What’s For Dinner?

I don’t believe that anything tastes better than something cooked in the great outdoors or indoors over wood.  There is some sort of magic that can be found when a wood fire applies heat to a pot, pan or skillet preferably, but not exclusively , in the setting of the great outdoors.  The items being cooked are almost irrelevant.  When the meal is set and ready to be consumed it is one of the most heavenly sensations one can imagine.  In fact, I believe that meals in heaven will be cooked on wood burning stoves in cabins in some celestial woods, but that’s just my opinion.

I began my romance with outdoor cooking when I was a very small boy.  When my father was not somewhere in the world on a Navy ship we would frequently pack up our 1950 Studebaker and drive to a campground in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.  We would leave early in the morning, usually well before the sun would come up, and drive about an hour and a half to the favorite family spot.  Many times we were able to get our very favorite camping space; number 36, I think it was.

Time of year was of no consequence.  My brother Brad and I loved running wild in the rocks and fields and canyons and brush-covered hillsides during the summer, but we equally loved the frozen, ice and snow covered winter landscape as well.  In fact, winter was my favorite as far as food went for a couple of reasons.

First, I loved to make the fire that my mother would use to cook over.  I was a little pyromaniac anyway,  and loved to burn pine needles and dried weeds and junk lumber that my father always seemed to restock in our back yard.  Dad taught me how big a fire ought to be and where it should be placed, and then let me burn all that I wanted.  This scared the crap out of our neurotic neighbor, who once called the fire department on me when I was sitting in front of a small fire one afternoon.  I heard the sirens and thought to myself “Man, that’s close.”  Then I heard the “clump clump clump” of heavy boots on our concrete driveway.  Then, what looked to my twelve year old eyes to be a small army of firemen poured through the gap between our house and garage into the back yard.

“Where’s the fire?”  they demanded.  “This is the only one that I know about” I said, pointing to my little camp-style fire.  The firemen looked at each other with a look that I didn’t recognize then, but as I think back on it I now know all too well that it said “We’ve been punked”.  But there they were.  They were firemen, and I did have a fire going.  So they pulled their big hose with the heavy bronze nozzle into my back yard and blew the hell out of my fire.  I was completely dumbfounded by the whole thing, but my mother put two and two together quickly enough.  I really liked the Mr. who lived next door, but I never had much time for the Mrs. after that.

Anyway, I liked to start fires, so my father would give me one match when we went to the campground and it was my duty to get the fire going so that Mom could get the breakfast started.  During the summer that was a small challenge at best.  In winter however, the pressure was definitely on.  Mom would cook on the big steel and stone camp stoves built by the CCC workers during the Great Depression, and in winter they might be covered three or four inches deep with snow and ice.  Dad would give me wood, a hatchet, a knife, and one paper match and tell me to get the job done.

Challenge accepted!  I would chop away as much ice and snow as I could in order to clear the grill and release the steel door which folded down to give me access to the roughly twelve inch wide by ten inch high by two or three feet deep firebox, where I was tasked with producing a cooking fire thick with glowing hot coals that Mom would use to create a king’s feast.  Using the knife I whittled shavings in increasingly larger size until I had a pile of them.  Next I produced small sticks, again of increasing size, until I had a pile of graded pieces of wood at the foot of the stove.  I carefully arranged my shavings and small sticks in the firebox without the assistance of any paper as a fire starter.  Only wimps used paper to start a fire!

Finally all was prepared and I would strike the one precious match on an emory surface and it would flare with its ignition.  I was patient, allowing that initial flare to settle down into an even flame before I advanced the match into the shavings.  Smoke would curl up through the pile of shavings and chips, and then a tiny flame would be established in the filamentous fuel.

At this point I would drop the match and begin to tend my small and fragile fire.  Bit would be added to bit, slightly larger as the fire gained a foothold in my pile of tinder, and in short order I knew that the fire would be a success.  Sticks were added, and then bigger sticks, until larger chunks of wood were added to make a roaring fire before which numb hands could be warmed, coffee could be brewed, and finally a full breakfast of eggs and bacon, potatoes and ham and grits and whatever one could possibly want could be created by the culinary genius that was my mother.

A glorious outdoor breakfast did not have to be a complicated affair however.  One of my favorite meals ever consumed at that campground was as simple as a meal could possibly be.  When I was very young I tried to win prizes by selling Christmas cards to my neighbors.  A company somewhere produced a catalogue of prizes that could be earned by selling certain amounts of cards, and I signed up and set out to push those little-more-than-average cards on as many neighbors as I could con into buying them.

By hook and by crook I peddled one full shipment of those cards and was given several choices of what prize I could acquire from the catalogue.  I chose a collapsable camp oven.  This thing would fold until it was nearly flat, but when unfolded it formed a metal cube that could be set over a camp fire or a Coleman stove and could be used just like a real oven.  It even had a thermometer on the front that told you the temperature within.

So one early morning my father took me and my best friend Wes to do some fishing on the stream which ran through the campground where we always preferred to go.  The state people stocked trout in that stream and I caught one every now and then, but not on this day.  After freezing our little butts off for an hour or so we returned to the campsite and Dad fired up the Coleman stove.  We were going to have pork and beans for breakfast but Dad had forgotten to bring a can opener, so there we were with a big can of pork and beans and no way to get at them.

My father was nothing if not resourceful.  He knew right away that the beans were a lost cause.  We had canned biscuits however, and so the oven was assembled and the biscuits opened up, lined up in a greased pan, and placed in the oven.  In no time at all the biscuits were withdrawn from the oven and placed on top of that cube in all of their golden brown glory.  Dad then squeezed honey out of a bottle onto the top of the uncooperative bean can and we took turns sopping up honey with our warm biscuits and slamming them down the old hatch.

