Register Cliff

A few hours north of Cheyenne near the town of Guernsey, Wyoming is Register Cliff. It is about a 30 minute drive off of I-25.

Meandering through town, we arrived at  the historical site. There were no park rangers . Our entrance fee was the dust we breathed from the vehicle ahead of us.

The site was a mound of limestone rising over 100 feet.  The air was warm and still. Birds had nested in the underside of rock crags that looked like beehives. There was constant movement as tiny birds flew around defensively, returning occasionally to inspect their nests.

Along the base of the cliff  were the names of emigrants. Heading West in the mid 1800s , their names were scratched into the the soft stone. We had to look closely to identify the carvings of the settlers, from visitors who felt they needed to add their name and date. I guess everyone who carved their names into the face of the rock were travelers of one sort or another.

Close to the cliff site were ruts from the wagons heading west. They were about five feet wide and looked like troughs. It was the visible path of hopes, dreams, and adventure.

Barb and I  attempted to imagine the life of these nomads. It was difficult to do with our electronic gadgets and the level of comfort we enjoyed. Google was always there to show us the way (as long as there was a cell signal). We drove a vehicle that softened the jolts with shock absorbers,  stayed in hotels that promised comfort.  Even if one is an outdoor enthusiast, hiking gear has advanced to levels of functionality, not dreamed of by these emigrants.

Settlers, with the prospect of a promise, headed west, facing dangers. They needed  to make sure they had ample food for their family and livestock. Infections could kill them. Wild animals stalked them. Native Americans struggled on how to respond to these intruders traversing their lands. Forts were set up to protect the travelers, mainly from the Native Americans. Treaties were made and broken, there was conflict and massacres. Ultimately they were herded into reservations and forgotten.

Stories were told by the victor and the vanquished. Like everything in history, nothing can be explained or fixed by a sound bites. There is no road back. There is only the opportunity, going forward, to treat others as you wish to be treated.

Name etched in limestone

 

Ruts from wagon wheels


Barb and I have decided, in our retirement that we would like to visit every state in the U.S. There will be a series of blogs chronicling our progress towards our goal, and some sights we saw there.

As a child my family traveled a lot. We settled down in Hawaii, living there longer than any other location. I believed I was an Island boy. I ate exotic foods and spoke pigeon english.  Moving to Minnesota for school I was introduced to a foreign place with temperature extremes I had never experienced before. It was hard for me to embrace this region as home.

Much of my life has been lived in limbo, not able to declare where home was. Before getting married I asked Barb where she would like to live when we got married. There was only one place for her. Minnesota. I would tell people that I lived here for love and the day I stopped loving my wife, would be the day my taillights could be seen headed south.

Children were born and we set about raising them. In time our children had children and they have all freely embraced Minnesota as their home. I still was reluctant to call Minnesota home.

We decided to dip into Barb’s bucket list. She had always wanted to go to Hawaii. So we went. Everything was new to her. For me there were places I recognized, and places I didn’t. Driving down the street I grew up on, I realized that I didn’t recognize the house of my youth. I could have identified it with a bit more persistence. What I realized was that, not only did I not recognize the house, I didn’t recognize the child that grew up in that house.

What I came away with was a deep understanding that Minnesota is my home.  I’m not an island boy, I haven’t spoken pigeon english in fifty years. I am  a Minnesotan. This is where my heart is. This is home.  

IMG_3341Christmas comes like a whirlwind. It starts with the arrival of one family,  then through the morning more families show up. Relatives arrive as well. With each family, there is more chaos. Empty car seats are lined up near the door, like road racers at the starting line.  The couches strain under the weight of winter coats, mounded high, with a few sliding to the floor as the kids fly by.

All the seats are used up and people are sitting on the floor. Chatter and laughter rings through the house. Those who are here are grazing the finger foods, swapping stories and laughing. There is a strong impulse from the toddlers to go down to the basement because that is where Grandma has the big kid toys. It is also where presents like mountain boulders wrapped in Christmas paper and glitter, are piled high around the Christmas tree. The suspense continues as we wait for the rest of the family to arrive.

