Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE NEED FOR SPEED


"The preacher was driving so fast, the speedometer was playing “Nearer My God To Thee.” (author unknown)

When I was seventeen I had a green-and-white 1957 Ford V-8.  The speedometer topped out at “120 mph,” so of course I had to see if it could really do that. Finding a stretch of road straight and long enough in the Black Hills posed a challenge, but I found one, and it did. (I wonder how many otherwise conventional young lives have been cut short by just such one-time shenanigans.) My younger brother reminds me that I once boasted, “I can take any curve in the hills at twice the posted speed!”

I was no rebel with or without a cause. I was a seventeen-year-old-boy with one of the most powerful machines on the planet at my feet and fingertips. (Other former seventeen-year-old boys will no doubt relate.) And my purpose here is not to engage in nostalgic braggadocio, but to acknowledge with relief that I made it through that period, and to observe that I abandoned my seventeen-year-old approach to driving… about three years ago.

That’s when I got the letter from the insurance company. The letter—in the cold language of cost-benefit analysis used by the company to determine if it was in their best interest to continue to carry me as a client—basically said, “Enough already!” And I got the message.

I want to be clear that I have not been a willfully reckless speedster or that guy who rushes to weave in front of you and then cuts you off. I have never been a road-rager. (I am a gentle preacher, dear reader.) It is just that, for the last fifty years, I have consistently pushed the meaning of “limit” in “speed limit.” (Again, I have no doubt that other former seventeen-year-olds will relate.) The driving record that the insurance letter kindly pointed out to me consisted of one too many speeding citations in a defined period of time, plus a couple of self-caused fender-benders involving only my car (claims that, in hindsight, I should probably never have submitted to the insurance company for payment). Oh, and the incident with the Christmas tree. The company seemed to have no interest in my lucid and exculpatory explanations. “Enough already.”

I am reluctant to acknowledge it, but it’s possible that the behavior-altering message got through in part because some of those seventeen-year-old fires have been damped down by actual maturity. (Okay, “aging.”) I simply no longer have the need to speed. In addition, the letter spoke to the theologian in me: In my tradition, Martin Luther explains that one of the uses of “the law” is as “a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works for good.”  The insurance company—like a speed limit—is not interested in spoiling my fun, but in assuring that life—for me and everyone with whom I share the road—will be “good.”

(To the seventeen-year-olds and future seventeen-year-olds who are dear to us, perhaps we could do a better job of connecting this life-affirming explanation of the “spirit of the law” to the letter of the law. Like that parental line that can be honestly applied in so many situations: “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t care what you did.”)*

Coincidentally about the same time that I heard from my insurance company, I had a Zen-like vision that I have found helpful and that I reflect on surprisingly often: A car pulling into the flow of traffic is like a twig falling into a stream. It is not in a race with the other twigs. You go with the flow.

And I’ve developed two mantras that are effective for me—
The ride of the gentle preacher today--a sweet Subaru 4-
cylinder. But I sometimes wish I had put that '57 Ford up
on blocks in a shed somewhere. (Don't we all.)
that I actually use: One is, “When I’m in a hurry, that’s when I slow down.” The other is, “Let the other guy have the ticket.” That last one is not very Christian, I know. But it works for me.


_____________________________________________________________
* Studies of brain development suggest that, regarding issues like driving, sex, and war-fighting, we aren't equipped to make rational decisions--to "know what we're doing"--until about age 25, as discussed further here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JOHN DONNE, R.S. THOMAS, AND "THE FREEHOLD"

The one who would study the scriptures must have much leisure. ~Sirach 38:24

I sometimes envy the Victorian stereotype of the rector as a “kept man,” pottering in his study, breaking for tea, then attending the parish flower show up at the manor-house. This is an exaggeration of the Church of England's "freehold" system, in which the vicar essentially had ownership rights to his parish, and was, in a way, "lord of all he surveyed." (And now—post-Victorian, thankfully—also “she.”) I have to say that the modern pastor’s job description is more like the line from a (Victorian!) novel about “the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions.” Yet I do not want to be disingenuous about (or give up on) the built-in need in this calling for what the Anglican Church refers to as “reflective ministry,” and what the Book of Sirach calls, simply, “leisure:” Time, that is, to study, read, and write. (See introductory line, above.)

We are discovering that, in a humane civilization, all occupations and professions ought to offer a measure of flexibility in the work schedule. (It was, after all, the pre-conversion Scrooge who told Bob Cratchitt, "Be here all the earlier next morning!") And studies show that flex-time even helps the bottom line. So rather than succumbing to the lure of workaholism (an illness), the pastor can model a healthy balance in his or her own life, and support such balance in the lives of members of the parish and the community. Gold, perhaps, has been the most pursued; but time the most valued resource after all.

