Sunday, June 21, 2015

PLAYING CATCH WITH DAD


California Dreaming with Dad, Pacific Ocean, CA

FATHER'S DAY, 2015

As a young man playing baseball, my father was scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals and offered a low paying position at shortstop on their farm club. He decided to abandon the dream and stay at home to help the family. That major decision in my father’s life quite probably resulted in our family’s creation. It’s good to have goals and dreams in life, but when life throws you a curve ball, it just might not be strike three. It could be ball four and a pass to begin a new path around the bases that leads to a new home. Only later after his too early death did I begin to also understand the time and patience he spent to teach me the baseball skills he had acquired. I didn’t become a professional baseball player either, but I learned that we’ve got to work hard at something to be really good at it, sportsmanship, a love for athletics, how to be a team player, developing lasting friendships with teammates, the thrill of competition, how to be a good winner as well as a good loser, and the love of a father to impart his passion to his child so that the dream remains alive.

And like the movie Field of Dreams, some of the best times involved the simple act of playing catch in the backyard. It’s a very human act of I-give-to-you and you-give-back connectedness, many times discussing something about life and many times in serene silence, with just the sound of the rawhide ball hitting the leather glove. The final act of redemption in the movie unfortunately doesn’t happen all too often in real life. The prodigal son gets a second chance to say, “Hey dad, you wanna have a catch”? And his dad replies, “I’d like that”.

The good news is that I’m confident they play baseball in heaven.

Monday, June 15, 2015

CREATING GARDENS



Formal Gardens, Versailles, France
Botanical Gardens, St. Louis, MO
Woodland Garden Path, Jamestown, NC

I’m just one generation off the farm, so I consider that I still have the dusty remnants of wind-blown plowed fields flowing in my veins. I actually enjoy yard work and planting living organisms in the ground. Every spring I get a primeval urge to go outside and dig in the dirt. Once I’ve started the process, things just go with the flow as I view my minute piece of the planet and envision how I can add beauty and symmetry to my immediate surroundings. It turns out to be an ongoing process as nature is constantly evolving and the circle of life goes on as we complete another trip around the sun. Trees mature providing more shade that favors different types of greenery or river rock woodland paths. Shady woodland paths morph into quiet meditative environs that lend themselves to centering our mind in preparation for being still and knowing our Creator. His spirit gently moves in the wind that rustles the leaves and soothes our brow.

The concept of creating gardens goes way, way back to our beginnings in the Garden of Eden—a paradise which God created for his new human beings that were sculpted from the star dust of the Big Bang and given stewardship over it all. Scholars now believe this garden was located in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian Cradle of Civilization in present day Iraq. These humans were created in the image of God whose character was beginning to be revealed immediately in the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth”. Our God loves to create and so do we. Gardens are an endless expression of that creativity and beautifully reflect His creation. My favorite image from the Genesis story is seeing God walking through the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the morning.

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in present day Iraq. Unfortunately, everything we know about these overhanging gardens comes from accounts of people who never saw them. Rulers in the ancient Near East were known to construct elaborate gardens as a political statement. The gardens contained examples of the places that had been conquered and annexed as a microcosm of the empire. So was the Garden of Eden. So is my little piece of the earth. Although its reach is rather limited, it is enough.

In Voltaire’s classic satire, Candide is told by his mentor Professor Pangloss that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds in spite of a succession of serious hardships in his life. The disillusioned Candide later receives some practical advice from a small farmer to simply focus on working in order to keep free of three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity. Pangloss then observes that “when man was put in the Garden of Eden he was put there to work; which proves that man was not born for rest”. Candide takes in all this philosophizing and then replies, “That is well said, but we must cultivate our garden” which concludes the story.

Of all the paths we take in life, we need to make sure some of them are dirt so that we can walk bare footed and feel the warmth of the good earth between our toes. And we need to spend quality time working a garden so that we can sense the coolness of our beginnings between our fingers.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

THE RED EGG


Gilded Onion Domes, St. Mary of Magdalene Church, Jerusalem, Israel

As we go along in life we slowly recognize those eternal truths that are part of the human experience. One of these truths reminds us that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, its corollary is that history is written by the winners. So it is inevitably slanted to the point of view of those in power and the conquerors. The first century culture in Jesus’ time and place was definitely male dominated and for the most part remains so today.

The books of the Bible were mostly written by men through their filtered biases and cultural experience, albeit they were most certainly inspired in their writings. They didn’t give Mary Magdalene a whole lot of credit as one of Jesus’s most trusted disciples so she didn’t get much press at the time. But there is an often overlooked beautiful Russian Orthodox church dedicated to her which is located directly across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount near the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Jesus frequently met his disciples here, wept for the Jewish nation here and it was here that he began his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on that fateful Palm Sunday shortly before his death on a cross.

