My Worst Nightmare

Today's upi column

So There I was...

Lying in a motel bed, contemplating my demise. Staring at the ceiling at midnight, sleep would not come. At eight in the morning I was scheduled to enter a hole in the ground and travel several miles underground guided only by kerosene lamp. I didn’t want to do it, but pride kept me from saying so. It hadn’t been my idea. I wasn’t at all sure that I would come out alive. I was praying for a way out.

I held my Raggedy Ann doll tight – possibly our last night together. I wasn’t planning to take her in – at least she would survive. I was eight years old.

Like many childhood nightmares, this one happened on a family vacation. We were bivouacked near Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. My dad was a great amateur scientist with an interest in geology and he was excited about the trip. My mother had worked all year at a part-time job to pay for the vacation, and this was the highlight, I knew I couldn’t let her down. My brothers seemed to be sleeping peacefully. I hadn’t told anyone that I was claustrophobic. Not even when dad signed us up for the multiple mile, lantern-only walk. But I was terrified. I had figured we would look into a big cavern; I would keep my eye on the door, and leave as soon as possible. But no, we were going in deep, and walking through narrow corridors connecting cave after cave, and coming out miles away from the entrance. It was pretty much the worst thing I could think of.

The saving grace was that I knew I could hold my dad’s hand the whole way. I was pretty sure that he would get me out alive if he could. He was invincible, resilient, courageous and ingenious. My plan was to stick to him like glue and if a brother or two fell into a hole, then that was just collateral damage we would have to take.

I survived. Though it didn’t help that the guide enjoyed playing up the danger and drama. Telling of historical accidents. People who got lost and never came out, and occasionally dropping stones into holes so deep that you never heard them hit bottom. Then, about three quarters of the way in, we encountered the mummified remains of an ancient native gypsum miner - perfectly preserved by the cool temp and minerals. A boulder had fallen and crushed him and he had laid there, hand sticking out from under the rock for millennia. The guide told the story with great relish, emphasizing that the boulders all around us could move at any time, “Perhaps we had better move along folks…”

I have been to some interesting places since then, including active war zones, but I do not ever remember being as afraid. If not for my father’s hand I do not believe that an army could have taken me into that cave, or gotten me out. But I think I could go there now.

Even without my father.
A cave is no longer my greatest fear.
Not by a stretch.

We are told this week that the Vatican is releasing the confessional papers of Mother,
soon to be Saint, Theresa of Calcutta. I guess the confidentiality rights of the confessional stop at death, at least if you are on the path to canonization.

We are told of the stunning testimony of these papers. How she had deep, vital, visceral experiences of God early in her life and begged of Him a vocation to the poor. How certain she felt of this vocation. And then, after starting her work with the sickest, of the poorest, of the most oppressed, she never again experienced the perception of the presence of God. And though this tormented her, she continued the work; doubts and fears carried along by memory and determination. She believed she was doing the right thing. She believed she was following a true call. She believed. But she did not experience the intimacy of her Lord through a decades-long walk through darkness and pain and suffering.

She didn’t know why. Her confessors did not blame her faith, or her practice. Was it because she had agreed to descend into the hell of Calcutta? Had she signed up to suffer with them, and the worst suffering was this silence? She did not know. They did not know. She never found a satisfactory answer. We can only presume that the answer came with the sweet embrace of death.

Before she died she asked them to destroy the letters and they would not, because they see them not as evidence of a lack of faith; but as proof of a fidelity, determination, obedience, and submission of nearly supernatural order.

I agree.

I agree that the physical, emotional and spiritual perception of a real and intimate God is near to heaven on earth. But I agree that these feelings, these perceptions, are not the substance of faith. I know many faithful people who do not seem to be wired for these perceptions, yet who believe, who act as disciples, who act as the hands and feet of God. They are blessed.

But I get the perceptions. Often. I feel God. I sense God. I hear God. I occasionally see God. I have learned to wait for the sense, to listen for the sense. I don’t think it makes me a better disciple. But it makes it easier to be a disciple.

