A road trip through ‘Wyoming’

A road trip through ‘Wyoming’

Did anyone say “Covid project?”

I certainly didn’t, especially not in 2019. 2020 is a different animal. One of the blessings of this strange and taxing year has been helping my songwriter friend Nicole Unser put together this companion devotional to her most recent album.

Before the virus hit, Nicole had started her “story night” home concert series where she weaves her music with stories about her life into the lives of those who are in her audience, who quickly become participants and even part of her rapidly growing extended family. It’s a unique and moving experience, but much of it came to a screeching halt in March when the world shut down.

One good thing that came out of it was this journal, which takes you on a “road trip” that encourages the reader / listener to examine their own lives in light of how the past impacts the present, and how God brings context and healing to it all, if we allow him.

I’ll be honest, this is the sort of thing that women tend to gravitate toward and men shy away from. But if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that mental and spiritual pain is not just a female thing. We’re watching our society implode largely because we don’t know how to deal with what’s going on upstairs, in our heads. If something inside you is telling you that not everything is OK, and you are wondering if that is something that God can help with or even cares about, then this is a road trip you should embark on.

In the foreward I wrote, I talk about Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and his struggles with depression and anxiety. There were some who criticized him for being so open about that. But guess what? When we don’t deal with these things, they fester and damage other people, even if we can’t see what these things do to ourselves. There’s plenty of evidence of the consequences of that kind of denial all around us.

So, are you up for the road trip challenge? Head over to Nicoleunser.com to pick up a copy, or even to just check out her music, video mini-documentary, and podcast appearance where she encourages us to take on this important and timely topic.

Dawn of the Third Day

Dawn of the Third Day

It has been a long and difficult week. You and the many who followed Jesus of Nazareth began the week with a feeling of triumph, entering Jerusalem with fanfare, people lining the streets, proclaiming him King of the Jews. Surely, Jesus would lead his people into throwing off the Roman oppressors, would continue to put the Pharisees and their self-righteous ilk in their place? It was time for a new age. Everyone could feel it.

Yet, that was not what had happened. Celebration turned to confusion turned to pain and fear. Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, captured, tortured. He was “celebrated” as the King of Jews all right … with a crown of thorns, with his hands and feet nailed to a cross in an execution as humiliating as it was physically cruel.

The man who claimed to be one with the Father – maybe even in a way God Himself – was now dead. All of your hope for the future is gone. Everything he taught seems to have not only been in vain, but maybe even a lie.

Close your eyes now …. take in those feelings of confusion, of hurt, maybe even of betrayal and anger. How could all of his words been have untrue? Did not those whom he healed still walk, still see? What does this mean for you?

Keep your eyes closed. You don’t know why, but you have accompanied a small group of women this early morning to the tomb. Maybe it was a chance to say a last goodbye. Maybe a desire to see that he really had indeed been killed. Your little group cautiously approaches the grave site as the first shafts of sunlight peak over the horizon. You feel the warmth against your skin, feel a light breeze, take in the scents of early morning, mixed with the scents of the burial spices carried by the others.

Your thoughts are interrupted as the ground shifts beneath your feet. A jerk, the ground lifts, then falls. Rocks tumble in the distance. Those around you are alarmed, and you stumble. As suddenly as it started, it ends. You look at the others around you … frightened, discomfited. After some discussion, you move on.

You enter the garden surrounding the tomb. You know that Joseph of Arimethea had given this space for Jesus, and you think it was befitting of someone like him to be honored in this way. But as you approach, something seems amiss. The others are murmuring as well. From a distance it appears as though the stone meant to seal the tomb was sitting next to the opening, not covering it as it should. Could this be the wrong place?

You get closer … there had been a contingent of four Roman guards at the tomb. They were … well, they are there. But one of them is gone. Two are on the ground, asleep, appearing dead. The fourth is just awakening. He turns and sees the tomb, somehow open, with the stone rolled uphill from is resting place. You know that his life is as good as over. With the tomb open, the guards will be executed. He looks at you and the women, eyes wide with fear, and runs. Runs!