John  Donne
1572-1631
John Donne, who delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit of St. Paul’s in London from 1621 till his death in 1631, also wrote volume after volume of religious (and love!) poetry during those years. R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000 after forty years as a rural vicar in the Church of Wales and who wrote thirty books of (Nobel-nominated) poetry in that time, said frankly, after he retired, that it was the “Anglican freehold” that allowed him time to write. I trust that the reflective hours in the Rev. Donne’s London townhouse
R.S. Thomas
1913-2000
and Father Thomas’ country parson-
age also resulted in caring ministry,
but the world is grateful to their
parishioners for granting them the time.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

EASTER SERMON: KANSAS CITY

I am a recently retired pastor, but
if I were preaching this Easter Sunday
I would take as my text the grievous murders
in Kansas City, and I would call to account
anyone—including anyone in this room today—
who hates Jews and anyone
who hates Barack Obama and anyone
who hates George W. Bush and anyone
who hates Republicans and anyone
who hates Democrats and anyone
who who hates the ludicrous Tea Party and
anyone who hates Muslims and anyone
who hates communists and anyone who
hates his ex-wife and anyone
who hates the Catholics and the
Methodists that the stupid Jew-hater
accidentally killed and anyone
who hates
who hates who
hates who
hates
And even though
I’m a cold-blooded Norwegian-
Lutheran maybe by now I’d
be in tears and suggest that
since the hate-killing of
the Jew Jesus
all we have is
love
It’s all we have.
Love.
But I don’t know if I’d have the courage
to pronounce the crucified Jew’s benediction:
Father forgive
them
for they
know not
what they do

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

IN MEMORIAM, DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, 1906 - 1945


If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.   ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Today is the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis at the age of 39.

A Lutheran pastor from an elite German family (his parents, although supportive, were essentially non-religious and stunned by Dietrich’s decision for the ministry), Bonhoeffer was a visiting scholar in the United States when the clouds of war began to cover Europe. His American friends urged him to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic, but he could not resist the summons he felt to return to his country.

Bonhoeffer became a leader in the Confessing Church, a Christian community that held out against the pressures of Hitler’s state takeover of the church as long as it could (while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a document that basically said, “One nation, one Fuhrer, and out with the Jews!”) Far from being remembered simply because he was the victim of execution, Bonhoeffer was an accomplished theologian, and the works that survive him are a testament to the richness that the world has lost because of his untimely death.

Bonhoeffer’s work as a civilian in the Abwehr (German intelligence), provided him cover to accomplish some limited success in providing safety for Jews, and, eventually, protected  him (for a while) as he joined a conspiracy of insiders committed to getting rid of Hitler and to negotiating a peace with the allies.

Bonhoeffer was an ethicist and a pacifist, and considered his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler to be a grave sin, yet he also felt it was the only choice he had as a Christian. When the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was caught in the net of vengeance that followed, and he was executed at Flossenberg Prison on April 9, 1945. The criminal tragedy of his death is made the sadder by its timing: Two weeks after his execution, Hitler committed suicide, and on May 8 the war came to an end. Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed.

The volume, “Letters and Papers from Prison” is considered essential for an understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The poignancy of the death of this young man is captured in one of those letters – to his fiancée:
When I think about the situation of the world, the complete darkness over our personal fate, and my present imprisonment, then I believe that our union can only be a sign of God’s grace and kindness, which calls us to faith…. Jeremiah says at the moment of his people’s great need “still one shall buy houses and acres in this land" as a sign of trust in the future. This is where faith belongs. May God give it to us daily. And I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world and which loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the suffering which it contains for us. Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth.
 Bonhoeffer’s last words to a fellow inmate, upon being led away to the place of execution, were, “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.”

* * *

The best biography of Bonhoeffer is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography,” a labor of love by his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Another new, good one is "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945," by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Also recommended are “Letters and Papers From Prison,” and “Life Together,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Letters and Papers” is a collection of what the title implies. “Life Together” is Bonhoeffer’s outline of the elements of a Christian community. It is, rightly, regarded as a “classic.”