And now, my worst nightmare. It could stop. It could stop even if I am a faithful servant.

It might stop because I am a faithful servant.

It might stop.

Would I continue to believe, to act, to pray, to serve, if it stopped? Could I continue that way for decades without despair? Honestly I don’t think I would last a week. I have not the courage for the long dark walk without the hand of my strength, my hope.

All I can do is hope that He understands, and indulges my weakness.

It was Mother Theresa who said “I know God will not give me anything I cannot handle.

I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

Brrr. Scary!


Stop It! Right Now!

today's UPI column

So There I was...

On the freeway, close enough to the speed limit. Sunny spring day. Singing a song with my angels in the fabulous acoustics of the full-face helmet. The wind was singing along too, because it was warm enough that I had the face screen cracked half an inch for temperature moderation. Then the universe required that that I stop. Immediately.

The request came in the form of a bumblebee, which managed to defy the air stream flowing over my aerodynamic head and make a solid eye-level hit at 70 miles an hour and yet live. Groggy but not stunned, it crawled into the only opening available for safe haven, my slightly open face shield. I felt it on my upper lip. I swallowed a yell and willed my mouth shut. I gave a mighty snort to try and expel it. It buzzed angrily like a throttle twist on a Japanese speed bike. I pushed my visor full open – but the air coming in glued the bug to my face. I turned my head. It crawled up from my chin, over my lips and across my cheek, then up and over my ear and into my hair. There was more buzzing and thrashing up there as it unsuccessfully tried to escape.

At that point I pried my attention away from the bee and onto the road. I was in the middle lane of three; I needed to make a lane change and a prompt stop. I scanned ahead, behind, and to the side. I had lots of room. I signaled. I slowed, moved over, and slowed some more. I signaled, slowed and moved onto the shoulder. My back end fishtailed a little bit, when the bee made an especially angry protest and I reflexively stomped on my brakes, locking them for a second. I lightened up. I came to a swift but controlled stop on the gravel.

I used the kill switch on the engine and had the buckles off of my chinstrap in record time. Off with the helmet. Loose the long hair. Shake. The bee left. I had not been stung.

The bee lived by God’s own miracle. I lived because of a cool head and good habits. I ride with the intent of always keeping a good stopping distance between me and whatever is in front, and if possible, a similar space off my stern. A good stopping distance is that space which allows for a graceful, safe deceleration. Speed increases the need for space. Poking along – not much required. Cruising at what I call ‘God Speed,’ I like the length of two semi-trailers. For cagers (you people in cars) the “two-second rule” applies. Use any non-moving object as the mark and count two full seconds from the time the car in front of you passes it until you pass the mark.

I like to have more space than that, before and behind. Even though motorcycles have a distinct advantage over cars in the acceleration/deceleration department – this due to our smaller mass – I want as much space as I can have. Because life sometimes puts a bee in your bonnet.

Now, I know that those of you who drive in urban environments have a greater challenge with this. Other vehicles do not want you to have this space and will move into any space six inches larger than their cage. In California they will connects these spaces across three or four lanes and ‘surf.’ This increases your challenge, but the challenge to maintain the best possible safety bubble possible is still important.

And herein lies another spiritual lesson learned while riding. The spaces in your life are just as important as the objects. And you will need them at precisely the points where you will not have the time to pay attention to them. You have to build the habit of space into your life. Because you are going to have circumstances that stop you, suddenly, emotionally physically and spiritually. Some of them you may see coming, and have time to reduce your speed and lengthen your space. Others will hit you with no warning at all. And you are going to stop; the only question is how gracefully.

The more I do, the more grace space I need. One way I increase my space is by investing in people, not things. That way when something happens, I know I can count on grace from people whom I have graced. They cut me slack, they lend me a hand, and they make room for me in many ways.

I build in the habit of space in my life by protecting my bubble of alone time, of quiet time, of nourishing time with God. Most months these times feel like luxuries. But occasionally they are life-savers.