I believe that our breakfast of biscuits and honey a-la bean can was as good as any meal that I have ever eaten.  I can close my eyes and go right back to that picnic site under the oak trees just off of the parking lot at Green Valley Falls and taste the honeyed sweetness of the soft, warm biscuits that we ate that morning.  My father was a Jekyll and Hyde sort of character; sometimes I hated and feared him and sometimes I loved him. I loved him that morning.  I wish that I could tell him that I love him again.  Perhaps I will sometime.

I will conclude this topic with one more tale of a wood cooked meal, but this one was not cooked out of doors.  One Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’m not sure which one it was, in the year 1974 or 75, again I’m not sure which one, my wife at the time and I drove north from Sonoma County California to Eugene Oregon to share the holiday meal with her friends from high school.  Clarice stayed in touch with her friend Kaye and Kaye’s fiance Carl, and we were invited to do the meal with them that year.

Kaye and Carl lived in a huge victorian house with three or four other couples.  It was a sort of urban commune; a thing rather popular in those days.  Kaye was going to college at the University of Oregon and Carl was a hippy, occasionally working at replanting hillsides where loggers had clear-cut the forest, frequently playing a guitar rather badly, and always ready to roll and share a joint with anybody who was ready to party.  When you are the son of a doctor, life can be easy like that.

Clarice and I left our apartment early in the morning and drove straight through to eugene.  I was raised by me father to drive like an automaton when great distances needed to be covered, so we would have stopped to get gas and pee and buy me another quart of beer and that was about all, so by the time that we arrived at the big victorian house we were both pretty well tied in knots.  We walked the wet and grey streets of Eugene with our friends for a while and then, after a meal of something-or-other and a goodly amount of alcohol and marijuana we turned in for the night.

We slept in quite late the next morning, and when we finally did crawl out of bed the activity in the kitchen was already hot and heavy.  Bert, one of the other residents of the house, was in charge of the stove while his wife Evelyn was in charge of what got cooked on/in the stove.  Evie was cooking a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, rolls, and an assortment of other items on a huge iron wood burning stove in the kitchen.  Breakfast was long past so Clarice and I ate some sandwiches and snacks that we still had in our cooler while we waited for the main event.

Only slightly less impressive than the meal was the process by which it was cooked.  At one point “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” came on the television and we all got appropriately psychedelic to watch it by.  While Willie Wonka was sailing chocolate rivers and Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Jo were floating dangerously close to the huge ventilator fans, saved from being sliced and diced only by releasing their lighter-than-air gas load by frequent belches, we were all drifting between Mars and the asteroid belt, sharing joints and mushrooms and feeling very much a part of the movie.

But every so often some sort of alarm would go off in Bert’s psychedelicized brain and he would arise and go stuff a measured amount of wood into the fire chamber on the side of the oven which housed the turkey that we would soon be devouring.  It was truly uncanny, the way that Bert just knew when another load of wood was needed.  Too much wood and the oven temperatures would spike, and too little would result in the temperature falling below the proper cooking level.  A nice, constant temperature is what was needed, and that temperature was provided by one of the most impressive of stoned slackers that I have even had the privilege to meet.

At last the movie reached its stirring conclusion with Willy and Charlie and Grandpa flying over the city in some sort of cross between an elevator and a telephone booth (younger readers will at least know what an elevator is), and the dinner bell was rung.  Bert and Evie first brought out the turkey, followed by all of the other awesome delicacies that they had cooked and kept warm on shelves over or adjacent to the stove.

Bert carved the bird and we all ate until just before we got sick.  I have to say that it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten, and even though it was not cooked outside, well, it has to be among the most special of meals because of the 19th century wood stove manner of it’s cooking.  As long as God grants me the blessing of memory, I will never forget those wonderful meals that I have described in this story.  Heaven, for me, will almost certainly contain meals such as these.

Reflections On Lent, Day 9

My Lent reflection for today will be a brief one.  This is necessary because it concerns my work, and I work in the medical profession.  I am on the front lines in the delivery of health care and the privacy rules which surround my line of work are very widespread and very strict.  It is, therefore, the better part of valor to write as little about it as possible.  Still, I believe that I have just enough room to deliver this reflection without stepping on toes or stepping out of line.

I knew that today would be a challenge before I walked through the door. We have been seeing more patients each day lately than we have seen in quite a while, and I knew that one of our swing shift people was taking the day off.  The night shift person had labored mightily to get done what she could but there was still an impressive list of tests to be performed before any of us had picked up a transducer.  Because of a happy innovation in our work schedule however we had an extra person working four hours in the morning, which gave me a much needed opportunity to practice on a new machine that we have recently purchased.

By lunchtime however we knew that our collective goose was cooked.  The printer sounded like a machine gun, so many were the orders for new tests that came rattling through it.  It quickly became obvious that the one swing shift person who would be working this evening was going to be buried with exams needing to be done if I didn’t stay a little bit past my quitting time, and so I opted to do that.  Our student stayed and did another test too, and we thereby managed to get done some of the people who had been waiting the longest for their tests to be finished.

Just as I was wrapping up what I thought was my last test I was told that a patient had been sent over to us to get a test, and if he couldn’t get one as an outpatient he was going to have to go through the Emergency Department.  Happily I was there for two reasons:  First, I saved him from a long slog through the Emergency Department and secondly because he was a young guy and this particular test would have been seriously embarrassing if it would have been done by one of the female techs, and that is all that we usually have at that time of the afternoon.

