A Parable of Who’s In and Who’s Out (and the answer to that might be a surprise)

About thirty of my favorite people and I were discussing Matthew 25:31-46 this morning.  You remember Matthew 25:31-46 don’t you?  It’s the parable that Jesus told concerning judgement and the assignment of our eternal future in heaven and hell.  I greatly enjoyed out conversation and just didn’t get enough of it the first time around, so here goes with round number two.

The gist of this scripture is that when the day of judgement comes Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the blessed from the accursed ones.  At this place before the King it is suggested that there will be surprises.  “How did I get in Lord?” some will ask, and “Why am I outside?” will be the question of others.  Jesus answers this question by famously saying, in paraphrase, that “when you fed me (or didn’t) when I was hungry, clothed me (or didn’t) when I was naked, visited me (or didn’t) when I was sick or in prison, you were doing righteousness.”  “When did we do those things?  We’ve never even seen You before.”  “When you did it (or didn’t do it) for the smallest and most insignificant people in society, you did it to Me.”

OK, I really love that.  Jesus has said that your actions matter, and that even if you don’t know anything about Him yet love your neighbor regardless of who s/he is, you are loving Him and pass the test.  Of course, that sets up a problem; what if a person is kind and generous with people who have less than him or her and gets down in the dirt too help, or works to save children from traffickers, or other such noble and awesome things loved by God, yet has not prayed the “sinners’ prayer”.  Was all of that love wasted, and the person doing God’s business and not just talking about it not saved?  I know, other verses say “he that believeth in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life”, and “no one comes to the Father except by way of the Son”, but right there in Matthew 25 Jesus says only that those who DID righteousness would be welcomed into the kingdom, and not just those who paid it lip service.

So, does that extend God’s grace and salvation to a Buddhist monk who fights human trafficking?  A Navajo medicine man who shares his meager pot of lamb stew with a sick neighbor, or an atheist who struggles to bring education and/or legal representation to the poor and underserved residents of the ghetto or barrio?  I cannot tell by Matthew 25: 31-46 alone, but I cannot argue that they will not receive grace and pardon by that scripture either.

And what about the person professing Jesus Christ who’s purse strings remain tightly tied, who’s smile is only for those who can help him, and who’s time is used to serve his interests only?  Does this person’s profession of faith get him anywhere with the Righteous Judge on that great/terrible day?  I, of course, do not think so, but I am no theologian.  I would love to read what more educated people than I believe concerning this.

And then there’s hell.  Chapter 25 of Matthew indicates a place we call hell in three different ways in the three different parables; a place outside the party in parable number one, a place of outer darkness in parable number two, and a place of fire where Satan and his demons are punished in number three.  Well, which is it?  As Joshua Ryan Butler pointed out in his excellent book “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Genesis records that in the beginning God made heaven and earth.  No mention of hell there.  Genesis goes on to speak of water and land and fish and bugs and birds and stars and people, but not one little peep about hell.  So where did this hell come from, what is it like, and who’s going there?

Butler writes that hell is a place in the Bible called Gehenna, or the Hinnom Valley; a place outside of the gates of the city where people would go to, among other things, sacrifice their children to Molech or Chemosh or whatever bloody ‘god’ that they chose to worship instead of God.  So hell could be a place outside of the kingdom city where people can go, if they wish, to worship anything other than God,  It’s their choice.  God wants them in His city, but if they insist on doing what they want instead of what God wants, well, he just can’t allow that behavior into His city.  If they insist on staying outside; their will be done.  Butler is much more exhaustive in his discussion of hell and judgement, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read his book.

So my takeaway from the discussion was that God is not some distant, pissed-off white guy who is just waiting for me or anyone else to screw up so that he can zap me to the torture chamber for eternity.  Instead, God sets out to meet me every day, only He is wearing a mask and I may not recognize Him right away.  Only by treating each person whom I meet as if s/he was God can I make the cut from a works perspective, and only if I do so because I love and want to serve people can I make it from the grace perspective.  And it may, just may, be open to whomever does the will of God, no matter who they are or what they believe.

A Time to Love and a Time to Hate

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  Matthew 5: 43-45.

Jesus tells us in pretty plain language that we are to love those who persecute us and whom we would consider to be our enemies.  That is a fine principle to live by, and I admire those who are able to comply with it.  If we would do more enemy loving and a lot less enemy hating the world would be a much better place, in theory.  And this is where faith comes into the picture, for me at least, because I do not see how such a thing could possibly work in “real life”.  Here is where it is really hard to listen to Jesus Christ, and not do what is right in my own eyes.  Here, as they say, is where the rubber meets the road.