The most important part of creating appropriate space around me is just attending. Watching to see if there is something sneaking up on me. Adjusting my pace according to the traffic of my life. Not letting people steal my space. This observation and adjustment process keeps me awake, keeps me alive.

One day all of us are going to get that final red light, that ‘pavement ends ahead’ sign. It may come on suddenly, or we may see if coming for miles, but it will come. The end is not up to us, but how we do it is. We can go screeching into that end with our brakes locked and screaming, or we can execute a nice controlled stop. The way you have lived your life is going to determine how you die. I want to be able to pull over and hand the keys over with some dignity and grace.

Might as well practice stopping now.


CSI Rwanda

this week's UPI column

So There I was...

On the bus to Kigali, Rwanda. I was on the big bus – the good bus. This meant that it was about the size, and maybe vintage of a 1950’s era Greyhound. Sure, it had a few dents front and rear, and a lot of duct tape on the seats, and most disconcertingly, decal appliqués of bullet holes on the sides – very ‘Gangsta,’ – but it was clearly the good bus. I expected a quick trip. By the map the trip should take three hours.

Silly me.

We stopped to buy bananas. We stopped to buy peas. We stopped to buy BBQ goat on a stick. The border crossing ate up an hour. OK, it was going to take five hours, no sweat, we’re on third world time and I am just fine with that. Then we were stopped and boarded by the Rwandan Police, not once, but twice.

The first time was apparently for speeding. We had seemed to be within safe parameters to me, but apparently the Rwandan police had been cracking down on this after a bad week of bus plunges. I was a little surprised when the Police chief boarded our bus and asked for witnesses against our driver. It was pretty clear that if we testified against our driver he would be taken away and we would sit there by the side of the road. No witnesses for the prosecution, no sir. Finding none, he scolded all of us quite soundly, and told us that he would let us go, and we could all die then. Our driver was released, gave us a thumbs up, and off we went.

OK, so the trip was going to take six hours.

We were making good progress towards the capital. We were maybe a half hour out when it happened. I had the front seat on the right side of the bus, I was directly behind the side mirror, my window was wide open for air. We were on a very nice stretch of road, good tarmac, and it even had a raised curb, a bit like a sidewalk. The countryside was wooded on both sides. We were going along at a good clip. We passed a young man on a bicycle. I watched him disappear in the mirror. I looked away. I heard a hard ‘thunk’ of a sound, and then very clearly, the sound of a bicycle crashing through trees. It is a distinctive sound. It went on, crash, crash, … crash. I sat up. I looked at the ticket taker sitting next to me.

“That wasn’t good.” I said
“No” He leaned over me and looked out the window.

He had a few quick words with the driver and we slowed. Everybody looked out the window. More words – Kinyarwanda I wasn’t getting. Clearly a discussion of “should we stop?” It was decided not. We proceeded.

A kilometer down the road a smaller bus, pulled up beside us. Its driver was shaking his fist at us; the passengers were leaning out the windows screaming at us. Our driver yelled back. No translation needed. The tension on our bus was rising. The next vehicle to come up behind us was a Rwandan Police pick-up. They pulled us over. Their captain boarded our bus with a very serious countenance. He asked questions and then argued with our driver and our ticket taker. Then he announced that there had been an accident and that we were all returning to the scene. The bus turned, the captain left a lower officer and his AK-47 on our bus. He joined me on the front seat and propped the gun between us.

“Bon jour, madam.”
Good day? Not so much, sir, thank-you.

Now a bit of an aside about Central African law. The law is Napoleonic. I am no great student of the law, but I was schooled a bit by my African friends before they let me lose in the countryside. The functional difference between our law and theirs is the presumption of innocence. They don’t have that. A great weight is placed in the investigation, and the testimony of the investigating officer – his determination of fact – is fact, unless you can prove otherwise. And it is the investigating officer’s job to determine responsibility, guilt or innocence on the scene. Traffic law is pretty matter of fact. If you hurt someone on the road you are instantly liable for all their injuries, and if you kill someone and it is determined that you are at fault, your life is forfeit for theirs, life in prison. I was praying for a young man on a bicycle.