So the message which came home to me is that when things are hectic and seem to be all on the wrong track, it’s just possible that you are not seeing the whole picture.  In my case a long and difficult day made it possible for a young man who is at an age where embarrassment is likely to be most acute to have his test performed under the least uncomfortable conditions that are possible and also saved the time, expense, and perhaps pain from IV sticks or whatever might have happened in the Emergency Department.

So I end my day tired but contented with the way it is wrapping up.  My goal now is to cook, eat, clean up, pour a glass of wine and get busy preparing to lead a book study this Monday.  I’ll lean on God’s grace to keep me sharp while I do that.

Reflections On Lent, Day 8

I had thoughts of beginning this reflection at six o’clock this morning.  I knew that my work day was going to be very busy and that we would be going to some friends’ house to meet with a group from my church, and that this would account for much of my time for this day.  Additionally, I have to have the rear end of my pick up truck photographed and estimated for the cost of repairs.  I was rear-ended a couple of weeks ago and want to get my truck, which I inherited from my father, back into shape.  I am in fact waiting in the lobby of the auto body shop right now while I am writing this.

And then there is the reading and organization which I must do to prepare to help lead a book study five days from now.  I really do hate putting such things off until the last minute; if I am not prepared you can always tell that I’m winging it!  My next four days are wide open, but I get more and more nervous the longer I put off starting to prepare.  And besides, Saturday and Sunday are supposed to be sunny again and I am getting anxious to plant kale and chard and broccoli and onions.  And then there’s dinner Sunday night with my daughter’s family—.

Time is getting away from me, and I have even given up Facebook as a Lenten fast.  Imagine how crunched for time I would be if I spent as much time as I usually do staring at my glowing rectangle, solving world problems with political friends and keeping up relationships with friends across town and also across the globe.  I’m beginning to believe that I have a time issue.

I love to be busy, but this may be a little bit too much.  My friends may have to get by without me tonight.  They really are friends and not connections on Facebook, so they would forgive me my absence.  And maybe the kale and other veggies could wait for another week to get busy growing in my garden in the back yard.  An evening at home, taking a nap and reading a book about God and thinking deeply about what the author is saying about God could possibly be a better way to spend my time this evening.

Well, best laid plans of mice and men.  I got home this afternoon and took a good nap, and then off we went to our home community meeting. We put together an Italian meal that was delicious and had some of the best together time that we’ve had since, well, last week.  We dug into the strange triangle that was Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish authorities. There’s a lot of meat on those bones and we chewed on them with gusto.  My biggest take away from the episode concerns the ‘robber’ named Barabbas.  Pilate does not want to kill Jesus but he doesn’t want a riot on his hands either, so he decides to try to cut a deal.  “OK, you want to kill somebody so bad, you can either kill Barabbas or Jesus.”

Pilate was talking to the same crowd that has been howling for Jesus’ head since sunup, so this Barabbas must have been a very bad dude for Pilate to think for a moment that the Jews were going to go for this stunt. They begin to cry “Give us Barabbas”, and I think that a modern analogy would be to cry out “Give us Manson”, or “Give us Ariel Castro”, or “Give us al-Baghdadi (the murderous nutbag who currently runs the ISIS bunch)”.  It literally seems to me to have been a choice between God and the devil, and the crowd chose the devil.

I’m not going to be too hard on the Jews however.  Wouldn’t I have done the same thing?  Wouldn’t you?  When our cultural foundations are being threatened don’t we push back?  I certainly do.  I’ll assume the robe of self-righteousness on the day that I can go 24 hours together without crucifying Jesus with some sin in thought or deed.

So my Lent reflection is to slow down, do what really is important and not be a slave to what only appears to be urgent, and be watchful so that the next time I get to choose between God and Manson or Pol Pot or Mr. Boko Haram or the devil himself, I will be prepared to shout out “Give me Jesus”.

Reflections On Lent, Day 7

Thank God this day is nearly over!  It is five thirty in the afternoon and my butt is at last planted firmly in my appropriately-named Lazy Boy chair.  It would take a charge of dynamite to dislodge me from it now.  I probably fantasized about this chair and this cheap glass of wine (not three buck Chuck, but not much better) a dozen times today, and at last I am home.

I knew early on, last night in fact, that this would be a crazy day.  In fact I went in early so that I could get a very important test done before I had to leave the department to be part of a job interview.  It is very hard for me to leave my department and go to these meetings because many of the people with whom I work are very young.  Hell, when you’re staring down the barrel of sixty seven years old a lot of people look very young!  And in my line of medical work curve balls come at you all of the time.  I’ve been fielding those curve balls for a good many years and can usually muddle through a situation with everybody eventually more or less happy, but my young friends can  be blind-sided by them.  I like to be there to blunt the worst of it for them.

Today there were situations upon situations.  I began with two exams which for two different reasons only I could do.  This made me late for my first meeting, one which contained information that I would have benefitted from receiving.  Upon returning to my department the phone began to ring like a bell choir, mostly from scheduling who were telling me about the work that was being added on to our already busy schedule.

After making arrangements to provide care for an inpatient which required a delicate minuet involving three departments, two technologists and one student, I left my department and began trudging down the hall to where my next meeting was to be held, wondering if there was any way that I could survive two hundred and eighty more days until I retire.  It was at that moment as I approached the chapel at the end of the hallway that I saw a statue of Mother Joseph in a posture of prayer.

That stopped my racing mind in its tracks, but first a bit about Mother Joseph, or MoJo as we call her.  Mother Joseph was a nun of some order or other who came west from a city in eastern Canada to minister to the poor and hurting out on the frontier back in the middle of the 1800’s.  She championed education and charity and outreach to the orphans and homeless.  MoJo was the motivation behind the first medical establishment of any real significance in our corner of the world, and beyond that she personally designed and oversaw the construction of a four story brick academy and orphanage which still stands, and which once housed the church that I worship with until they kicked us out with one month’s notice.  They seem to have wanted a Sunday-only church, and we are definitely not one of those.