Because I hate my enemies.  Oh, I live in a small city that is virtually a bedroom community for the big city across the river.  I get along well enough with my neighbors; the few with whom I interact at all.  And at work there are a few people who covet my lead position, and therefore are inclined to say things about me behind my back that they would never say to my face.  I don’t really care about that though; the world’s not perfect and I know it, and don’t expect it to be.  I will retire soon and then those people can have my position with my blessing, if our employer agrees to appoint one of them or the other.  These people are a far cry from being my enemies, and I do pray for them regularly.

So I have a pretty well-cushioned life.  Nobody wants my life or property badly enough to do anything drastic to take them.  Nobody is sufficiently annoyed by my politics to want to eliminate my voice and my vote.  And nobody is offended by my unashamed acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.  I have Muslim and Buddhist acquaintances, and others who do not care about religion enough to even think about it, with whom I have warm relations and who I am always happy to chat with and with whom I would even share a glass of wine or two, if it is permissible in their religion to do so.  We are people who think differently, but who are far from hating each other.

But I do have enemies, and I hate them.  You have probably heard of some of these enemies, and some you probably have not.  ISIS, al-Qaeda, Janjaweed, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Pakistanis who use that nation’s anti blasphemy laws to torture, rob and kill Christians, the Sinaloa Cartel, Gente Nueva, Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.  The Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood, Westboro Baptist; the list could go on and on.

Why do I consider them enemies?  There is very little chance that a member of any one of these groups will ever intersect with my life.  I might someday be on a plane that some underwear bomber brings down, or be in a restaurant where some brain-dead jihadi detonates a suicide vest.  And maybe I will be robbed and killed by a junkie seeking money to support his habit, a habit fueled by drugs funneled north by some Mexican cartel.  But the odds of this are probably a good deal less than that I will be struck by a car while out walking or have a second heart attack that will finish the job left undone by the first.  So why do I hate these people?

I hate the violence and evil that they perpetrate in what was intended to be God’s perfect world.  I hate that Christians are tortured and killed in Pakistan for personal gain or the settling of a grudge by relying on its anti blasphemy law.  I hate those people who crucify, shoot or behead Christians in Iraq and Syria.  These same people capture and sell women and girls of the Christian, Yazidi and Shi’a communities to be ‘married’ to violent men or used as sexual slaves.

I hate the Janjaweed for riding in from the desert and killing and raping darker-skinned African farmers and herdsmen and burning their villages.  I hate Boko Haram for kidnapping women and children and killing an burning everybody and everything else.  I hate the LRA for kidnapping children to make soldiers for its  pathetic “army”, and kidnapping girls to give pleasure to these young “soldiers”.  I hate the people who manufacture, transport and sell meth, cocaine and heroin in their various forms; drugs which destroy lives by the hundreds of thousands or more every year.  And I hate people who hate other people because of the color of their skin no matter what that color might be, or to whom other people  might be attracted sexually.  These very real people inflict very real pain and loss and death and oppression on other very real people.  I read the news.  I try to be aware of my world.  I know these things happen, and God help me, I hate the people who are responsible.

So I go to the Bible and history and seek the answer to my dilemma which I would state as “How do I love the people who viciously and mercilessly murder and oppress others”?  I don’t find a lot that helps me.  Jesus took Peter’s sword away when he tried to prevent Jesus’ arrest.  Jesus later walked meekly to the flogging post and then to the cross.  Peter, Paul, Stephen, and a multitude of Christ followers in the first three hundred years after Christ were martyred for their faith.  Of course, Christianity eventually ‘won’ that contest when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, although some theologians and scholars debate whether that event marked a win or a loss for the faith.  But still I find little there that helps me with my problem.

I find that I must ultimately rely on faith to temper the hostility that I feel for these enemies.  I must believe that God is in control of His creation and that nothing happening on earth takes Him by surprise.  When God says through Paul “If God is for us, who is against us?—Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  I have to believe that He means it.  God loves us, and nothing that the evil in the world can do to us will separate us from that love, and that when the final curtain comes down we whom the Lord has chosen (whoever that might be, and that’s another big topic) will be in glory with Him, and all tears will be dried and all hurts healed and all loss restored.

So fine.  I believe that.  All will be as it should be then.  But what about now?  Try as I might to be more merciful, I am glad when a drone strike takes out an ISIS or Taliban commander.  I mourn the Jewish victims of the recent terror attack in Paris but I do not care about the life of the Muslim attacker.  I read about a turf war between Mexican drug cartels, with headless victims showing up everywhere, and I think ‘good riddance’.  How do I get away from that hate?  I don’t want to feel it.  I want instead to be a sincere follower of Jesus.  He said to love my enemies, and then He showed us how to do it, and what it could cost.

