“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.

For Your Reading Pleasure…

I am happy to announce that I have published a small collection of some of my writings. “The View from Right Field – Thoughts on God, Life & the Stuff in Between” is a collection of stories and essays that range from reflections on the church and spiritual life to rural America and journeys overseas as well as 2 short stories that delve into the mystery of lost Spanish gold and the tumult of the Reformation era.

You can read on-line or download for free from Smashbooks. fair & courteous feedback appreciated!

P.S. – Right field is not right wing!

“Hominem te Momento”

What’s so terrifying about a pandemic?

The unknowable – the uncontrollable – the unpredictable – the uncertainty – subvert my sense (and our shared cultural belief) of mastery over my future, my sense of control over my fate, my desire to be without need of others, without dependence on the actions of others – and  that sickness, health, death are a matter of my choice (and what I should have done –  diet, exercise, washing hands) and not the random, vagaries of a sneeze, a cough, an expelled droplet of virus infected fluid.

A virus pandemic is a “memento mori,” a reminder we are from dust and ultimately not the masters of life or death, whispering in our ear “Remember you are only a man.”

Life is but a brief layover

Suicide

The news of the death of Anthony Bourdain was a shock to hear. I admit I don’t watch much TV, so I confess my ignorance, but he seems to have had a love for life, for adventure, for people and of course for good stuff to eat. Food seems to have been the medium to build bridges between people of different lands and cultures. Why he killed himself is even more a mystery.  That is not judgement of his actions – but my pondering about what happens in a person’s life when they determine that their life is over.

Some months ago, a man I knew also ended his life – with a gun. I saw him the week before and he discussed business plans he had for his future. I recall no despair or sadness or a hint of what he was thinking of doing. He was stressed by his responsibilities but future oriented. I was shocked, saddened and angry at what he did to himself and what he left behind for his family, friends, and employees. As an older, white male, he fit the demographic profile of those who succeed at suicide. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but I wish there had been someone who did and had been able to help him choose differently. My assumption is that life is worth living – yours and mine, as people made in the image of God.

I know the theological opinions of some, past and present are harsh towards those who end their life. I focus on God’s mercy, which he delights to show (Micah 7:18), for the friends, the family and loved ones left behind and the one who decided such a course.

For those who hurt and suffer, there are people who care genuinely – reach out, don’t go it alone. There are people who will listen.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

Text CONNECT to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis.

Where Christ is Crucified Again

Religious institutionalism and exploitative consumerism turn Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death into a historical artifact to be dusted off once a year.  Artifacts are convenient ways to ignore a disturbing truth.

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Christ’s suffering, death and victory on the cross are not only to be remembered as past tense, but are a present reality. Jesus’ death in the action of the Lord’s Table is a commanded practice, a remembrance, a proclamation of his victory (1 Cor. 11:26), a communion of a present reality between heaven and earth (1 Cor. 10:16), and a foretaste of his coming again in glory (1 Cor. 11:26).

Yet, Christ may be crucified again as the writer of Hebrews mentions (6:6).

Where is Christ crucified again?

celtic-cross-5329871

In the denial of his own people of his saving atonement or in the abandonment of their covenant with him when they substitute earthly powers for his Lordship whether out of fear or political or worldly expediency or their own self-righteousness for his blood bought gift.

He is also crucified again in the sufferings of his people who face rejection, loss, threats, beatings, prison or death whether in Iran, India or China.

He is also crucified again in the suffering of countless and nameless people all over the world who are flogged, tortured, kept behind bars, denied justice and voice to defend themselves as he was in the name of national security or the war on drugs or terror whether in Guatemala or Guantanamo.

In the prayers of the desperate and abandoned, and the singing of his saints, his cry of forsakenness and abandonment (Mt. 27:46) and his declaration of victory (John 19:30) have not been silenced.

Forbidden Observances

PuritanChristmasBan

“Merry Christmas” has become the rallying cry of the jingoism of the (t)Rump pseudo-nationalistic ideology. However, Christmas has not always been popular even among Christians. In 1647, the Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting and considering it “a popish festival with no biblical justification”, and “a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.” On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature officially banned Christmas and gave anyone found celebrating it a fine of five shillings

“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God & offense of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county.”

Cotton Mather, New England’s most influential religious leader, told his flock in 1712 that “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty…by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!”

Most Western churches mark Dec. 25 for the liturgical celebration of Christ’s birth though the date is historically unreliable and most likely inaccurate. Many Eastern Orthodox churches mark the incarnation on Epiphany typically the first Sunday in January. Some, who are in the Puritan tradition make no big deal about it. Roman 14:5 tells us “one person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” That seems like a wise policy that spares making “much ado about nothing.” Sadly, Trump’s hijacking and distortion of the day to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation is far more damaging than any supposed “war on Christmas.” Slogans may pump up the crowds but it’s not the faith the church has confessed in the words “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

So then, either way, have a Merry Christmas, an incredible Incarnation, an effulgent Epiphany, and Happy Hanukkah or for any neo-pagans, a Super Saturnalia!