All of this could lend a person to believe that MoJo was a saint, and perhaps she was, but I have read that she was also a world-class ball buster as well.  Have any of you, dear readers, ever felt the wrath of a nun with a ruler?  I have known friends who attended Catholic schools and would prefer to charge Viet Cong machine gun nests rather than face a nun with a face of flint and a ruler in her hand.  One friend has shown me scars on his knuckles which he attributes to the ‘sisters’ at his Catholic school.  Of course, he’s one of the biggest bullshitters that I have ever known, but his story jibes with others that I have heard on the same topic.

Well, I have heard that MoJo was short of rulers and so she carried around a two by four.  I’m not going to give any examples because I think that the old girl deserves to rest in peace.  She was tough as nails however and stood toe to toe with men, women, children and demons to get done what she believed God wanted for her to get done, so I’ll not bad mouth her in this post.  Besides, some day I may meet MoJo in a restored heaven and earth and she may still be carrying that two by four.  I wasn’t born yesterday!

But let’s return to today, the twenty fourth day of February, 2015, one hundred and thirteen years after the passing of MoJo in her beloved Academy in downtown Vancouver.  As I steamed purposefully toward this meeting I saw the statue of Mother Joseph.  She was kneeling, as befits a Sister at prayer, with hands clasped together and face turned up towards the heavens and the God whom she loved and worshiped.  And that face was devoid of the cares and stresses of the arduous and complicated life that this saintly woman endured.  She was looking up in loving admiration at her Lord, and one knew without even hearing her prayer that she was giving God thanks for His Mercy, His love, His promises and His grace.

The effect upon me was instantaneous.  My poor-me paradigm was thrown out the door and replaced with an I-worship-the-same-God-that-she-did paradigm, and the comforting effect of this was immeasurable.  Not that my day got any easier.  My participation in the meeting that I was walking toward when I saw the statue was cut short by a call to come and deal with a situation that required my experience.  The rest of the day was filled with calls to add on more work, some of which I felt had to be accepted and some which I had to put off until the next day.  When the issue at stake is somebody’s pain and fear for their health, those are not easy decisions to make.

Still, they are decisions which must be made, and Mother Joseph had to make them too.  She did it with one eye fixed on the problems of Earth and one eye fixed on the promised reconciliation of heaven and earth under the lordship of God.  I found that to be a good example to follow and allowed it to lead me until I finally got to take my rest here in my chair (now on a second glass of wine.  For medicinal purposes of course!).  I will make it a point to visit Mother Joseph’s statue tomorrow and frequently thereafter.

Reflections On Lent, Day 6

Let’s just get this out into the open;  I’m cheating on this post.  I am writing this reflection on Sunday night, and so we really aren’t to Monday, the sixth day of Lent yet.  But I’m not going to post this until tomorrow and that WILL be day six.  I know, it’s a bit pharisaical.  So sue me!  OK, we’ve got that business behind us.  Now let’s roll.

In my last post I wrote of returning to Facebook on Sunday and how it disrupted my effort to focus on God more closely.  As soon as I finished that post I cleaned up a little and we headed off to our evening church service in the facility of a neighboring church.  If you remember, we usually meet in a theater and we got 86’d last night so that they could use their theater for an Oscars party.  It’s their theater, so I’m cool with that.

We gathered instead in this other church facility that is a real, dedicated church building.  After fleeting moments of jealousy I purposed to regain the focus on God stuff that I have been trying to cultivate during Lent and I pondered the awesome generosity of the neighboring church which not only let us use their building but also contributed their own worship team, which is Christianspeak for the musicians who lead the hymns and songs.  Christians can be jerks just like anybody else, and churches (which is another way of saying ‘groups of Christians'” can be possessive of their buildings and so forth and thereby become collective jerks as well.  Our church and this other church have chosen to not act like that.  I think God likes that.  I would like to see other churches do that too, but I will not start preaching.

Our pastor, Jake, was preaching on the part of the Gospel story where Jesus gets interviewed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  It’s a familiar story, like the parable of the prodigal son which I wrote about a couple of days ago.  So what could I learn from this that I hadn’t learned from the last 100 times that I’ve heard, read, or seen enacted on a screen this very story?

Well, the part which stood out to me was the part about Barabbas.  Pilate, sensing that Jesus was innocent and wanting to set him free, knows that there is a tradition of giving the people the choice of setting one prisoner free and executing another;  crowd’s choice.  So he offers the crowd the choice of Jesus and a guy named Barabbas.  Now, the crowd has just dragged Jesus in to the Romans in order to have him killed, so who could this Barabbas be that Pilate figures “surely they’ll want to execute him instead of Jesus?”

The character played by Anthony Quinn in the 1961 film “Barabbas” probably doesn’t quite complete the picture.  It would probably be more accurate to compare Barabbas with Charles Manson, or Ariel Castro, or Oobie Doobie Dipstick al-Baghdadi, the twisted, murderous clown who sits at the top of the pyramid of insanity that is known as ISIS.  We don’t really know just how bad Barabbas was, but there is little doubt that he was as bad as it gets.  But then how bad Barabbas was is not the point; the point is that Barabbas was somebody whom Pilate, the consummate politician, thought that the Jews would NEVER want roaming freely in their society again.  And yet they chose to free Barabbas in the place of God Incarnate, all the while being unwilling to enter Pilate’s residence because they did not wish to become ceremonially unclean for the Passover.