We returned to the nearest village. The accident victim was there. Living, Jesu’ashimwe, but bloodied. The bicycle was DOA.

Now it got interesting. All the bus passengers disembarked. All the villagers gathered around. The Police captain took chaotic testimony. I tried to figure my way out. I asked the lieutenant with the AK, if I could leave – it did not seem like I had a place in the argument. I knew that I could stick my thumb out and get an instant ride with any UN, or Unicef, or any other NGO vehicle.

“Oh NO!, madam! You are a witness, ALL witnesses must stay until the case is decided!” Yikes. Sequestered I was.

Now I knew why every passenger was so involved in the increasingly heated discussion. Their time was on the line too. Our driver’s personal stake was big. The bus company was considered a rich target and the supporters of the young man were arguing for guilt and a large settlement on the spot. Our driver was admitting no responsibility. The captain decided to see the actual crime scene. We were all reboarded, along with the young man and his supporters and the wrecked bicycle. The bloody young fellow was given the best seat in the house, between the lieutenant and me. I gave him my water bottle. He didn’t look like he had any major bones broken, but one of his feet was really bad. He seemed rattled. He smelled bad. He apologized when he got blood on me.

We retraced our travel at a snail’s pace, heads out the windows trying to find the exact spot. “Here – where the trees are broken!” We stopped - everyone got off. A couple of passengers had taken on the roles of counsel for the defense of the driver. A villager or two was clearly the prosecution. We were accused of hitting the young man and knocking him off the road. We all examined the side of the road. We examined the side of the bus. Much argument and discussion, done at volume with gesticulation and shouts of approval and derision by the crowd. Our ticket-taker pointed out that there was this nice sidewalk. With an ad hoc translator, I was asked if I saw the boy on the road or up on the curb. I testified that I had in fact seen him on the curb. I could not say if we had hit him or not, but I was certain that we had not climbed the curb which was a good six inches high.

This curb was found to have lateral cuts in it at regular intervals for drainage. The cut just above the first broken tree had a very fresh dramatic scratch on it. Voila! The young man, startled by the bus, but not hit, had taken the curb cut wrong, precipitously decelerated and was ejected with his bike into the woods!

Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick!

The Police captain was convinced, but still had villagers to placate. The bus company while admitting no wrongdoing decided on the spot to magnanimously transport the boy to Kigali to the hospital and give him an admittance fee. The villagers were disappointed. Our driver was hugely relieved, and with just another hour of talking and a stop at a police station we arrived in Kigali eight hours after our departure.

All humans who are alive and awake and involved are called at times to be witnesses. Those of us who profess a life of faith, witness to truths that are not easily demonstrated, let alone proven.

I have seen many religious arguments, between religious believers and with those of other beliefs that have all the grace and serenity of African crime scene investigation. Perhaps we argue so gracelessly for similar reasons. We don’t actually trust that truth will win out. We see the temporal stakes as high and unchangeable. Win here and now or lose big.

Quakers have a testimony that is supposed to address this concern. It is called continuing revelation. It asserts that God will continue to work on our understanding of truth. It does not deny absolute truth, but honestly admits that we will not comprehend truth absolutely and that our understanding will change. It asks us to live the truth as best we know it, knowing that in the living we will come to find that which is trustworthy. Traditions based most closely in the truth will survive the longest. It asserts underlying unchangeable principles, but infinitely changeable application. It requires more listening than argument. It requires trust in God and in each other. It presumes a loving and fair judge.

I like it better than roadside justice.


This one's for Bisch

Today's UPI column

So there I was

Having one of my regular conversations. There are certain situations that seem to occur with some regularity in rather random places in my life. These situations tend to produce some very regular conversations. I have learned to see them coming. I have learned to enjoy the permutations.

This week I was having regular conversation number seven:
I don’t go to church, but I still think I am ok.