You have never seen a Roman guard run from anything, so approaching the now open tomb seems much more frightening than it did moments ago. What had happened here? Yet the desire to know is too strong to ignore. You loved Jesus and want … need … to know what had become of him.

And then it all seems to happen so fast, so fast that you have to think through it carefully later on to capture details that all melted together in the confusion.

You peek into the tomb, but it is dark. You can see that there is no body. Linens, yes, but empty. And then it is light, much lighter and you can see the head piece, rolled neatly at the other end of the stone platform where Jesus’ body had laid. Light? Yes, from two men … not men, angels … sitting on the platform, one at the head, one at the foot. You and the others fall to your knees, but the angels tell you not to be afraid. Not to worship them. They ask why we seek the living king among the dead.

Living? What?

He was not there because … he had risen from the dead? It is one thing for Jesus to have brought others back from the dead, but how does one raise himself? It was as he had told us, but we hadn’t understood. It was the third day …

There is no body here because Jesus is alive. Alive! He had been dead. You had seen it. You had seen much of the flesh torn from his back from the relentless beatings. You had watched them brutally place the crown of thorns upon his head. You had watched as the spikes had been hammered through his hands and feet, as his body had been raised upon the cross upon he was mocked while he suffered. You had watched as the Roman soldier stabbed his side, and water came forth, proving he was indeed dead.

You had helped take him down, helped deliver him to Joseph’s burial place. He wasn’t just dead, his body was completely broken.

Some of the women are convinced that Jesus is alive. You think of what he looked like when you last saw him and wonder how that could be so, and if that would even be a good thing given his condition. You and the others discuss the matter and decide to tell the disciples, who are all still in hiding for fear of their lives.

But the twelve … well, the eleven that were left … they don’t believe it. They accuse your group of being crazy. If you’re honest with yourself, you do wonder about your sanity. You know what you’ve seen. No man could come back from that. But then Jesus … wasn’t just a man. So, could it be?

Peter and John at least are willing to believe that Jesus’ body had somehow been taken, despite the presence of the Romans. They didn’t see how that was possible, but they take off running for the tomb. You and the others follow as best you can. When you arrive, John is standing outside the tomb, looking uncertain, as though trying to wrap his mind around what he was seeing. He goes into the tomb, and soon he emerges with Peter. They are arguing over the same teachings of Jesus that you remembered, that he had said he would be raised from the dead. And now, apparently, he had …or his body was just … gone. They head back to the other disciples, their loud discussion receding in the distance as you wonder what to do next.

You and the women stand quietly talking. Mary Magdala moves off by herself, weeping. You are ready to leave, but when she re-enters the tomb you decide to wait for her. She is inside for a few minutes and as she comes out, you see that a man is waiting beside the tomb now as well. Joanna asks you if you remember seeing that gardener before. He seems vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite place him.

Curious, you draw closer. He seems gentle as he speaks to Mary. You hear her ask if he was the one who moved Jesus’ body. This kind man, who seems both familiar yet unfamiliar, looks at her and says, “Mary.”

And then you and the others all see him at once for who he is. It’s really him! His flesh is not torn. He is not swollen from his beatings, or bloody. It is hard to look at him and see the impossible. And yet it is as he promised.

His hands and feet hold the scars of his crucifixion.

His eyes are the same eyes of the one who loved beyond all measure, without fear or condition.

It is Jesus.

He tells you to go back and tell the others that you have seen him. They still do not believe you. In your heart, you know that you hadn’t truly believed until you saw him for yourself. Peter, John and the others will soon as well.

(Originally written for Tonasket Free Methodist Church Easter Sunrise Service, April 2019.)

Pandemic in a culture of mistrust

Pandemic in a culture of mistrust

I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.