Somehow I must arrive at a position which many in the Yoder/Hauerwas?Volf camp of nonviolent Christians would say is a contradiction and impossible to support, and that is to support relentless resistance to the evil perpetrated by these people, which would take the  form of military action or aggressive law enforcement.  While wrestling with my own heart to cease hating the perpetrators of these hideous crimes, I will support resistance, even to the point of killing the perpetrators before they can kill more victims and incarcerating those captured alive, so that they will never work their evil on innocent victims again.

This is not a perfect resolution to my dilemma.  I shall probably wrestle with this until the day that I die.  I take no joy in hating anybody; joy and hate make for a poor partnership.  With God’s help I will slowly become more conformed to His will, and perhaps I will be given wisdom to see the issue more clearly.  God help me, this is where I stand right now.

The Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again…”  So begins the Simon and Garfunkle song “The Sound of Silence”.  They go on to sing “…within the sound of silence; And touched the sound of silence; Disturb the sound of silence; And echoed in the wells of silence; And whispered in the sound of silence.”  I loved that song.  I haven’t got a clue what in the world the artists were trying to say with it, but the beauty and harmony that they produced was haunting, and continues to inspire me over four decades since I first heard it.  For the last twenty seven years my own sounds of silence have made some different impressions on me, and those would be frustration, anxiety, and melancholy among others.  That is because for that period of time I have never enjoyed the blessing of hearing silence.

I have tinnitus.  Tinnitus is a disorder which manifests itself as any of a number of noises in your ears, or to be more accurate in your head.  My sound is a high-pitched ringing, but roaring, clicking, humming or a sound like rushing wind are only some of the sounds that a person with tinnitus might hear.  The causes of tinnitus are known in some cases, such as hearing loss or trauma, and in many cases unknown.  I fall into the latter category.  I was not in the artillery, did not work on a flight line, nor played guitar for a rock band while standing in front of two story speakers.  I simply awoke one night at 2 AM with the most annoying ringing in my ears that refused to go away.  I managed to get back to sleep, but when I awoke later in the morning to go to work the ringing was still there.  It still is.

I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist and he ruled out any observable physical reason for the sound which was now my constant companion.  There was little that he could do for me and referred me to a research clinic at a fancy university hospital nearby.  They added nothing other than to put me in touch with a tinnitus support group.  I attended two meetings of that group and never went back.  I have never been in the company of a more depressed and depressing group of people in my life.  Tinnitus will do that to you.

Being a Christian, I prayed often and fervently for God to lift this load off of me, but as He did with the apostle Paul, God demurred and has chosen to let me continue to deal with this thorn in my flesh.  At one point I followed the instructions of the apostle James and asked the elders of my church to pray over me and anoint me with oil.  The result was the same; no let up in the ringing.  A short while later I was sitting in a chair in my pastor’s office whining about God’s lack of responsiveness to my problem.  “Have you asked God to give you the grace to endure it?” he asked.  “Hadn’t thought of that” was my reply.  We dropped to our knees on the spot and prayed as my pastor suggested, and the oppressive weight of my mental response to my affliction was lifted instantly, although the sound remained.  This I could live with.

And so it went until last year, when the noise began to ramp up.  I noticed while walking one day that I could hear the ringing over the ambient noise, and it has slowly built up to a veritable crescendo which assaults my ears as I sit and write this story.  Once again I felt the mix of anxiety and fear rising in my gut, and this time it was while I was trying to control my blood pressure using natural methods after a heart attack and bypass surgery five months earlier.  The stress was not making that job any easier.

The solution to my tinnitus problem came to me in the most unexpected fashion.  One night I was lying in my bed trying to meditate and I realized that the sound was only in my ears; it was not in the majority of my head.  Then I began to search around my body and found to my delight that I couldn’t hear any sound in my chest, my arms, legs, feet; anything other than the very small space of my two ears.  The next thing that I discovered was that I could hear the silence in those parts of my body that were not ringing!  As crazy as it sounds, the revelation was to me stunning.  I reveled in a silence that had been there all along but which I had been missing because I focused on the bad and annoying part and overlooked the good.

None of this is to say that I wouldn’t do almost anything to be free of that horribly annoying sound which never leaves my ears and probably won’t until the minute that I draw my last breath.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  What I do have to offer to fellow sufferers of tinnitus is that by staying with it and finding out how to mentally manage my tinnitus in my own way I am able to live with it and operate more or less in a normal manner.  Maybe this was God once again giving me the grace to live well with the thorn in my flesh that He just refuses to remove.  I hope that God will give His grace to anyone else who reads this who suffers with tinnitus as I do.  Hang in there.  It can be survived with joy.