When all are here, the toddlers, knowing what to expect and not knowing what to expect, stampede down the stairs. What happens next is a cacophony of sights, sounds, and laughter. Time stops as the gift giving continues. I don’t know what time it is. There were excited children, excited parents, excited grandparents.

In my mind I step back and marvel at the gifts I have been given. I have been given the gift of my wife. What an amazing partner she is. As the children have come along, they have taught me how to be a father. Then there are the grandkids. We are just on the cusp of understanding what that means. To have so many little ones so quickly is truly overwhelming in the the best of ways.  I am touched by the thoughtfulness of my children in the gifts they give. I see my children happy, I see their children happy. I see my wife happy.  These are the presents I treasure under our tree.

 

 

I watched two movies that on the surface, appeared completely unrelated, and the conclusions diametrically opposed. Yet they depicted two sides of our human condition. The movies were “Philomena”, and “Calvary”.

The movie, “Philomena”, is the amazing true story of a woman who goes on a journey to find her son. When it was discovered that, as a teenager, she was pregnant and unmarried, her family sent her to live at a convent that took in unwed mothers. In order to cover the costs of the order, children were routinely sold to adoptive families of means, and taken from the Convent. The birth mothers had no power to stop the adoptions and were given no records to find them later in life. Philomena’s son suffered the fate of being adopted. The convent gave her no information , and in fact, gave her false information to thwart her search for her son.

The journey takes some interesting turns. When it is revealed what happened to her son, Philomena has to make a choice as to what reparations she will exact.

The other movie, “Calvary”, opens with Father James in the confessional being told that he is going to be killed within a week. The person threatening the priest gives a litany of sexual abuses he suffered at the hands of a cleric. Father James is told that people would not take notice if the abusive priest were killed, but an innocent priest? That would draw some attention.

Father James goes through the next week attempting to divine who the killer may be and what purpose would be served by the killing. The final scene of “Calvary” is as powerful as the climax of “Philomena” and in the opposite direction.

For me, what links these two powerful movies together is the concept of reparation. How do we heal and move past great injustices? Pursuing vengeance, we find that it doesn’t give us the satisfaction we crave. Striking out, hurts others. If the hurt seek vengeance, the curse continues. If we trust in God’s justice, his love, and his mercy, and and allow Him to make things right, the cycle can stop.

The two movies, taken together make a powerful visual observation of two roads and the consequences each choice entails.

Lately I have been shuttling my wife to work because of a painful knee that has kept her laid up for several weeks. This has resulted in me frequenting places that I don’t usually go. I chauffeured my wife to a meeting that was to take a few hours. During that time I holed up at a coffee shop, taking time to prep for a class later that day.

A woman walked through the door. She looked familiar. It was hard to see her clearly as the sun was shining bright behind her, giving her an angel’s aura. It turned out to be a colleague of mine, CK. The random encounter didn’t seem as wondrous as meeting a friend of mine in Hawaii. ( https://jimcook24.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/an-improbable-encounter/ ). However, it still was a mystery. We commiserated about our jobs. We are close in age and rather than going out with a bang, it seems like the sun has threatened to set on both our careers. We talked about our children and the struggles they faced.

CK was at the coffee house to meet with a student. When the student arrived, it turned out that I knew her as well. That was less surprising to see her, given that CK and I teach many of the same students.

I got the text message to pick up my wife. “Wait,” CK said, “let’s get a picture.” She pointed to a poster board in the front of the store with the picture of a coffee cup and a cut out in the shape of a star. CK bent down, stuck her face in the cutout and gave it her best star-faced pucker. Her student was laughing, while trying to operate the camera. I took my turn, face in the hole, the radiant beams leaving dents in my jowls. We hugged, promising to keep in touch, and I left.