It is a good one. I know my part well, and I relish it. This conversation usually starts when someone finds out that I am a pastor. I think this often provokes in people a premonition of judgment. They apparently think that I will tell them that they need to think differently or live differently, or at the very least that I will try and get them to come to church. I don’t know if this comes out of experience or not, but it is a predictable event for them. They pre-parry the expected thrust. They volunteer some form of information about how they don’t go to church, or don’t believe X, Y or Z, but yet they live morally, ethically, and feel pretty good about themselves. Then they step back and wait for my best attempt to poke holes in their defense.

So I don’t.

My job is to tell them that I think that they are just swell. That if they were supposed to be in church they would probably know that, and that I think highly of them and that I am sure that God does too.

Sometimes this confuses them. Mostly they just relax a bit and then we can have some normal people time.

It’s not that I think that everybody and everything is just hunky-dory, I don’t suffer from any such illusions. But if they are not OK, they know it better than me, and do not need to be told. If they want to tell me about the not-OK parts they will eventually get around to it. It’s not my job to provoke it.
This week’s permutation was interesting.

A father of a friend of mine, a dignified gent of a certain age flew out from the Midwest to spend some time with his daughter and grandchildren. I had been able to perform a small service or two for the family this year, and so I was invited out to dinner at a very nice place. A thing I don’t like to miss.

While spending time on a restaurant waiting list that had Einsteinian time-bending capacity, we had a chance to chat. After he told me that he loved me, he told me that he hadn’t been much of a churchgoer – that in fact he used to consider himself an atheist, but had recently considered softening that to agnostic. He told me that he had been deeply involved with the Rotarians and that he generally just tried to do the right thing. He waited to see if I was going to do any God-talk.

I was ready.

I told him how much I loved him. That the evidence of his good life was all around me in the faces of his family, and that I was sure that God didn’t have any problems with him. Then we talked about the Cubs. Job done.

Then I went home that night and Wikipediaed
Rotary International.

Here were my biases. Boosterism, I was sure, based on one Kiwanis meeting I had spoke at early one morning, years ago – Boy were those terminally sunny morning people! I presumed that it was a dwindling group of post-war business people. I presumed that they would be Americans, mostly male and probably Republicans. I presumed that they were nice people – do-gooders, but probably not much of substance.

Boy was I wrong – nothing new there.

There are 1.2 million Rotarians in 200 countries of the world. That’s four Rotarians for every Quaker in the world. They are gender inclusive and inclusive of all religions. You can be gay and be a Rotarian. They are non-political. The Nazi’s and the Soviets didn’t like them and banned them – always good for the resume.

And get this! Since 1985 they have been responsible for vaccinating TWO BILLION children against polio. The Mother’s Union approves.

When I was in Africa this year, there were kids in my house, they had not been vaccinated against any of the things that my children have no fear of – except one – Polio – that they were safe from.
Now I know who to thank.

Like Quakers, Rotarians like to ask Queries. This is their list of questions for deciding if a course of action is a good idea.

Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build good will and better friendships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I want sincere Rotarians in charge of our foreign policy!

I know that they do not consider themselves religious in nature, but it would make a fine religion.

Dallas Willard says that the test of a good religion is its benefits to its non-adherents. I think this applies to all communities and organizations. I mean even the KKK has some benefits for its members. But the alphabetically superior AA benefits a lot of people beyond the drunks. By this measure the Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission are doing ok. The Untied States government, I am not so sure of.

Here’s an idea. What if every Christian church that baptizes babies gave vaccinations with every baptism, worldwide. I am sure that the Mother’s Union would approve of this. I am sure they could afford it; some of them have paid out more in lawsuits. Never the less, though benefiting billions, this would still be benefiting the adherents and so would still lag behind the Rotarians.

I have decided that my friend’s father does not need to check in with me, spiritually speaking. He has decades of good religious seniority on me, I need to keep checking in with him.



So, we are told that 70,000 bridges in the US are structurally deficient.
It would cost 188 billion to fix them.

That would be just fine with me.

The Iraqi war to date has cost
488+ billion

As My mother would say,
"I'm sorry you can't go out and make any more wars
until ALL your bridges are fixed!"