I Can’t Get No Traction

Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973.  That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me.  As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well.  A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire.  What follows is the story of me and that tractor.

Tractor Picture

After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school.  It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud.  They had no such idea.  They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week.  The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes.  This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high.  I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.

One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends.  We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style.  They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike  Perhaps that is why I love them so much.  Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.

“No shit.  Really?” said Walter.  “That’s what they tell me” was my reply.  “That’s crazy” added Arlen.  “They don’t give those things to students, do they?”  “They gave one to me.  Wanna go see if it works?”  Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house.  Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.

“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found.  I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans.  Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter.  I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.

The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school.  Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams.  His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store.  Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber.  At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store.  He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity.  It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.

It worked!  The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction.  The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car.  We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.

I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature.  Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again.  We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that.  Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride.  We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field.  All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.

We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field.  I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found.  We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth.  This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face.  It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field.  We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.

We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot.  That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure.  Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away.  Still no answer.  Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice.  He isn’t home”.  We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute.  Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.”  “You’re crazy,” said Arlen.  “He’ll have us arrested.”  “He won’t ever know” Walt replied.  “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.”  We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won.  We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.

With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside,  the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover.  Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car.  We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover.  Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free.  Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward.  The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free.  Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug.  The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.

This was a serious problem, and we all knew it.  There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County.  We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING!  No luck  We were in it and we knew it.  There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music.  Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.

So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud.  I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day.  You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.

I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again.  On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out.  “He laughed” said Walt.  “He just laughed.  Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big.  With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing.  We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.

They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well.  For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.

A Walk On The Beach

The day dawned wet and blustery.  All night long the wind howled around the corners of our hotel at Cannon Beach in Oregon, while the rain was hurled in great sheets against our window and upon the roof.  I had walked along the bluff overlooking the beach the night before and could hear the waves being flung against the shore by the winds that presaged the storm that would later accompany my fitful sleep throughout the night.  I have not been a good sleeper in my later years and frequently spend large parts of any given night revisiting old daydreams or creating new ones, trying to get my mind off of the fact of my sleeplessness so that maybe, just maybe, I will drift off to sleep.  That night was such a night, but the surge and play of wind and rain with their power, which men covet but which is only possessed by nature, sang to me a lullaby that loosened the grip of wakefulness and carried me away to a sleep which lasted until almost nine in the morning.

We lingered at breakfast until after ten.  Our master of the breakfast bar had a wonderful French accent, and when he recited the morning’s complimentary offerings he said “croissant” in that special, fluid French way, and it made me ache to order one just reward his accent.  My gluten sensitivity would not have shared my attraction however, and so I stuck with the ham and eggs and potato and cheese casserole.  I did, however, accept the offer of a well mixed mimosa.  My wife and I took our sweet time at the table after the European style, discussing this or comparing that, and at length decided that it was time to begin the day’s other activities.

We began with a short drive along the coast which ended up in the town of Cannon Beach.  We parked behind a store in an old, historic building with stairs that bowed, floors that rippled, and walls that leaned.  Inside were a thousand items from nuts and soap to beds and art.  I don’t know who in the world would go to a ramshackle building in an overpriced tourist town to buy a bed, but I have to take it on faith that such things happen.  We probably spent a little under an hour there during which time we saw all that we wanted to see and then had to make another plan.  I had wanted to walk on the beach for months while we were waiting for our little vacation and had packed a poncho and big rubber boots in case I got the opportunity.  Now seemed like a great opportunity.

“Let’s drive back to the hotel and I will put on my gear and meet you downtown for some lunch” I suggested, and my wife readily agreed.  We returned to the hotel where I exited our car and went to put on my gear.  My wife returned to town to continue browsing in shops and looking at things that I had little interest in.  I quickly pulled on my boots and slipped the poncho over my head, and soon I was walking out of the door with the better part of a mile between me and my wife.

The first reality which hit me was the wind.  It was not particularly cold but it whipped my poncho around like a torn flag on a pole.  I grabbed at the sides of the poncho from within and held it close to my body.  There was little rain at the moment and so the buffeting of the wind was the only really inclement weather that I felt.  I walked across the resort complex behind our hotel and found a stairway that led from the bluff down to the sandy beach.

The stairway dropped down between two high walls to a grove of either high shrubs or low trees which ran along a level stretch of the sandy bluff which was about halfway between the top of the bluff and beginning of the actual beach.  The branches and twigs of those plants formed a skeletal umbrella under which I walked for a short distance, the leaves having long since dried up by the cold fall temperatures and blasted inland by the Pacific storms that have hammered the coast this year.  Emerging from under that ethereal umbrella I passed over a path between tall stands of beach grass and finally came to the edge of that level middle stage of the bluff from where I could see the broad expanse of Cannon Beach.