C. S. Lewis, “Why I’m Not A Pacifist,” The Weight of Glory

Well, this is one heck of a time to launch a blog.

The Corona Virus / Covid-19 pandemic is well underway, and so is the panic. I was in Seattle the day the first Covid-19-related death was announced. Many of the region’s inhabitants responded to the first death from a contagious virus by … storming Costco and emptying it of toilet paper, thereby potentially exposing themselves to said fearful virus.

Just the sort of thing I’ve read about in many apocalyptic science fiction yarns I’ve read through in one sitting.

Yes, I’m a sci-fi nerd, and proud of it. It’s what I grew up escaping into, especially Robert Heinlein’s “teen hero” space travel books he wrote in the 1950s, and before that the classic Tom Swift, Jr. kids’ series. Later I came to see such stories as non-threatening ways to examine human nature, ask unanswerable questions, marvel at the intricacy of the universe. And ultimately deepen my faith, where I tend to welcome questions and ambiguity more than some of the traditional answers that discourage those deeper questions. These are the types of stories I enjoy writing and hope to share before too much longer.

I got to meet one of my favorite authors last summer, Frank Peretti. Aside from being a gracious and authentic man, he said something that really struck me about why stories are important: “Jesus told stories. Because they work.”

Even those who don’t share my belief in who Jesus Christ is recognize and even revere many of his stories. The Good Samaritan parable is one such example. Jesus did not present it as an historical event; rather, as a story told in response to a question meant to challenge him.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ answer was that the neighbor, in this case the Samaritan, was actually someone who was hated by the respectable and righteous of that time and place. The hero of the story, who stopped and helped a man who’d been robbed, beaten, and left for dead, would have scandalized the listeners of the story. It would be like a pastor standing in the pulpit telling a story about a transgendered Muslim illegal immigrant risking infection to care for an elderly Covid-19 sufferer while mainstream Christians turned their backs. The story seems designed to offend.

We get used to stories that have been told over and over and they lose some of that original intent. Which is a good reason for new stories to be told, stories to challenge, stories that at first are safe to read because we don’t see them as about us.

Sometimes I realize those stories are not just about us, but about me.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed The X-Files. Aliens, monsters, weird stuff, conspiracy theories. But ultimately the series was about questions, deep ones. It’s not a source of my theology, but I love its willingness to ask questions, because I don’t think that God is threatened by our questions (even if God’s answers don’t jive with Fox Mulder’s).

Mulder in many ways reflects our society now, 20 years after the series aired (its recent reboot notwithstanding). His mantra for life: “Trust No One.” That is where we are at as a society, which makes navigating challenges like a global pandemic much more difficult. The national institutions that were held in high esteem two generations ago are no longer revered.

Our cynicism isn’t all off-base. And I am chief among sinners when it comes to cynicism. In so many ways our elected representatives no longer represent us. Sexual scandals have rocked our churches, destroyed lives and damaged our faith in those who should be pointing us to God. Much of our mainstream media is devoted to pushing agendas rather than reporting news. Our educational system seems to concern itself with issues and topics best taught at home, rather than basic foundational skills. Both science and faith communities often start with conclusions and avoid questions that don’t support what they already believe. Every political decision or weather event becomes an existential crisis, so that when a true existential crisis might be upon us most of us write it off. We’ve heard it all before.  We’re all Fox Mulder. We trust no one, not even ourselves.

So when the president or the governor announces measures to contain the virus, no one outside their core voting bloc trusts them. “If he’s not my guy, he’s part of a conspiracy to destroy my life. And the (right wing / left wing) media is complicit, and the medical-industrial complex caused it, and we’re one step away from tyranny by the Democratic Governor / Republican President.”

Would you like your dictator painted blue or red? Then again, what competent government wouldn’t start to crack down when its citizens hoard toilet paper the moment the first person dies?