Arghhh!  It’s mind boggling.  I’m reminded of when C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape becomes so worked up over some issue or other that is irrelevant to this post that he transforms into a centipede and cannot finish his letter to his nephew Wormwood.  Well, I feel a little like Screwtape when I think that these guys are stressing over remaining ‘clean’ while they are in the middle of a mission to kill God.

But that’s not so unusual really.  How many times do we all reflect upon our own actions with great charity and condescension while blasting our opponents with both barrels?  For me, at least, the answer is ‘often’.  And the point of this scripture wasn’t how evil Barabbas was, or what schmucks the Jewish authorities were either.  The point was that Jesus claimed to be the Truth, and available to Romans and Jews and anybody else who might be seeking the truth.  There were more points actually, and you’ll have to go to House Of Providence Vancouver and listen for yourself to hear them all.  But that one nailed me, and so that is the one that God wanted me to get.  And now you know it too.

Reflections On Lent: First Sunday

Today is Sunday, the first Sunday of the Lent season.  Only during the last year did I learn the rules of the game; that one is free on Sundays to engage in whatever activity it is that one is giving up for Lent, although I haven’t yet learned exactly why it is so.  I heard the explanation once but it failed to stick in my mind, and now I am reduced to writing about something that I know little about.  Still, it has been reliably reported that on Sundays one can eat chicken tenders or watch television or do whatever it is that one has chosen to eschew for forty days in order to better focus on things of God.

My fast, of course, concerns Facebook, and by eleven thirty last night when I went to bed I had twenty one comments or ‘likes’ or mentions waiting for me to check out.  Rather than wait a half hour and get right to it I preferred to go to bed, but at five this morning my internal clock went off and I was soon up and seated in front of the desktop, plowing into my Facebook communications like a hungry undergraduate plowing into last evening’s leftover pizza.  It really was good to catch up, and I have checked the ‘Book several times today and even posted an entry or two.

So why do I feel a little bit empty?  It is perfectly within the rules to break my fast on Sundays and I really do enjoy communicating with my friends, so everything should be fine, no?  But somehow it just seems to be wrong.  Something’s missing here.  I have found it hard to bring myself to focus on God and the things of God today in the same way that I have for the four days which preceded, and I don’t like that.

The problem, I think, is not with Facebook.  Facebook is neither good nor bad; it is just Facebook.  The problem lies more with me.  I began my fast by choosing to grip my time with God as firmly as I could, trying to wring out of it as much connection to the Creator as I could by my own feeble efforts and with the help of the Holy Spirit.  It seems like the act of grappling with my woefully unfocused attention was actually helped by the giving up of something, and it could have been anything at all.  Whenever I would use my phone to check the time, read my emails, check the score of the Aztec’s game (they beat San Jose State) or, of all things, make a phone call, I would see the number of communications awaiting my attention on Facebook growing, which in turn would remind me of my quest for increased intimacy with God.

Then at five this morning I plowed into those communications and in the process lost my grip on my focus upon God.  It’s crazy how that came about but it is as true as it can possibly be.  It was like “There.  That’s over.  Let’s get back to normal activities”.  Well, I don’t want to get back to normal activities!  I liked connecting with God in new even if utterly imperfect ways every day just fine, thank you.  I have enjoyed this day so far; sleeping in (I went back to bed after checking things out at five AM), cooking breakfast and yakking with my wife and later on with my brother on the phone.  Soon we will cook some lunch, go for a walk, and then meet with our church body in a building owned by another church a couple of blocks down the street from the movie theater where we usually meet.  When you rent space from a theater you sometimes have to play second fiddle to “Happy Feet” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.  Tonight we got bumped by an Oscar party.  No worries.  Church is not about a building, and this night will be bittersweet as we say goodbye to a beloved associate pastor who has answered a call to begin a work at another church in a nearby city.  He and his family will be missed.  But still the day felt different.  Something was missing.  The intentionality of my focus on focusing on God was not there and I didn’t like that.

So I am going to modify the Sunday breaking of the Lenten fast just a little.  For the next several Sundays I will look at Facebook once in the morning and once again in the afternoon or evening.  The rest of the time I will continue to the best of my ability to maintain the focus on heightening my awareness of the nearness of God and sharpening my senses to receive what communications He might be trying to send my way.  Perhaps this might become a pattern to continue, one way or another, for the rest of the year.  We’ll see.

Reflections On Lent, Day 4

One of the purposes of the lenten fast is to free the mind in order to focus on God and the things of God.  It was with this in mind that I arose this morning earlier than I usually would on a Saturday so that I could join a group of men in our church office above the Rosemary Cafe for a study of God’s word, to be led by Tom Perez, one of our elders.

Tom was given an interesting challenge; speak on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.  Is there a parable better known to any Christian, and perhaps to many non-Christians, than the Prodigal Son?  Yeah, possibly the Good Samaritan, but it would be a close competition between the two.  The Prodigal Son has been preached on, painted, studied and debated almost ad nauseum, and so Tom found it a challenge to find something new to speak of in that very old and very widely known story.  Tom did find something new, but if you want to know what that was you’ll have to hope that he puts it into a blog of his own.  I found something new of my own however, and since this IS my blog I will write about my revelation instead of Tom’s.

The audience of the story was very diverse.  Jesus was hanging out with the “tax collectors and sinners,” which were the riff raff of the Jewish people in that day.  Apparently a group of Pharisees happened upon this assemblage and were looking down their snooty noses at this motley crew and saying “see how [Jesus] even eats with tax collectors and sinners”.  This simply wasn’t done by a proper Jew, especially one who would put himself forward as a teacher, or rabbi.  So Jesus told this diverse group a set of stories to illustrate why Jesus was with whom He was with, and why it should matter to them and to us to listen to Him too.