What was the meaning of that random visit? Does there have to be a meaning? I don’t know. It was fun being silly. It was fun seeing her, and maybe we will keep in touch. It was comforting knowing we all suffer in life. I leave the coffee shop feeling less alone, having been reminded that I have a friend. That is enough. I leave the rest to the mystery.

This is a reposting of a blog I posted July 4th, 2012. It sill has a lot of power and even more these days, I espouse to these thoughts.

July 4th. Thoughts turn to country and patriotism. Flags wave and for a brief moment we share a sense of solidarity, taking time to acknowledge our greatness and thanking God for our prosperity. Speeches are spoken, anthems are sung. We ask God to continue to bless us. America, that shining city on a hill. The beacon of hope to the world.

Others are not proud of some of the acts our country and government have perpetrated and allowed. Pointing to our record on civil rights, and the marginalization of whole groups of people, among other atrocities, they expound our country’s guilt.

Carl Jung, a psychologist from the turn of the century, built many of his theories around sets of dualistic principles. Yin-yang if you will. He believed that it was important to embrace both parts of a dichotomy if we were to move forward.

One of his dualistic concepts was the persona and the shadow. Briefly stated, the persona is what we present to the world, the part of us that looks desirable. We are happy to put our persona on display. The shadow is the part of us that we take pains not to show. It is the part of us we would rather not admit. Jung stated that we are both the persona and the shadow. To deny either one is to deny who you are.

So on this July 4th, I will acknowledge my immense gratitude to my country that has given me so much. I will accept that there are parts of our story, past and present that are detestable. I will acquiesce that there is no call for smugness, that our shining city on a hill has some dark and disturbing ghettos. I will embrace our goodness and our darkness. For to deny one is to negate the other. Persona and shadow.

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

Many could continue the next verses. It is a well loved hymn and is recognized by many, both within the church and without.

John Newton wrote the words to the song partly from an experience in 1748. He was a captain of a slave ship. On one of his passages, encountered a violent storm where he and the crew feared for their lives. They cried out for mercy. When the storm passed, and all were still alive, John believed God had spared his life. In his gratitude he pledged to follow God. His conversion didn’t happen right away. It took seven years for him to quit the slave trade, and more from health concern than from conscience.

The story can be framed thus. John, is a disgusting and despicable man. The ship he is captaining encounters a fierce storm, where all were feared for their lives. John called out to God, pleading for him to show mercy, and spare his life. According to John, his prayer was answered. God spares his life. This story could be used as an example of a loving God answering the prayer of a desperate and unworthy sinner.

While this is an inspiring story from John’s perspective, and fits the point of view of many a church-goer, there are other points of view, that have a tendency to create discomfort. How do we tell the story of human traffic being held in claustrophobic holds so cramped they cannot even sit up? Is it possible to believe in a God of mercy, when the horror around them point to a God who is not even paying attention to their plight? Could we blame those slaves, who, if given the opportunity, wrenched mercy from God into their own hands, diving into the sea, and letting their chains drag them down until they drowned?

Stories have multiple facets. There is truth on all sides. Some perspectives are more comfortable and confirming to tell. Some stories are not so easily told. Perception becomes our reality.

It is remarkable that the song,”Amazing grace” is so recognizable, and is performed so often, by such diverse groups. With a dubious beginning, it has risen to become one of the most recognizable hymns of the church. Perhaps, even with all facets stories present, there is a deep and universal truth, that we are all looking for grace, whether captain or slave, that we feel undeserving of that grace, but when it is bestowed, we experience as wonder.

Seeing a trailer in the theatre for the new movie “Noah”, I chuckled. In the dark I leaned over to my wife, and whispered, “Well this is one movie I won’t need to see.” My wife agreed. I am familiar with the story of Noah, so I didn’t think I needed to see a big budget CGI (computer generated images) Blockbuster-fest. They really don’t interest me these days. As the reviews rolled in I was even more convinced that I didn’t need to see this film, gratified that this was one movie I could take off my list of “must-sees.”

