but we need the water which flows from Him, and He gives it.  It is awful that Jesus had to hang thirstily from that cross so that My dry soul could be spiritually rehydrated, but I give Him thanks that He did it for me, and for everyone else who will drink.

And finally He said “It is finished”.  What is finished”  Death and hell appear to be all around us still.  ISIS tortures, rapes and kills in Syria and Iraq with impunity.  Disease rampages through Africa and poverty dogs much of the world.  If Jesus came here to make things right it certainly doesn’t look on the face of it like it’s working.  What exactly did Jesus finish?

In a word, eternal, spiritual death.  Sin and hell are no longer in the driver’s seat.  As bad as it looks, it’s getting better.  Heaven and Earth are being reconciled and there’s nothing that the devil and all of his forces can do about it.  God’s kingdom on Earth is inevitable; it is coming and will be established, and sin will be cast outside the walls of the Kingdom of God to grind it’s teeth like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, certain of his self earned righteousness and unwilling to allow Gods grace to heal him of his self inflicted wound.

Yeah, it was a service that I needed today.  I will go to bed tonight still thinking about it, and hopefully it will remain with me as I pick up my busy workaday life tomorrow and get into the mix once again.