The seven gilded onion domes caught my photographer’s eye as we entered the Garden of Gethsemane. I took just one photo not knowing what I was shooting but knowing that it was a unique feature on this sacred landscape surrounded by thousands of ancient Jewish tombstones. Later I learned that it was the church of St. Mary Magdalene and it was built by Czar Alexander III in 1888.

The centerpiece inside the church contains a giant white marble and bronze screen painted with the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Above the screen is a painting of Mary Magdalene standing before Emperor Tiberius in Rome. She is holding a red egg. Church tradition tells of Mary bringing an egg to Tiberius and declaring, “Christ has risen!”, since she was the first to see her risen Lord. Tiberius is said to have responded, “How could anyone rise from the dead? It is as impossible as that egg turning red!” As he spoke the egg turned a crimson red symbolizing Jesus’ sacrificial blood. The custom of dying eggs on Easter is believed to have come from this story.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

BROKEN WINDOWS AND GRAFFITI II




27,000 Year Old Cave Print, Indonesia
Hazy New York Skyline, New York City, NY
Street Graffiti, West Bank, Israel


Crude sketches have been showing up on walls since the dawn of civilization. Neanderthal cave drawings have illustrated the trophy animals that were hunted for survival along with the artist’s hand print. American G.I.’s left the ubiquitous sketch of “Kilroy was here” throughout the arenas of World War II. My first trips to Mexico and Honduras immediately caught my attention as I passed the walls of buildings in whole communities covered in graffiti. It was generally accompanied with widespread littering along the road sides, especially on the outskirts of the towns. This isn’t a new problem, but it is a sort of “canary in a coal mine” indication that the people in these areas have succumbed to civil disobedience and apathy. Even poverty-stricken areas have the means to pick up their trash and not deface their own surroundings. I’ve witnessed graffiti on buildings from major cities like New York City to smaller communities like Bethlehem, Israel.

There are those who would claim some forms of graffiti in the cities are art, but it is plainly juvenile vandalism and blatant disrespect for civil order in their own neighborhoods. It always defaces the private property of someone else. In many cases in impoverished areas where someone is simply struggling to survive. In many cases, it represents criminal activity and worse. It’s a leading indicator that social controls and respect for law and order has disintegrated, making these public spaces vulnerable to even more serious civil disorder and law breaking. Disorder has been shown to breed fear in a neighborhood. That fear prompts those who have the means to leave, resulting in a further disintegration of facilities and order.

New York City embraced the academic “theory of broken windows” proposed by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. They observed that the physical disorder of broken windows, vacant buildings and trashed vacant lots lead to social disorder and fear among the inhabitants. I would add the ubiquitous presence of graffiti all over the community also contributes. However, these would all seem to be the symptoms of the more contentious root social problems of poverty, education, opportunity and a breakdown of the core family with a basic lack of respect for authority.

When New York City police commissioner William Bratton resigned in 1996 after pursuing a quality of life initiative to restore social order on the streets, felonies were down almost forty percent and the homicide rate had been halved. I’m concerned by all the social disorder these days in this country. We have systems in place to deal with our problems and violence has never been shown to be as effective as the peaceful civil disobedience practices of Gandhi, King and Christ. If we don’t learn from history, we’ll continue on our regressive path to once again be sketching animals on cave walls.

WALKING THE STREETS




West Bank Market, Palestine
Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem
Street Hawkers, Kidron Valley


I’ve returned from many business trips around the country where people would ask me how I liked the city I had just visited. And many times I would have to simply reply that I had frankly only experienced an airport terminal, a taxi, a hotel and a business office. With the exception of extended business trips abroad and in the United States, I really never had time to get acquainted with a city or an area unless I had the time to walk the streets, browse the shops and talk to the locals. Travelling on personal time to a city of your choice is the best way to become familiar with a location and its people.

Many folks asked me upon our return from Israel if I had felt safe in this unsettled country. My reply was that the ubiquitous presence of security wherever we traveled gave me much more of a sense of safety than other countries where I ventured such as Mexico and Honduras. And as with travel anywhere, it’s always a good idea to be constantly aware of your surroundings and not venture into unsafe territory. The uncertainty of life keeps it interesting and adventurous.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY


Blooming Desert, Jordan Valley, Israel

I’m sure a lot of the perspective we have about the Middle Eastern lands comes from the war-torn videos we see on television and the internet. The country seems to be void of green vegetation which is comprised of lots of rocky outcroppings and sandy desert landscapes. The Bible relates stories of God leading his chosen people out of bondage from Egypt to a land of milk and honey. But I’ve always had a difficult time relating to this description of the land considering my limited contemporary views of the area.