Then I read a review of Noah from Cathleen Falsani. While some may believe she engaged in a bit of hyperbole, two sentences caught my eye. “Crowe’s Noah is incredibly compelling. Rather than a two-dimensional cartoon of a man, his Noah is truly human — complicated and conflicted, at times brooding and broken, but ultimately redeemed. He must navigate apocalypses both real and relational, searching imperfectly for a balance between justice and mercy that Thomas Aquinas says is found “in everyone of God’s works.” http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/03/27/noah-deeply-passionately-biblical.

Okay, that hooked me. My wife doesn’t go for these types of flicks, no matter how compelling Noah might be. My daughter was coming into town from college and would be up for taking in a movie. So she and I went.

I found the movie fascinating. Both my daughter and I agreed that the movie became far more intriguing, the further it went into the story. Granted, holding it up to the biblical narrative, there are parts that did not line up.

The biggest takeaway for me was the question of revelation. If you believe God has entrusted you with a task, where is the balance point between rigidly staying the course, and allowing for new direction, further revelation, a more flexible faith. Noah believed he knew what God had asked him to do. Part of that revelation was his belief that mankind was to die out because what they had been successful at was fouling their own nest. They held in contempt what had been bestowed by the creator. By her grandfather gifting Lia,(Noah’s adopted daughter) with a fertile womb, reversing her barrenness, and by Noah’s inability to kill his grandchildren, his focus is modified. Noah, in the end, adopts a vision that is more life affirming. I believe that question is very relevant, even today.

There are other themes that I enjoyed in the movie. Overall I found it to be a thought provoking experience.

As reviews continue to flow in I am amazed by how many people are bothered by this depiction of Noah. Can you believe it? Noah is vegan, Noah is an environmental nutter, Noah’s God hates mankind. The director is an atheist.

For me a movie is a story, told by a storyteller, from the storyteller’s perspective. I have to believe that cultures that function through oral tradition deal with this all the time. Stories help me understand the world from differing perspectives. For example if Aronofsky, the writer and director of the film, is an atheist, does that mean that he doesn’t have a valid story to tell? Can we not even listen to a vision that differs from ours? If he uses the story of Noah to illustrate his perspective, how does that differ from the story of Cain and Abel, used as a scaffold to create the book and the movie “East of eden”?

Movies are remade all the time. Stories are retold all the time. Many times stories are told from a different perspective. It is more compelling if you do. Changing it up allows us to understand subtle motivations of the main characters. One example is “Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory”, and “Charlie and the chocolate factory”. They follow roughly the same story but they are very different movies. And soon to be released will be “Godzilla”. I’m not sure where to go with that one.

I liked the movie “Noah”, because it encouraged me to consider different ways of viewing the world. Just because it didn’t tell the story exactly as the Bible told it, doesn’t destroy the story, the Bible, or my belief. It gave me something worthwhile to consider and increase my perception of my human condition. For that I am appreciative.

Having stated an opinion about the movie, one should never forget that this is also a business venture. While it was a movie that made me think, there are investors on the line who stand to win or lose big. Focus groups have determined which version of the movie is thought to have the largest draw. No one wants to be that director who lost millions.

Also, how come I haven’t seen Tubal-Cain picked on. After all he was believed to be the first freemason, in a long line of masons that included George Washington, to name just one.

I did think Noah and his family looked pretty Caucasian. I believe they were brought in to ensure the film had star power, a business decision.

In the end, I enjoyed the movie. It made me think, I was entertained, and the next morning I got up and carried on with my life.

I have resisted the urge to enter the Phil Robertson /Duck Dynasty controversy for a few days. While I have strong opinions about what I have been reading, many writers have made excellent points about the conflict. I decided to enter the fray because of what I have not heard. With all the press, it may have been mentioned, and I may have missed it.

To be upfront I don’t watch the series, and don’t plan to. I’ve had one exposure to the show, an episode of the TV program “Last Man Standing,” where Si and Willie Robertson, from Duck Dynasty, ham it up with Tim Allen and company. Other than that I am only aware of what I have read.