Maybe the virus is overblown. Maybe not. Maybe in a few months it will be a scandal that we’re raking our politicians for. Or maybe we’ll be burying friends and loved ones while still in isolation and wondering why we weren’t more prepared. I don’t know. For once I will be praying with all my might for a political uproar over a scare that ended with a whimper.

My trust is in God first. But to get through this, we – no matter our core beliefs about faith and the universe – need to begin to trust one another again. Maybe the institutions have indeed betrayed us. Our neighbors are still with us, next door, down the street, in town. People different than we are, facing a common threat, even if we don’t really understand what that threat is.

Some of them will be getting sick. Many will be afraid.

Serve him. Learn to trust her. Whether the Samaritan in the story is you or that other person.

—-

If you are not involved in a front-line health care position, might have some extra time on your hands. If your escapist fantasy involves apocalyptic adventures, here’s a couple of my favorites. (Both are Christian authors, though the stories are not overtly so.)

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis – A mid-21st century college student who is researching history using time travel accidentally ends up in 1348 in the midst of the Black Plague that killed between 75 and 200 million people. A similar plague is loose in the 21st century, and we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Intricately researched, it’s not for everyone, but it’s my all-time favorite time travel book.  Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Doomsday-Book-Connie-Willis/dp/0553562738

The Line Between, Tosca Lee – A young woman escapes the cult she’s grown up in, only to find that a virus threatens the existence of humanity. No time travel in this one, and maybe not something to read if you are losing sleep over Covid-19. At least our modern-day virus doesn’t cause madness as this one does. So if you’re into “it could be worse” scenarios, here’s a good one. Author link: https://toscalee.com/product/the-line-between/

Gazette-Tribune Days

Gazette-Tribune Days

Veteran Features

I’d only been a sports reporter when I started at the G-T. And I still love sports. But something special happened when I sat down to talk to veterans of our armed forces to hear and share their stories. Thanks largely to Michael Stewart – an Okanogan County vet whose story I would still like to write someday – these men shared what it was like to risk everything for their country abroad or their families at home. Please read these.

Gerald Baker (my grandfather) – World War II
Ken Fulford – Viet Nam
John Jones – Viet Nam
Hugh “Doc” Maycumber – World War II
Floyd Kennedy – World War II
Jim Pruitt – World War II
Adam Brazil – Iraq

A few other favorites

Jack (Black) was Here – My only celebrity interview, and my most-read newspaper story.

A Cavallo – The story behind Quill Hyde’s fantastical, ominously charming, miraculously monstrous mobile party wagon.

A Taste of History – 105-year-old Lula Gardner on life in the early 1900s. Not my best-written story but one of the cool ones.

 

“Half-baked” columns

Little did I know that the idea for the name of my newspaper column would be co-opted by popular culture. When I first hired on at the Ogemaw County (MI) Herald in 2000, managing editor Bruce Bischoff forced me to start writing a column. That was his good move. Allowing him to suggest its name may not have been.

“Half-baked,” he said. “It’s perfect.”

I thought, “Yes! People always think that columns are poorly developed, and their writers lacking intelligence. And it goes with my name. Why not laugh at myself?”

Bruce was thinking of the movie by the same name that had come out a couple years earlier. A stoner comedy. It went right over my head. Less than a year later, a “Half-baked” column had won a state-wide award, and Bruce brought to my attention that he’d played me and that it was too late to make a change.

Too few years later, Bruce passed away. The column, at first dedicated only to sports, expanded to cover other topics during my time at the Okanogan County (WA) Gazette-Tribune. I kept the column name.

Bruce had actually hired me while standing on the sidelines of the old Detroit Silverdome during a state championship football game. A half-baked idea that worked out pretty well.

The Michigan editions of those columns exist only in bound editions in newspaper offices in West Branch and Standish, MI. But if you want a slice of deep rural life in North Central Washington, go for it: http://www.gazette-tribune.com/sports/half-baked/