My recent travels to Israel in the lower Jordan River valley was quite a pleasant eye-opener. The Jordan meanders nearly 200 miles south between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It is only 65 miles as the crow flies. And we found this area to be very alive with a variety of green crops. The fertile alluvial soil, abundant rainfall and level ground has rendered the land here highly favored for settlement over the centuries. Matthew records that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity”. The valley roads also attracted commerce and military might in the ancient world, making the lower Galilee a strategic prize.

When the new country of Israel was formed after World War II in 1948, Jewish immigrants from all over the world arrived to discover they had a long dormant talent for agriculture. Even though Israel is a relatively small country, ancient Israel was half the size! This gathering is also one of the key signs of the end times. If you notice the cleared field in the foreground of this photo I took from atop the ancient ruins of a Canaanite sentry position, irrigation lines are assuring the production of abundant crops. We even passed fields of ripening, waving wheat reminiscent of my native Kansas heartland as we journeyed through this fertile valley. And a dairy farm!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

COOPENS


Coupon, Jamestown, NC

SENIOR LIVING PARADISE

I went to CVS pharmacy this morning armed with a “Save $6.00 off $30 Purchase” coupon. That’s another way of saying you get no more than 20% off! After all, who among us can resist a deal and besides, I didn't want to get the marketing manager fired who needs to pay off a six figure student loan. Comedian Ron White likes to call these “coopens” which actually seems more appropriate for some reason.

I just needed a few items, so I added a few more I didn’t need to jack my total past $30 and lower my final discount percentage. The cashier and I exchanged pleasantries and he asked to scan my CVS card while we solved the world’s problems in less than 60 seconds.

It was only when I returned home and emptied my pockets that I discovered I still had the "coopen"-------just another day in senior paradise. Maybe that's why they're called "coopens", because you never end up using them. They stay cooped up in your pocket!

FAIR



Summertime Celebration, Wrighsville Beach, NC
Cheers, Kiawah Island Ocean Course, SC


Summertime Arnold Palmers

Golf imitates life and neither are fair. Fair is where clowns, cotton candy and pig judging happen. When golf gives you triple bogey snowmen and life brings you lemons, celebrate summertime with an iced Arnold Palmer!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

TOWERS OF POWER




Bell Tower and Minaret, Bethany, Israel
Minaret, Jerusalem, Israel
Bell Tower, Lower Jordan Valley, Jordan


After the great flood Noah’s descendants migrated to the land of Shinar, speaking one language and determined to unite as one. They set out to build a great city between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with an ancient world wonder at the center in the form of a monumental ziggurat. These Babylonian temples looked like pyramids with ramps leading up the sides to the top. However, it seems that this Tower of Babel was constructed mainly to honor and stroke the egos of the human builders more than facilitating the worship of God. The primary reason that they were well on their way to achieving this unprecedented feat centered on their common language that enabled them to coordinate such a monumental undertaking. But they were creating a monument to themselves in their image. The motivation was not in glory to God, but in place of God. We humans are still creating monuments of self-promotion and self-worth, both on a personal and national scale.

God saw how the human race was once again drifting away to self-absorption, aggrandizement, and personal decline, so he confused their language so that they couldn’t understand one another anymore. He had already promised with the sign of a rainbow to never again completely destroy the earth with floods. The resultant consequence was a scattering of the people over the face of the earth and the subsequent assembly of those speaking common languages. The construction at Babel was abandoned.

After traveling out of my comfort zone to countries speaking different languages, I have to wonder if that event didn’t result in what folks call unintended consequences. When we encounter another human being that speaks another language, communication is stymied at best if not completely shut down. I can’t help but wonder if the world wouldn’t be in a better place today if we all spoke the same language. I suspect many other unique languages simply arose from pockets of humans in isolation from others who created their own means of communication. I’ve heard that Eskimos for instance have a wide variety of words to define snow, given that it is so prevalent in their little corner of the world. I’ve also read that one of the many signs of the end times will be the emergence of a common language for mankind—sort of a return to our beginnings. It’s interesting to note that there are now computer applications that can take one language and immediately translate it into another foreign language. That isn’t necessarily one common language, but it is approaching one common means of directly communicating with anyone in the world today.

We humans still like to construct towers in our cities. This story immediately reminded me of the financial twin towers in New York City and the new Freedom Tower that has replaced them. We passed a multitude of minarets and bell towers in Israel that tower over the local buildings and broadcast a call to prayer through their large speakers and bells. They remind us of our priorities and the divine being that is greater than all of us.