As I understand it Phil Robertson, reported to be the patriarch of the family, was interviewed and made comments as to what he believes regarding homosexuality and racial issues among other things. Some believe he was set up and ambushed. Upon hearing the interview,the TV channel A&E that produces the show pronounced the statements Phil made were not in keeping with the values of their organization, and suspended their contract with him. When his comments were released to the public he was labeled a homophobe and a racist. The pile on began. One side was outraged that he had expressed such insensitivity towards racial minorities and homosexuals. On the other side were those who saw Phil as being pilloried for vocalizing his Christian beliefs.

For the record, in our country Phil has the right to speak his mind. A&E has the right to suspend him from the show. People who are upset with A&E’s decision have the right to boycott the company and their sponsors. Those who disagree with Phil have the right to call him names. Those who agree with him have the right to claim he is suffering for his faith.

As Americans, we have a plethora of rights. In fact we have defined inalienable rights. On the other hand if you choose to follow Jesus’ example he encourages us to let go of our rights. I would have to say that in following this controversy there has been more focus on who has what right than on who’s letting go of rights. I have heard and read how Phil is persecuted for his faith. A pretty low threshold of persecution if you ask me.

It seems that living in the USA we have to make choices. Claiming our rights or giving up our rights. We can’t do both.

What I haven’t heard in this silly situation are the words that Jesus spoke when he was persecuted. His persecution involved taunts, mocking, and hateful speech hurled at him. His persecution involved nails driven into flesh. His persecution was a slow agonizing death.

His response to being persecuted? “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”

I can’t say I’ve read anything even close to those words from any of the supporters, friends, or family of persecuted Phil. It appears that many of the faithful are striving to restore Phil’s rights which would be antithetical to what Jesus asks us to do.

Lest we lose perspective about what is really going on, here is a reality check: This is a TV show! All the flap over what was said or meant means ratings. The members of the show will have ongoing celebrity status regardless as to whether the show continues or not.

Maybe a story like this shouldn’t be used to illustrate the persecution of Christians, especially in the light of real persecution going on around the world. Maybe Christians shouldn’t be making role models of our entertainers. Maybe Christians should be looking at how they can give their rights away rather than demanding that they get every right American freedom grants them. Maybe a story like the unfolding Duck Dynasty story should just be a story about the entertainment industry, and not a mini-passion play.

This week remarkable images circulated the web. Pope Francis was photographed caressing, blessing and kissing the head of an extremely disfigured man. I am moved to tears when I revisit the photos of the encounter.

I don’t know the back story of this miserable man. If I am honest, I find it difficult contemplating whether I could touch let alone embrace this child of God. And yet Pope Francis reaches out and touches him.

He doesn’t qualify the man’s political leanings, whether he is working poor or lazy poor. He doesn’t verify his standing in the church. He simply embraces him. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becomes a servant and bestows the act of affection on a child of God.

In America’s religious/political arena, some advocate America getting back to the “godly” principles they believe were at the founding of this nation. Much of their rhetoric is harsh and inflexible. The focus seems to be winning elections so ideology can be constrained on its citizens.

The Pope has spoken about the direction he desires the church to head in. He oversees a politically charged organization. There are significant issues that the Catholic Church has to account for. And yet it is the Pope’s fearless examples of love that is garnering the most attention. Through his acts of love and servanthood he demonstrates his priorities. Following Jesus’s example of leading by being a servant, the Pope leads by being a servant as well.

I look at the grotesque man under the Ring of the Fisherman. I question whether I could embrace such a misfortunate man. I find myself stepping back in revulsion. Pope Francis, though his actions, encourages me to place love above fear. He exhorts me to look diligently for the image of God in each person and invites me to love.

This is how we love the world. This is how we change the world. Not through religious and political strong arming, but through fearless expressions of love.

Pope Francis’s gentle touch and loving kiss gently inspires me. “Yes you can my child. This is how you do it.”