A parable of sorts …

The neighborhood in which I live is usually fairly quiet, except for the occasional loud truck passing through. We have a “neighborhood watch program” and try to keep an eye on unusual activities. Across my back fence is another household (neighbor #1), on another street which is not part of the program. They have not caused problems on my side of the fence. However, another neighbor next to them (let’s say neighbor #2, again not part of our watch program) is basically a bully to them – loud music, trash in the yard, dangerous dogs, arguments and angry confrontations when anyone dares try to address the situation with them. I heard it escalate last week, with #2 attacking neighbor #1. Most of the neighborhood couldn’t help but hear it – at first a loud argument, then lots of shouting, followed by the sound of fighting and screaming by spouses and children. Leaning over my fence I could see some of it – it was no contest as #1 was overpowered by #2. Lots of damage to the house and yes, even some blood.

However, although I was a witness along with the rest of the neighborhood watch, since neighbor # 1 was not part of our program, we did nothing since we had already agreed we would not take action unless one of us in the program were involved. Sure, we called the police but they only separated the parties, lectured them and left. Later than night it happened again – more fighting, more damage, more blood. Still, following our agreement we did nothing, even though it was disturbing our tranquility and it was obvious #1 was getting the shit kicked out of them by #2. And no police. Last night, there were gun shots and more screaming. Bound by our agreement we did nothing, since none of us had been attacked. We made speeches and statements at our weekly meeting about how wrong it was that it had happened. Still, despite the cries for help and urgent pleas, we did nothing as we concluded our hands were tied by our agreement.

As of today, the neighborhood is quiet again. It seems neighbor #1 is no longer at the residence since they’re in the hospital. So, it seems our neighborhood watch program has been a success since none of us got involved. Neighbor #2 continues to play their music loud, trash still covers the lawn and the dogs are still a nuisance but seems placated by the events so far. I’m sure they will improve their behavior as we made it clear that we disapproved of what happened and emphasized that no matter what occurred in the future, we would do nothing since it was not against one of our neighborhood watch members. I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson!

(Similarities between NATO, Russia and Ukraine are purely intentional)

Is there a future for post-tRump evangelical MAGA churchianity?

“I am amazed how quickly you are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is not even a gospel. Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be under a curse.”                                (Gal. 1:6-8)

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” Declaration of Barmen, 8:18 (1934)

With the campaign and election of Donald J. Trump (serial adulterer, liar and fraudster) in 2016, MAGA ideology spawned a virulent infection of many evangelical Christian churches, leaders and pastors with a distorted “gospel” of white, “America First” supremacy and racism, political rallies disguised as “worship” and FOX News like messages cloaked in biblical phraseology with little grounding in truth. How many churches and followers this metastatic cult of personality with its distortions, lies, & hype has spread to remains unclear but the ease with which the cancer of lies spread leads one to question how much the MAGA disciples were grounded in any semblance of historical orthodoxy or orthopraxy in the first place, as spiritual leaders clambered over one another to curry favor with the  “new Cyrus” or “anointed one” who would restore America to mythic greatness.

While there are a few voices for reform and repentance in post-Trump evangelicalism, even the violent attack on the congressional proceedings to finalize the electoral college votes on Jan. 6th has not persuaded most MAGA believers to re-consider their allegiance or devotion to an alien gospel, masquerading as the real thing.  Just as it is not possible to change a counterfeit dollar bill into a real one, so too it is impossible to reform counterfeit preaching, worship and practice into the genuine. It is by nature false and must be rejected. The cure for heresy is conversion to the truth.

Veterans Day

Over the last 20-30 years I have been privileged to meet a number of veterans and hear some of their stories. Here’s just a few (names changed): Ken enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor and would still speak if it with tears in is eyes; Bob was a witness days after a concentration camp was liberated and would not speak of what he saw; Don was 17 and joined the Marines and fought in Guadalcanal; Art was wounded in the Aleutians; Robert was an Army psychologist who worked with concentration camp survivors; James was wounded in Iraq and became addicted to pain medications and after much effort was given an honorable discharge; Ben saw his friend killed by artillery in Iraq and slowly reduced the amount of alcohol he drank to cope. There are so many more, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, family members, neighbors, around us, each with their own story, those that survived, those that didn’t. Today I remember them & my father too – U.S. Navy, 1946-1950.

Revising X-Mas

“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men.”