The sand of the beach was wet from the waterline to the base of the bluff, partly from the rain which had fallen the night before and partly from the previous evening’s high tide.  Beyond that sandy beach lay the Pacific Ocean, which was that moment making it clear that this immense body of water is anything but pacific, or peaceful.  The waves were large and coming in one upon another, as if they couldn’t wait to end their transoceanic journey and return to the serene pelagic depths from whence they were stirred up and hurled against dry land.  The crash of breakers, the chop and cross-currents of rip tides, and the last, exhausted yet still powerful flow of each surge as it crawled up the sands of the beach toward where I walked in my impotent puniness all reminded me that I am of little account when weighed against the power and splendor of the mighty ocean.

I began my walk along the beach towards the business district of Cannon Beach just above the high water line of the churning surf.  The unobstructed wind was blowing great patches of sea foam loose from the forward edge of the surging surf and propelling them like large cotton balls across the wet sand.  The wind was even snatching up wet particles of sand and blowing them in low waves across the beach to where they collided with the grass-covered sandhill of the bluff, to begin replenishing what was ripped away by the storm in the night before and returned to the sea.  Looking out to the west I saw the vague green of the water and the white of the foam as the waves crashed forward, but beyond that no true horizon met my view.  The sky was gray, the sea was near gray, the light rain which has begun again to fall, blurred whatever lines of transition remained until the nature before me spoke of a cold, neutral personality; it didn’t care if I lived or died, loved it or hated it, feared or respected or ignored it.  It existed in power and mystery behind gray veils, and I could think of it as I liked or not think of it at all; it was of no consequence to the sea.

I continued my walk and at one point my boot sunk four or five inches into a place of very loose sand.  I simply walked through it and in a step was back on more solid ground.  It occurred to me however that nature as its secrets, and the vision of a pit of soft, loose sand swallowing me up and of my disappearance from among the living sent a tingle up my spine.  I have never heard of such a thing happening, but could it be because those whom the Earth swallows up, it never gives back to tell the tale?  No further soft spots clutched at my boot heels for the rest of my walk as I continued towards where I knew the center of town could be reached.

Just before the stairway that leads off of the beach and into town was reached however I came upon a place where the now-rocky bluff jutted out to meet the churning surf.  Every other time that I have visited this beach the stretch of dry sand between that bulge of rock and the water’s edge has been wide enough that it has not even been noticed.  On this day however the water met the rock, and I was walking through pools of seawater fed by the advancing and receding edges of the waves.  I felt no concern from the tongues of seawater which licked against my boots, but I could not put out of my mind the vision of a rogue wave gathering speed in the churning water off to my left, building its strength to lurch onto the beach, engulfing me and finishing the job that the sand pit started but failed to complete.  I knew that the odds were greatly against such a thing, but all the same felt relieved to complete my traverse around that rocky point and continue my journey, now nearly complete.

I passed the first stairway off the beach, the one which led directly into the center of town, and pressed on to another path a hundred yards or so further to the north.  That part of the beach hosts the stream bed of Ecola Creek, which usually snakes across the sands of the beach and ends its short journey in the waves of the Pacific.  On this day a swollen and determined Ecola Creek slammed into an equally swollen and determined ocean, and the currents which danced a mad minuet could be traced by the wavelets and ripples on the surface, showing with surprising clarity where the form of the creek refused to yield its integrity to the immensity of the ocean.  My eyes were fixed on this wonderful dance as I first gained, and then climbed, the pathway which led upward and off the beach.

Once I was safely out of the wind-driven drizzle and under a covered pavilion next to a sculpture of a whale I texted my wife to see where we would meet.  It happened that she was no more than half a block away at a very nice restaurant, where I quickly joined her, shucked my poncho, and soon was warming up with a bowl of soup and a cup of hot, black coffee.  It was a perfect end to a perfect walk on a cold, wet, gray, windy, and perfect day on Cannon Beach.

Merry Christmas To All

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  That is my wish for everybody whom I know, and for those whom I do not know as well.  It seems like a bit of a cheesy formality, this ritual annual invocation; something one does reflexively with increasing frequency as we finish digesting our enormous Thanksgiving dinner and plow through the last shopping days until we once again stress our biliary systems, and also the bathroom scales, to the max with our equally enormous Christmas repast.  I have been as guilty of mumbling this mantra as has the next person but it is my wish and intention to change that sad fact and trade in my insipid yuletide insincerity for a true and genuine wish for a Merry Christmas and a happy new year to each and all.