The prodigal is story number three, and in it a very shiftless younger son asks his father for money that he’s really not entitled to and to everyone’s surprise he gets the money.  This profligate then goes away and parties hardy until the money’s gone, he’s starving, and can only survive by tending somebody’s pigs (the absolute worse condition for a Jewish boy to find himself in).  This son finally comes to his senses and says to himself “My father’s servants have it better than me.  I’ll return to my home and beg my father to make me a servant in his house”, and he practices his speech on the way back home hoping to persuade his father with a good argument to take him in as a slave.

The father sees him coming and rushes out to meet him.  The son starts babbling, trying to cut the deal, but the father won’t listen.  “Throw some steaks on the grill!  Break out the glad rags!  Hang some bling on the boy! Open a couple of bottles of Browne Family Vinyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 vintage!  Dad takes his boy in and begins to celebrate.

The older brother hears Led Zeppelin coming out of the house and comes in to find the party in full roar.  When he hears that his stoned slacker of a brother has returned and is being feted while he was out shoveling manure or something, the older brother sits down on a rock and starts pouting like a little baby.  His Dad goes to him and tries to explain why this party is celebrating something important, but the big wuss won’t listen.  “I’ve slaved for you all of my life.  I’ve worked my butt off for you and all you ever give me are frozen pre-made Costco burgers to grill and a six pack or two of PBR to drink with my buddies, yet there you are partying it up with that waste of skin of a son of yours.  I’ve gotten screwed on this deal.

The obvious error that both sons have made is that they think about their arrangement with their Dad as a contractual thing.  The younger brother thinks that he’ll need to cut a deal with an outraged father to squeeze back into the family business as a servant, and at least have the Costco burgers and PBR to eat and drink.  The older son believes that he has fulfilled his end of the bargain, and has earned a position of preeminence within the family.  He should be getting the party thrown for him based on his performance, and the younger son could be dead along the side of the road for all he cared.

OK, we know all of those details.  There’s nothing new there to chew on, is there?  Jesus is patting the good little prodigal tax collectors on the head and putting a Number 36 Louisville Slugger (Willy Mays model) upside the heads of the clueless (as usual) Pharisees.

But wait!  There’s more!  I wanted God to show me something that I had not seen before and I believe that He did.  I have for years felt like the Pharisees were taking a beat-down by this parable but this morning it occurred to me that Jesus could have been doing something other than that.  It was perfectly natural for any Jew listening to Jesus, or any Jew and a lot of Christians today, for that matter, to believe that the relationship between God and man was contractual because, after all, it was!  “If you will do these things I will bless you, but if you do these other things I will curse you”.  Sounds like a contract to me!  Moses comes down off of the mountain and reads the contract.  “Yeah, we’ll do all of that stuff” said the people.  “You guys got your butts whupped and taken off to Babylon because you didn’t play by the rules and fulfill the contract”.  It’s not that hard at all for me to see the Pharisees and everybody else buying into that sort of a narrative.

I think it’s possible that Jesus was explaining to everybody present, Pharisee and sinner alike, that the old contract system was over.  This was a new teaching, and with authority (OK, I ripped off that line).  The Pharisees could reject that teaching if they chose to do so, but they were not bad simply because they held to the old view of the contract.  The tax collectors probably held to it too.  Jesus was breaking down a new teaching for everybody’s good; sinner, saint, Pharisee and me.  Some Pharisees finally got it (Paul, Joseph of Arimathea, maybe Nicodemas) but many did not.  Some of the sinners got it too, but very likely many of them did not get it any better than the Pharisees did.  We are all a bunch of knuckleheads sometimes, aren’t we?  Ultimately, I don’t think that Jesus was fingering anybody present as the bad guys in this story, and maybe I like the story even more because of that.

Reflections On Lent, Day 3

I began thinking about Lent first thing this morning.  First thing in the morning on a weekday for me is at 5:30 A.M., and it’s a small miracle that I’m thinking at all at that time of the day.  Still, thinking I was, and soon I was thinking about what I would write for my blog about Lent, and then all of a sudden it hit me:  I was thinking more about blogging about Lent than I was thinking about Lent!

What the heck is up with that?  My mind turned quickly to C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” and I had a vision of some junior tempter whispering into my ear and telling me about how glorious and spiritual my writing is, thereby intoxicating me with an image of thousands of readers being blown away by the literary grandeur of my divinely inspired musings on Lent.  I can hear this junior tempter’s veteran tempter Uncle Screwtape now:  “If the patient (me) begins to turn his attention to God, all is not yet lost.  Puff him up with pride over how wonderful his spiritual insights are, or get him to focus on what a a great writer he is.  Remember, the more he fills his puny little mind with himself the less room he has to fill it with God.  Soon enough we’ll be serving him up with other baffled and terrified little beasts at our demon’s banquet down Here Below”.

I suppose that it could be like that, but I don’t really know.  There may indeed be a tempter resting on my shoulder leading me towards exalted visions of myself and away from the majesty of God, but I don’t really think that there has to be.  My own pride and vanity are more than sufficient to incline my thoughts me-ward instead of God-ward.

No, I don’t really think that it was a demon leading me to a false pride in myself.  Instead i think it’s more likely that the Holy Spirit was whispering into my ear, reminding me that Lent is not about me or my blog, but instead is about the God of the universe.  I suppose it could be a little bit of both views, with the guy in the red suit with a pitchfork on my left shoulder and the guy (or lady) with wings and a halo on my right.  If that is the case I would hasten to point out that it is not an equal match.  The guy with the wings has more power than the guy with the pitchfork, hands down.  The only way that Old Pitchfork can win this one is if I help him out, to my own destruction.