Athanasius – On the Incarnation of the Word (2.8)

This has been a difficult holiday season for many. 300,000 + Americans lost to COVID -19 with more dying every day due in part to the Trump administration neglect, malfeasance, incompetence and politicization of the pandemic, MAGA media disinformation and genuine human stupidity that prefers conspiracies over common sense. The changes in work, school and family, from isolation to unemployment have meant this year’s holidays will be much different than years before. In addition, catastrophic fires in Oregon and California and hurricane damage in the south have added to the pain and misery.

With the shorter days and lack of sunshine, I usually feel like Scrooge this time of year but even more so with the loss of 98% of our family’s possessions in the Almeda fire on Sept. 8th, realizing that we are starting from scratch when it comes to decorating for the holidays. No tree, no ornaments, no family momentos from Christmases past. No big deal that ordering from Walmart can’t fix besides the family heirlooms. However, it reminded me of my discomfort with the holiday and the idea about revising Christmas. No, I’m not a Puritan who wants to ban the holiday like was done in New England in colonial days. Maybe Dec. 25th should be renamed (Super Solstice? Mid-Winter Mania? suggestions?) and an alternative date established to recognize the true significance of the birth of Jesus which is his incarnation. This way shoppers and vendors could have their fun and profits for Dec. 25th and believers could contemplate the true meaning of Christ “born for us” with out all the other accompanying pandemonium (after all, Orthodox Christians have been celebrating the Feast of the Nativity in January for centuries without any vituperation from the MAGA media).

The reason I suggest this change is not because I’ve been reading too many Chick comics. It simply doesn’t take long to notice that all the myriad traditions I have kept & enjoyed over the years as well as most Americans (such as colored lights, flocked trees, ornaments, inflatable nativities, reindeer and the jolly old guy in red) that make up the collective, cultural menagerie have little to do with the profound implications of the incarnation. And this year especially we need the incarnation –  how God’s mercy, promises, goodness and compassion meet the stark reality of humankind’s suffering, poverty, cruelty, brokenness, sorrow, disease and death.

It’s just an idea. That way we could still have fun with the presents and eggnog, corporations & retailers would make their profits and we could let the good news that brings great joy sink deep, deep into our heart and soul.

May our world know more of the peace of Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Navigating the conflagration

Our nation faces multiple perils, akin to a battered car, low on gas, with wobbly tires, weak headlights, steering down a pothole filled road. On the right is the blazing, growing conflagration of MAGA, white- vigilante-militia-supremacy, fanned by a rudderless alt-right media. On the left, are the crumbling guardrails of constitutional authority, the slippery mud of the cult of personality. Ahead is thick fog of a “stolen” election and imperiled transition. Behind is the growing tsunami of a criminally mismanaged, deadly pandemic and an approaching, expanding funnel cloud of unpayable deficits and inequity.

Worst of all, behind the wheel, is a temper-tantrum, toddler, throwing a fit of self-pity.

It’s time for the adults to take the wheel.

“Out in the eye of the storm, the friends of God suffer no permanent harm.”

(Mark Heard -“The Eye of the Storm” 1990)

I drove through the devastated communities of Phoenix and Talent, Oregon again. There seems little rhyme or reason to the destructive path of the Almeda fire. Car washes, doctor offices, stores, restaurants, food vans, mobile homes and half a million-dollar homes were leveled. I returned to our former home and dug through more of the debris, with a mask, gloves, rake and shovel, courtesy of the Red Cross. I found a few more pieces of china, faded but whole, and a nativity piece I have had since a child. Amazing, that such delicate pieces survived the flames and collapse of a 2-story house.

“What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?”  (Eccles. 2:22)

I remember the houses that lined the street since I walked it a few times a week. They were expensive, ($400,00+) and some of them still have the burned-out shells of cars on the lot. I have no idea what the interiors were like, but many were nicely landscaped and well taken care of. So much money invested, so much saved, so much spent, and now gone, worthless except for scrap. It seems wasted and meaningless. People toil, sweat, worry and even are willing to kill to defend their property but in the end, it is not ours to keep. Our possessions are not eternal, nor are we mortals. All returns to dust, if not now, then later. In the end, all I have to treasure is that “the loving-kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:14-17).

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:18)

While it may sound like I have been reading too much Ecclesiastes, I have really been pondering how much stuff I have dragged around with me for so many years, feeling the loss and dislocation of a fire and now considering what it means with the years I have left. I know I am not alone and many others are experiencing the same, most in more dire circumstances. Writing is one way I try to cope. At a minimum, I plan on the days remaining not being about acquiring more stuff.