But first, what do I mean by these words “Merry Christmas”?  Well, what I do not mean is too many presents, too much shopping, too much food or too much of the adult beverage of choice, followed by too many aspirin the next morning.  My vision of a merry Christmas is born of my Christian faith.  The foundation of my Christmas is the birth, on whatever date that it actually happened, of Jesus of Nazareth, who was/is God come in the flesh to rescue humanity from the separation and hell that we had initiated by screwing things up in the first place.  This act by God was an act of sacrificial love, in which he gave us what we desperately needed but had no chance of obtaining by our own efforts.  God did this out of an abiding love for his children and never thought about what it would cost him.

In the process of doing this God lived together with men and women on Earth, first in his family with his father, Joseph, and his mother, Mary, his brother James and other siblings.  Later, God lived with his twelve disciples and a circle of friends, both men and women whom he treated with an equality that was shocking at the time and which should be a lesson to us today, at least the Christians among us should recognize this and strive to imitate our God.  And in the end God gave us the present that was unobtainable in any other way.  Hung as a bloody, mutilated, and finally stone cold dead ornament on a ghastly Roman Christmas tree on Calvary Hill, God gave us the gift of reconciliation between himself and humankind.  What an amazing gift!

This was an incalculable gift and deserves to be commemorated daily, rather than once each year, but once per year is how we have chosen to recognize it, so at this time I wish my family, friends, acquaintances and in fact the whole world a merry Christmas.  But what do I mean by “Merry Christmas,” and how can I wish it to my family and friends and valued acquaintances who are not Christian, who recognize spiritual paths different than my own, or no spiritual path at all?  Can I wish a Merry Christmas to people who are not Christian?  What does a baby lying in a feed trough in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago have to do with my friend who is Muslim, or my Buddhist or secular materialist friends, and I assure you that those friends of mine are real?  Is my wish for them to enjoy a Merry Christmas just another example of the cheesy ritual that I mentioned in the opening words of this post?

The answer is “No”, and I will be glad to explain why.  Jesus – God – did not come to the world to bless Christians.  When Jesus was born there were no Christians, and when the angels sang “Peace on Earth, good will towards men”, those men were Roman pagans, Judean Hebrews, Persian Zoroastrians, Indian Hindus, Chinese Confucianists, Taoists, and Buddhists, Aztec worshippers of Quetzalcoatl and North American Lakota who worshipped Mother Earth and Father Sky.  The biblical text just says “Peace on Earth, good will towards men”.  That’s it.  I will be happy to say it as God’s angels said it:  Peace on Earth, good will toward men.  All of them.  Merry Christmas.

And how am I going to do this?  First and foremost by wishing that you love your family and friends and others as much as you can.  You may not receive love back in the same measure; that’s how it turned out for God when he was here in the flesh, but love anyway.  You have the choice to love or not love.  Which one is most likely to feed your soul?  Do not wait to be loved first, and then dole out the appropriate amount of love in return.  Love first, love earnestly, and love regardless of something other than love given back to you in return.  And when you do this you should be open to receive the love that may return to you, which might come from the most unexpected sources.  Perhaps love will be returned by your family members or others close to you.  I hope so.  Or maybe, when you least expect it, love will come from people who you never laid eyes upon before in your life, who flit into your line of sight and bless you in ways that you could never predict.  Things like that happen all the time, but we don’t notice it or don’t allow it because it doesn’t fit our busy schedule.

I will also wish you a Merry Christmas by urging you to share your material blessings, which never give you the real joy that they promise anyway, to people who are hurting and doing without the things they need rather than the things that they play with. Those people may be living in villages without a well for drinking water in Honduras or Borneo, or they might be the elderly couple living down the street who have to decide whether to pay the electric bill so that they can keep their medicines cold in the refrigerator or pay the water bill so that they can bathe and flush the toilet.  These folks are known and can be found if you wish to try and find them.  Bless them with your money, or simply your time and friendship.  It will make you a good deal more merry than will giving your nephew Clarence another sweater that he’ll wear at an Ugly Sweater party two years hence.

Therefore, when I wish you a Merry Christmas, regardless of your spiritual persuasion, I wish you the joy of love given and love received, the way it was between God and humankind on that first Christmas morning.  I wish you the joy of sharing what you have in abundance with those who have no hope of obtaining their bare necessities by their own effort.  If none of these wishes for you are likely to be fulfilled in your immediate future, then I wish that you will take comfort from the love I feel for you; the love of one frail and bent, but not broken, brother to another brother or sister on this confusing and sometimes frightening planet.  I wish you joy, love, comfort and peace.  I wish you these things because I want to wish them.  It makes me merry to wish this for you.  Merry Christmas, my friends.