So my mind was turned back to lent and the God of whom Lent is about.  I have not meditated on God or prayed very much today.  Work is completely out of control and most of my attention was being paid to the problem of survival!  I did feel a pull to give thanks however, and that is what I have been doing today.  Thanks for health, thanks for work, thanks for God’s presence in my life, thanks for my wife, my children, and all of the many other blessings that I frequently overlook in the mad rush of life.

Tonight I will finish my evening by opening the book by God, instead of a book about God.  In this book I will read something which God wants me to read, and for that I give Him my thanks once again.

Reflections On Lent, Day 2

I began today, the second day of Lent, as I usually begin any Thursday morning.  I groaned as the alarm went off next to my right ear, turned that infernal contraption off, put on my glasses so that I could clearly see how dark the room still was and heaved myself out of bed.  Thursdays are work days, and I knew that this Thursday would be a challenging one.

I turned up the heat and closed the window so that the room would be warm by the time my wife arose from bed long after I had begun to labor at my own work.  I prefer to sleep in the cold. I then stumbled down the hallway toward the kitchen, where I would first take several supplements on an empty stomach and then cook my breakfast.  Today it was four strips of bacon and a pile of collard greens and kale; not the conventional diet for a person seven months after having bypass surgery, but one which my blood tests and blood pressure record confirms is working for me.

But here is where the routine changed.  Normally I would catch up on my Facebook communications, especially a group that I’m part of called “Ranting and Raving”.  This group is composed of very opinionated people of both liberal and conservative persuasions who argue their positions passionately, but with civility.  We may hold diametrically opposed opinions concerning gun control, Obamacare, the Imperial Presidency or liberal bias in the mainstream media, but we will also pray for each other when we share our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or just the times when life slaps the shit out of us.  I love those people.

But this morning I didn’t check my Facebook.  And since I was not doing media, I did not turn on the BBC News on channel 131 either.  Instead, while my greens were steaming and my bacon was sizzling I wrote in my journal for the first time since November 16 of last year.  It wasn’t much of an entry; mostly I griped about work.  But I also mentioned to myself that I had prayed to and meditated on God the night before.  I enjoyed minimal success at best in this endeavor, but I had at least engaged in it and the next morning reflected upon it, and that hadn’t happened much for a very long time.  I was not aware of that being anything special at the time but I am beginning to believe that God may be doing something worth paying attention to now.  I’ll keep you posted on that.

My day was not at all unlike any other day at work.  Too much to do, too few to get it done.  Nothing new there.  And when I got home to an empty house I settled butt-in-chair to relax after the trying day.  I texted my wife, poured a glass of wine and turned on the television to a channel which often carries stories about World War II.  I scored, and watched a story about the Normandy invasion, a chapter in man’s story that I have studied at length.  When it ended however, the temptation to vegetate in front of the idiot box was resisted and in the eerie silence which filled my house I went to prayer.

I will not share all of the details of this encounter with God but there was one conversation which I feel is worth relating.  My church has begun to open its office space at six in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays and offers coffee and conversation to all who would drop in.  Initially, this included only members of my church – those who knew about this event – and that was very pleasant to me.  We like each other a lot and sipping free coffee while we get to know each other even better has proven to be a wonderful thing.  But something hapened two days ago which has thrown this practice into a new and promising direction.

My church meets in an old but functioning theater (have I written of this before?) in the downtown core of a very old city; old for the American Pacific Northwest that is.  Like just about any downtown core of any city in America there are homeless and otherwise marginalized people living there, mostly where we “decent” folk can’t see them.  When a place opens up that gives away free coffee and withholds free judgement, word gets around and so it seems to have happened here.  After getting off of a graveyard shift I drove to the office to spend a few pleasant minutes with good Christian friends.  Instead, I spent time with a guy I’ll call “Joe”.

Joe is homeless and doesn’t mind telling you so.  Joe also, in my opinion, tends to live in a little bit of a fantasy world.  On the other hand, Joe loves music like I love music.  When I told him that I had seen the Beatles and Janis (if you need to know her last name, you wouldn’t really know her anyway) he was as impressed as I was when he told me about meeting Arrowsmith’s front man Steve Tyler.  We both loved history too, and in may ways we were very much alike.

Except for the torn shirt, the stained green sweat pants, and the obvious attention deficit disorder that made it hard for him to keep on any one particular train of thought for any length of time.  I was annoyed by the need to ditch what seemed a promising thread of conversation to change directions and plunge down another interesting and promising rabbit hole, knowing that in a few moments’ time the course of our conversation would change directions on a dime and a great point of debate that I was about to make would be left shipwrecked upon the rocky reef of dementia and I/we would start all over again.

So tonight I was speaking with God and He showed me the picture of Jesus, His Son, walking up a dusty road into a Judean town and being invited to dinner by the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the drunkards, and the other flotsam and jetsam of society.  What Would Jesus Do?  Would He deliver a theological treatise that would make Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Joshua Ryan Butler listen with intense devotion and bated breath at Jesus’ feet?  I don’t think so.  I think Jesus would have listened to their broken earthly babble and broken in only when the moment was most promising with whatever nugget that these poor, broken creatures could deal with.

And that made me think of how I had related to “Joe” the other morning, and I don’t think that I did all that badly.  I made no effort to hide my love of Jesus and happiness in my membership in His body on earth, but at the same time I treated Joe’s love of history and music in the same way that I treat my own, and seemed to score my best points (points which I had no interest and design to score at all really) when I mentioned that my favorite rock concerts were viewed while stoned on acid.  I don’t endorse it, but I don’t deny it either.  And it lent to Joe an authenticity that made other things that I said worth listening to by him.