Photo: Bonhoeffer in prison












Sunday, March 30, 2014

GRANDMA OLIVE AND THE STRAWBERRY CIRCLE

I wish I were a poet. If I were, I could make something of this snippet that’s been running through my mind the last few days,

Grandpa, can I
Yes
Grandpa, will you
Yes
Grandpa, can we
Yes
Yes Yes Yes, my boy
Yes

That’s inspired by grandson Sam. A few days ago his almost-three-year-old sister, Violet, snuggled with her blanket in a chair and then said, “Grandpa, now I need a snack and my milky and my num-num” (pacifier—yes, yes, she’s being weaned). “Yes, princess,” I replied. Not a minute later she disensconced herself from her cozy throne and appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Grandpa, are you doing it?” “Yes, your majesty.” Of course it occurred to me that Violet’s parents would no doubt disapprove of both sides of that exchange. But I’m Grandpa.

As a parent, I was a slow learner in regard to grandparental rights, privileges, wisdom, and VALUE!, especially in regard to my mother-in-law, Olive Nasby. A few days before Beret (Sam and Violet’s mother) was born, Caryl told me that her mom was going to come and help out. “Gee,” I said, “I thought it would be nice to just be our own little family.” Beret was born; Olive came. After about ten minutes I was on my knees saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” (Of course now I understand that you moms might greet my quaint idea about doing it by ourselves with, “Easy for you to say, dad!”)

A year or so later we were visiting Caryl’s parents at their farm. Beret, now a toddler, was sitting in her highchair in Olive’s homey kitchen, and I had given her a big juicy strawberry, which sat, untouched, in the middle of the highchair tray. “Put a little sugar on it,” advised Olive. “No,” I said (I think my nose might have even raised itself a bit into the air), “no, we’re raising Beret without added sugar.” (For most of our daughters’ early childhoods I would sneak around the corner to put the tablespoon+ of sugar on my Cheerios—which I had grown up with—while they ate theirs sugar-free.). “Come on, “ repeated my mother-in-law, “try it with a little sugar.” “No thanks, “ I said. The conversation—and our attention—turned elsewhere. A few minutes later I noticed that the strawberry was gone. Where it had stood on the tray there was now only a small circle of sugar. (And a sweet strawberry blush circled Beret's mouth.) At that point I gave in completely to my mother-in-law.

And she treated me like a king. Absolutely every time we visited, I would open the refrigerator and there would be a brand new unopened pint of half-and-half, because she knew I liked it on my cereal. (I know there’s a kind of sugar-and-cream theme going on here, but we’re talking about the daughter and grandson of Norwegian immigrants.
Olive Nelson Nasby
Would you tangle with this woman?
)* And Beret's sister, Anna (who came along later), reminds me that it was for me--and not necessarily for them--that Grandma always had freshly made donuts ready at our arrival.

Olive is also the person who taught me not to fear death. But that’s another story for another time.

She is remembered in love. She rests in peace. Try a little sugar.






_____________________________________________________________
*I am aware of important recent reports about the dangers of too much sugar; Caryl and I have changed our habits somewhat, and try to help our grandkids with theirs. But this isn't a story about nutrition. (Although I should point out that the same studies have restored  to some degree the reputation of cream!)

Friday, February 21, 2014

HERE COMES THE SUN

We landed in wind-swept Skagway.
     We joined the weltering mass,
Clamoring over their outfits,
     waiting to climb the pass.
We tightened our girths and our pack-straps;
     we linked on the Human Chain,
Struggling up to the summit,
     where every step was a pain.
                              ~The Trail of 'Ninety-Eight ,
                              by Robert Service, "The Poet of the Yukon"
                              
Up the Chilkoot Pass, Winter, 1898



I am oddly proud of the fact that I have hiked the Chilkoot Trail—and traversed the Alaska-to-Canada Chilkoot Pass—four times. I say “oddly” because “proud” really isn’t the right word. I mean it in the modestly boastful sense that “Not many people can say this!”


Looking back, my memory produces dozens of Chilkoot vignettes. (I just might share many of them with you, dear reader.) Here’s one:

The last time I made this trip, our daughter Beret (then a fifteen-year-old member of the youth group I was guiding) and my wife Caryl came along. We boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Prince Rupert, B.C., for the two day voyage to Skagway, now a tourist town but a wonderful relic of the 1898 gold rush, and—then and now—the jumping off point for the Chilkoot Trail.

The ferry journey—through the normally spectacular glacier-studded Inside Passage, with stops at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau—was two days of fog and rain. We disembarked at Skagway, in the rain, and hitched a ride to Dyea (“rural Skagway”), the first of the many multi-thousand-population Gold Rush town sites—now barely discernible as clearings in the forest—that we would pass through or camp in. In Dyea we set up our tents in the rain, we slept, fitfully, through the night in the rain, we packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain—and had a hurried, damp breakfast. Then we set off on the Trail, and hiked all day in the rain. We made camp the second night in the rain, slept all night through the rain, and packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain. (By this time Caryl had developed a migraine, a malady that had plagued her from six weeks into our marriage [hmmm…] until the development of the miraculous Imatrix.)