Space, The Final Frontier, Part I

It didn’t take me very long after I was discharged from the Army to enter the drug subculture that prevaled in California in 1969.  I had smoked a great deal of marijuana in Fort Hood, and later in Vietnam, and it was rumored that some of the weed that we smoked in Vietnam had been cured in opium.  I don’t know the truth of that, but there is no denying that it was powerful stuff.  I remember one night in Long Binh when I was sitting in a lawn chair on the wooden porch outside of our aluminum ‘hooch’, or hut, in which twenty or so of us soldiers made our homes.  I had smoked several of the pre-rolled ‘Saigon Bombers’ that we bought from a Vietnamese supplier and was feeling a good deal more loaded than usual.  A radio or 8-track nearby was playing the Beatles’ song “Hello Goodbye” and I felt like I was falling through solid rock towards the center of the Earth, with only the dum-dum-dum-dum beat of the song holding the rock apart to enable my descent.

On another occasion which I did not get to witness my friend Wes stripped down one of the bombers which I had sent to him through the U.S. mail and rolled four very thin joints out of it.  Later that day, at a break in classes at a community college in San Diego, Wes and three other guys descended into a canyon next to the school and passed around one of those tiny joints.  All four were so plastered against the ground upon which they lay that any thought of arising and making their next classes floated off into the wild blue San Diego sky.  Yeah, it was powerful stuff.

After many months of being home I finally got the opportunity to try a psychedelic drug, such as I had read and heard about during much of my tour overseas.  It was supposed to be mescaline, I think.  The reaction was non-existent.  It was a dud.  Probably somebody had sold me some aspirin.  I was disappointed and looked to try again later.  That opportunity arrived soon enough and I experienced my first trip on LSD, but because of a delayed reaction I had the misfortune of taking that first trip on my own.

I obtained the ‘hit’ of LSD, or acid, from my friend Jack.  Jack and I weren’t extremely close but had known each other for a long time, and when I discovered that he had a hit to share I bought it from him and ingested, or ‘dropped’ the hit right away.  Once again, nothing happened.  Eventually I went home, climbed into bed, and tried to go to sleep.  Sleep was not to come on this night however.  Shortly after I turned out the light my senses exploded, with vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell competing to see who would take the blue ribbon for Most Heightened Sense.  Even more unnerving was the reaction of my thought processes.  Perhaps you have had a lazy day in which you lie idle and allow your thoughts to drift.  It was sort of like that except that instead of drifting, my thoughts acted like they wearing jet packs.  Ideas would fly across my mind like laser-guided meteors, sometimes returning to deep space from whence they had emerged and sometimes colliding with new ideas, creating black rabbit holes down which new and unrelated ideas would fly with several of their half-baked relatives in their train.  The jumble of senses and unorganized and hyperactive thoughts, some of them in colors which I am simply inadequate to describe, put me in an extreme state of agitation or, as we said, “freaked me out”, and I arose from the bed, dressed, and exited my house in order to walk the mile or so to the courtyard cottage that Jack shared with his girlfriend, Angela.

The walk was marginally comforting, as I could fix my mind on the act of picking one foot up and putting it back down, and then the next, and the next, and so on.  The streets and houses and businesses along the way were as familiar to me as was my own room, since I had walked and driven and delivered newspapers and, well, lived in those streets for many, many years.  Eventually however, and too quickly I thought, I arrived at Jack’s place, only to find him gone.  The sense that I felt most acutely at that moment was ‘alone’, and the loneliness was heightened four-fold by the acid which was progressing toward its maximum effect, or what we called it’s ‘peak’.  When we reached this plateau of maximum effect we called it ‘peaking’.  I did not know all of this at the time.  I only knew that my brain was doing things that it was never programmed to do, and I had nobody who had any experience with this to guide me through it.

Across the cement path which separated the tiny stucco bungalows which made up this residential complex lived a couple whom I knew slightly from previous visits to Jack.  People tended to hang out on their front porches in the warm evenings of San Diego and got to know each other just a little.  I knew this couple well enough to know that they also used drugs and preferred barbiturates, or what were called ‘downers’, or ‘stumblers’.  These pills would make the user very lethargic, relaxed, almost hypnotic and mellow.  Mellow was exactly what I could have used at that moment.  I suppose that I knew the guy’s name forty years ago, but it escapes me now.  He was sitting on his porch as usual, listening to music and smoking, and I greeted him and explained my situation.  I then asked if there was any chance that he might sell me some reds (seconal), or yellow jackets (nembutal).  This guy didn’t really know me well enough to feel safe making that transaction, since there was in his mind the possibility that I was an undercover narcotics officer, or ‘narc’.  He told me that he wasn’t holding any stash that night, and so I turned away from the relief that I had hoped to find there.