I feel like Jesus was saying “that’s a little bit how it felt to me.”  Jesus, of course, really LOVED the broken people with whom he dined and congregated.  I do not yet share that love.  In fact, Joe’s penchant for bouncing from topic to topic and his steady delivery of fantastic bullshit as he spoke of his musical exploits and historical research were to me more annoying than anything else.  Still Jesus told me that at last I’m getting a glimpse of what He is saying.  Maybe this will be the only insight that I get from Lent.  If it is, it will certainly be worth every minute that I am not chattering on Facebook.

Reflections on Lent, Day 1

Today is the first day of the Lenten season, which is a very important time of the year for a great many Christians.  It is a period leading up to Good Friday, which remembers the crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth, and Easter three days hence when Jesus emerged from his stony tomb and defeated hell and death once for all.  That is pretty heady stuff; a source of joy for the Christian and a source of confusion and/or contempt for many non-Christians.  Being a Christian, I am very much aware of the significance of Good Friday and Easter.  Those days are among the most important of my calendar.

But what about Lent?  I have been a part of the evangelical Protestant branch of Christianity, and not very much was said about Lent and it’s kick-off event, Ash Wednesday, in the churches which I attended before we landed at our latest church about a decade ago.  During the time that we have spent with our current body of worshippers I have been more purposefully introduced to this tradition of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten fast, but if I was asked to explain to a curious observer just what this season is all about, I fear that I would fail miserably to do it justice.

That being the case, I intend to chronicle the next 47 days of Lent (I think it is 47 days, but I am not even particularly sure about that), hoping to share with you, dear readers, my growing understanding of Lent and how I will respond to it this season.  This will be a voyage of discovery for both you and me, as I cannot predict what I will learn as I begin this journey tonight.  Only one thing I know; I will emerge from this better informed about Lent and about if, and/or how, the Holy Spirit will work in and through me during this observance.  What I hope is that you will learn about this topic with me.  Here goes.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I did not go to church tonight.  I wanted to go, but I got home from work later than usual after working two night shifts in a row before working the day shift today.  The upshot of that is that I am completely drained and had no energy left to drive downtown to the upstairs office of my church, which meets in an old but functioning movie theater and has its office in another building down the block.  I’m not entirely sure what the format for this evening’s observance of Ash Wednesday was going to be, but I do know that at the end of it I would have heard about our sinfulness and mortality and how Jesus was the answer to this problem, and that a cross made of wet ashes would grace my forehead when I left the building to somehow symbolize this.

That’s not much, is it?  Of course, I would be able to tell you much more about it if I had gone tonight but that doesn’t really let me off of the hook.  I can tell you all about Easter and Christmas even though those events are weeks and months away, and I can even tell you a bit about Hanukkah and the Hijra.  I can tell you about Washington’s victory over the Hessian mercenaries and Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’.  If Ash Wednesday and Lent are worth observing, why can’t I tell you anything of substance about them?  Why would such a poverty of knowledge exist?  My bad!

I will be able to tell you all about these two topics tomorrow because I will google it to find out for myself, but it would be cheating to do that tonight, I think. The sad fact is that I don’t really know enough about Ash Wednesday to explain it to a traveler from Mars, and one of the first benefits of the lent season is that I will learn why I will celebrate it and it’s kick-off day in the first place.

One thing that I do know about this season is that something is to be given up until Easter Sunday comes along.  The purpose is that when you think of that certain thing that you often eat, or the television that you like to watch, or the newspaper that you usually read, you will be reminded that you are fasting from these things so that you can spend that time meditating on your God and your faith.  That’s the plan at least.  Many times however people just fill the time with jig saw puzzles or reading romance novels or whatever, and such substitutionary pursuits really don’t benefit anybody other than the purveyors of such products.  This much I do know:  If the time freed up by this fast isn’t used to direct our thoughts to God, it’s an empty gesture and one might as well throw in the towel early.

I chose to give up Facebook this year.  I really enjoy communicating with real friends and others who share my interests in one area or another on various discussion groups.  I know that I spend too much time on ‘The Book’, and it seemed a good thing to put aside for the next forty or so days.  The rules are that I can pick up where I left off every Sunday, and so I will be doing some major catching up on those days.  I don’t know exactly why it is set up that way, but there it is.  Perhaps I’ll write about that tomorrow.

So today is day one, and instead of writing on Facebook I’m writing to you.  You know what?  I like it.  Earlier this afternoon I read two and a half chapters of a book and tried to spend some time lying back in my easy chair and meditating on God.  The book went well – it’s “The Skeletons in God’s Closet” by Joshua Ryan Butler – but the meditation was a complete flop.  I tried to visualize Jesus standing by the Sea of Galilee, but my mind drifted to my day at work, my first girl friend, a motorcycle ride across northern Mexico, anything but Jesus.  I tried to meditate on Jesus’ attributes; all I got was a blank.  Then I decided to embrace the blank; to try and let my mind come to rest.  No luck.  Soon my mind was like the midway at a carnival, with barkers hawking their games and amusements from every corner of my anything-but-tranquil mind.

So now I’m writing about this in the hope that it will somehow focus my mind on the matter at hand.  I will shortly snuff out the candle which I like to burn beside me when I write and go post this on my blog site.  I will then open the Bible, the Word of God, and see if jesus will meet me there and bring a little organization out of my jumbled mind.  Then I will go to bed and prepare for another day, another fast from Facebook, and another try to find what God would show me during this season, if anything.  All of this I will share with you if you are interested.