To Ashes

On Tuesday, September 8, 2020 around 11:45 AM, working remotely at home, I went downstairs and looking out the windows, and noticed clouds of brown smoke billowing north of the house our family rented in Talent, OR. Checking for news on-line, I learned of a fire burning outside of Ashland. Given that our area was already on alert for high winds and super dry from drought, I started to monitor what was happening. Information was hard to find, but when I heard multiple sirens, I knew it was not good, especially when later in the afternoon, helicopters and planes started flying overhead dropping water and retardant at what I assumed was the far side of the I-5.

I told my kids what was happening and to pack some supplies just in case we were evacuated. Over the next 3-4 hours, I watched as neighbors packed up and drove off, even though there had been no official notice. I figured the fire was able to be contained and so packed for an overnight away just in case. I signed up for emergency notifications for my phone. Black and grey billowing clouds grew closer to the south and the east. Around 4 PM, I told my girls to load up the car and a few minutes later I heard someone going around pounding on doors and telling people to leave. We hurried to the car and drove to Talent Avenue and joined the line trying to get out of town. When we got to Colver Road, a Sheriff’s deputy directed us to HWY 99 south since the road north was closed. Since we had driven in a circle, I drove back to our house and picked up my CPAP machine and headed out again. I noticed some kids on bikes riding around the streets and people walking down the street as if nothing were happened. By the time we got back to HWY 99, a water plane flew extremely low over one of the fields on fire. Once again, we joined the traffic and turned to get on 1-5, noticing the flames reaching the apartments closer to I-5 and the gas stations and rest area near the freeway entrance. From there we joined a smoky procession to Ashland and found a hotel room. My wife, at work in Medford was eventually told to evacuate and having nowhere to go went to Grant’s Pass with a co-worker for an anxious night since she could not make it to us south to Ashland.

When I heard that the planes dropping water and retardant had stopped for the night, I knew that our home at 260 Rockfellow Place was gone. By then the fire had moved on to Phoenix and was threatening the Medford area. Information about what was happening was scarce. My wife was able to join use the next day, our total possessions, 2 automobiles, a couple of small bags of clothes and belongings, thankfully our important identification documents were with us and of course some computers and cell phones. Plus, my one pair of underwear. What I thought would be overnight turned out to be permanent. Why hadn’t I grabbed more clothes? Why hadn’t I grabbed my computer or the bills? Why hadn’t I slowed down and packed better?

Gone were my 6 guitars, including the classical acoustic I learned to play on when I was 15, a 40-year-old Martin D-35 and a black Gibson Les Paul Custom. Gone were my family notes I used for genealogy, my grandfathers framed prints from Scotland, my wife’s photos of her mother who died less than a year ago, our diplomas and paperwork for our job certifications. Gone were my 250 plus books, the chalice and goblets from my grandparents, our wedding china, and pictures and artwork from when our kids were growing up. Gone were my great-grandfather’s pocket New Testament which he carried with him in the Salvation Army and my seminary papers, sermon notes, dream journals and news clippings.

Much of what we lost may be with out value or meaning to anyone else, but they were markers and identifiers of who we are and where we came from. It is not the dollar value since these are irreplaceable but the physical anchor for our memories. Now they are stored in our heads and hearts, except for what I had saved before by digitizing over the years.

I have only given you my experience. However, what is being called the “Almeda fire” burned over 3, 200 acres over a 15-mile swath of the Rogue valley. 3 people died, over 2, 357 residential structures were destroyed, and and at least 3, 000 people have been displaced and in need of assistance and permanent housing in an area with few affordable rentals. All this in the midst of Covid-19.

3 weeks later, my sleep is fair, I am functioning adequately, and we have (thankfully) been able to find a new place to live. At times I feel sad, mad, depressed, displaced or like I want to hide, run away or cry. My sympathetic system is more on alert and vigilant to risk and danger, my reactions and frustrations sometimes stronger than I want or expect. We visited our home site and found a few mementos (one picture below) but mostly broken and burnt remnants buried in ash. We are still trying to find our mail. We have been blessed by co-workers and acquaintances, comforted by family from afar, thankful for what we do have which is life and each other.

I have neither time nor inclination to offer a theodicy or explanation about why this happened. I am not interested in hearing it from others. Maybe another time. For now, we grieve, along with many in our area, along with the scores of others around the world who have experienced loss and far worse. Sometimes, I can glimpse a different way of living with each other on this planet that is more just, more equitable, more peaceful and more life-giving than what we have seen so far. May it be so.