Discouraged and more than a little bit freaked out, I returned to walking on the streets between Jack’s place and my home.  It was not too late but the neighborhood was very quiet.  As I walked past the houses, the big Catholic church and school on Marlborough and Orange Avenues, the closed jewelry store and hobby shop on busy University Avenue, and the Mexican restaurant which was always getting nasty ratings from the Health Department but was open all hours of the night, and fed many a taco and enchilada and cup of strong, black coffee to late night revelers who were trying to sober up enough to make it home, make it to school or make it to work, my mind was straining to reach out and grab security and comfort from the known and trusted, only to crash headlong into thoughts and sensations which were security and comfort’s polar opposites, which came roaring out of some parallel universe and breaking into our world through a wormhole in my skull.

As I approached my family home I knew that entering the house and sitting alone in the darkness of my room was not an option.  Wes, my best friend, was probably out with Jack, so I knew that it would do no good to walk to his house.  Besides, it was probably a good four miles away, and the idea of trying such a feat seemed out of the question.  The answer, which occurred to me with a clarity that was a rare thing for me at the moment, was to drive several miles east to Santee, a suburb of the city, to the house of my older brother Brad and his wife Ginny.  Why it seemed to me that I would have to walk if I chose to go to Wes’ house but could drive to Brad’s is entirely beyond me as I remember this event, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  I think that this will help the reader to understand how my thoughts were, well, a little bit unorganized.

Brad had never done psychoactive drugs and was much more of a weed and beer guy.  Still, he was my big brother, and I always had looked to him as the guy who would pull my fat out of the fire when i was in a fix.  Brad, being four years my senior, went before me in everything; in school, in the Army, in relations with girls, he had done it before I did and had done it better in my opinion, and so I climbed into the 1963 Mercury that my parents allowed me to use as I wished and began a kaleidoscopic drive across the east side of san Diego, and then down a long hill into the dark and sleepy town of Santee.

Brad and his wife Ginny were home and I soon explained my crisis.  Brad, of course, knew nothing about what I was going through, but his and ginny’s presence provided a contact with something familiar and non-threatening, and that helped to calm me down although I did not feel that effect immediately.  Thoughts and sensations seemed to take a while to catch up with each other.  Brad knew of a phone number to a service which was established to try to help people in my position.  This was 1970 after all, and there were thousands of young people in every city and town in America who were ‘tuning in, turning on, and dropping out’, many of whom had the same reaction as I had or something worse.  This particular service was there to talk to people who were freaking out, trying to tell if there was a real medical emergency that needed immediate treatment or just a scared kid who needed someone who seemed to know something about what they were going through and that they could hold onto until the drug would begin to wear off.  Brad dialed the number and a male voice came on the line, a voice that I hung onto for the next half hour.

By that time I had been peaking for about two hours, and even though I wasn’t aware of it all at once, the effects of the acid were beginning to wear off.  The colors of the afghan on the sofa did not appear to be as bright as they had been when I first arrived, and they had quit moving too.  The cat no longer seemed to know something that I didn’t.  Ginny went to bed and I hung up the phone.  Brad made some coffee, and although one would think that more stimulants were not what was called for, the warm and comfortable familiarity of a cup of joe at the kitchen table with my big brother was exactly what I needed.  Soon after finishing a second cup I was asleep, or floating in something which passed for sleep, on the sofa in Brad’s living room with Portia, their cat, lying on the pillow above my head with her face right at the level of my right ear.  The sound of her purring induced some very strange dreams.

One would think that a single such experience would be enough to convince a sane individual to give up such foolishness and never try anything like that again.  If we were dealing with a sane individual that might have been the case but, alas, we were not; we were dealing with me.  It would be many months later that I would try acid again, and this time in different circumstances and with different results.

I really don’t know exactly why I was willing to give LSD another try, but I believe it had much to do with the level of disconnectedness that I felt with life in general.  My childhood had been a life lived in a gray straight jacket of conformity.  I was uncomfortable with who I perceived myself to be and struggled to be something or someone that I wasn’t, even though I was not at all certain of what or who that was.  At the same time I was not able to discern the difference between a sage who had achieved detachment from the petty distractions of the material world and had found concrete truths upon which to anchor a life, and a stoned slacker staring at his naval because he was to hammered to do anything else.  I knew that I wanted to find a place where things made sense to me, where the inadequacies that I perceived in myself would be strengthened and the holes in my personhood would all be filled in with knowledge and capability.  I know that this reads like a bunch of pop psychology gobbildy-gook, but that is the best that I can do to explain it.  I did not know much about sages and how one went about pursuing the condition of sageness, and so I opted to take the drug path to enlightenment, and was determined to carry on at a later date.  The story of that path continues in Part II.