Now the trail, already rugged, became… really rugged, and an uphill trudge (in the rain). We ascended quite steeply, and suddenly, on the third day out, the rain turned to white-out snow. We were at the base of the famous Chilkoot Pass. This is the one illustrated by the iconic black-and-white photo of the long line of single-file gold-rushers trudging steeply upward through the snow.  We were there in August, so, instead of snow-pack, we looked up—through a white haze—
Chilkoot Pass, Summer, today
at a seemingly endless ascent of Volkswagen-sized 
boulders.  (I had discovered in my earlier adventures that what appeared to be the summit of the Pass was a “false summit,” and the trail continued up toward another false summit until reaching the top.)

At this point Caryl began to tremble with what might have been the beginnings of hypothermia. (As will be seen, this is no indictment of Caryl’s abilities as a hiker—but she was wet through. Every time I’ve done this hike, we've had to stop at about this point to warm someone up.) We halted, ignited our Primus stove, and made a pot of hot Tang. Caryl (and
One of many glacial streams on the trail
others) drank it gratefully, and it seemed to do the trick. We put our backpacks back on and started up the pass, at which point Caryl slipped on a wet rock and fell into a glacial creek.

The salvific North Face Polar Fleece pants



My memory is fuzzy here (I recall that Beret was near tears with concern for her mother), but the situation was well-in-hand enough that I sent the rest of the party (with leaders) on ahead and said that Caryl and I would bring up the rear. We probably did this so that Caryl could get out of her wet clothes. In my backpack I had a pair of North Face Polar Fleece pants (then a fairly recent invention). She put these on, along with a dry sweatshirt under her mostly-dry parka, and we started up again. (I still have these pants; they are still the height of comfort and we think of them as a holy object.)

We did indeed bring up the rear. The crisis had passed, but those boulders—and that false summit—presented obstacle after obstacle, and we were dragging. (I think the indefatigable Chad Winsell dropped back to lend us moral and physical support.) Our group up ahead was almost out of foggy sight when we heard a bright voice behind us: “The sun’s a-coming!” I recall that I turned slowly around and, slack-jawed, actually uttered a weak, “Whaaa…?”  We heard again the announcement, “The sun’s a coming,” as we saw, emerging into view, a lone hiker, a man of about fifty-five, stepping along quite jauntily and carrying (compared to our 25-50 pound backpacks) a small teardrop-shaped rucksack. More to the point, we looked beyond him, back down into the valley we had been climbing out of for the last two days, to see that… the sun was coming! My descriptive abilities fail me here, but the sunlight was almost racing up the valley—a wide and deep expanse bounded by rocks and glaciers 
The valley behind us. "The sun's a-coming!"
—racing up and chasing the snowy haze and gloomy fog out of its way. We watched its approach until it overtook us and bathed us in light.

Chad matched our new companion hearty step-for hearty step, conversing as if they were strolling along a city sidewalk. And Caryl and I, too, began to walk with refreshed spirits, up and up, until we were met with another wonder. At what appeared to be (and, as it turned out, actually was) the summit of the pass we saw a golden-haired woman—an angel—beckoning to us. We followed her to a simple but well-built hut. Upon entering, we found the rest of our party, wet socks hanging from the rafters, a wood stove with the largest teapot I’ve ever seen—filled with hot
The Canadian Ranger's hut appearing in
the fog. (You have to imagine the angel
in a ranger's uniform beckoning to us.)


lemonade—bubbling upon it, and steam, and laughter, and relief. Our angel was a Canadian Ranger, the hut was a travelers’ wayside that had only recently been constructed (it wasn’t there for my first three hikes). In the raucous conversation we learned that our other new friend was John, an experienced hiker and, in fact, veteran Himalayan climber. He hiked with us for the next day or so; he regaled us with tales of Everest, and we introduced him to hot Tang, which he’d never experienced.


In addition to the steaming lemonade, the Ranger handed out plastic gaiters to put inside our boots against the watery hike ahead. Now over the summit and above the tree-line, the trail was indeed a watery maze, but it was sunny, and (mostly) downhill. We still had three days to Lake Bennet and the end of the trail, but, emerging from the respite of that friendly hut, Caryl was a new woman. I couldn’t keep up with her.
Caryl's boots, Raichle "Bambinos,"
at the end of  the trail.