Pilgrimage In the Midst of the Refugee Crisis


Six months ago when a friend and I began planning a trip to two resort areas in Europe, refugees coming to Europe were not on our radar. Only days before our journey did we begin to take notice. We arrived in Germany and passed through Munich, traveling by train, a day or two after 40,000 migrants had arrived there from Austria, but as we awaited a train to Austria, we didn’t see evidence of the crisis occurring in that city. It was only later, after we had arrived at our destination in the Alps south of Salzburg, that we saw on television that officials in Munich were feeling overwhelmed and were asking their government to intervene.

The next day we learned that Germany was putting border controls in place to limit the flow of migrants. We went into Salzburg and asked officials at the train station what that would mean for our planned travel back into and across Germany on Friday. That day the man we spoke with said that high speed trains were still running. He said things could change by the hour and suggested we check back later in the week.

Following that advice, when we were again in Salzburg a few days later, we checked once more. This time we were told that no trains were allowed to cross the border from Austria to Germany. We could, however, cross into Germany at Freilassing. At the time we didn’t know where that was, and the official was not inclined to explain. The desk clerk back at our hotel turned out to be more helpful, looking online and explaining that we would have to go to Salzburg by train, then take a taxi or bus to the border town, cross the border, and then catch the train again.

During our several trips through the Salzburg train station, I had noticed some differences from an earlier visit to the city. First was that there were many more people in the station, many just sitting around. Another was a high police presence. And finally, the plaza outside the station was filled with Red Cross tents. One day I saw police escort a small group of people toward a waiting bus.

On Friday, the day we were to leave Austria, we got an early start as we had been advised. We arrived at the Salzburg train station and checked again. We would have to go to Freilassing. Outside, we found a taxi. The driver didn’t really want to go to Freilassing because of the congested traffic. It wasn’t that far – about five kilometers north, but he could not estimate how long it would take. He agreed to take us though he mentioned several times the “waste of time due to traffic.”

As we traveled and waited in traffic, we talked with the driver. He himself had come to Austria from Somalia fifteen years ago because of that country’s wars. “Life is good here,” he said of Austria. It was not good in Somalia.

We crossed the border on a bridge where police stopped every vehicle and checked passengers. In our case our driver just rolled down the windows so the police could see us. They gave an okay and we soon arrived at the train station. Our taxi fare was thirty euros. An American couple we met there had come by bus, probably cheaper, but they had to wait for the police to board the bus and check travel documents of Middle Eastern-looking people.

At the train station in Freilassing again there were police and several soldiers. Groups of people were being guided to a spot where they were boarding buses or waiting for the next bus. On the platform tables with food, clothing, and what looked like sleeping mats stood near the station door. A train was waiting. We were struggling with our luggage on stairs trying to get to the right place. Two young German soldiers came up and carried our bags and put them on the train for us. The travelers getting on the train seemed to be primarily tourists. Migrants seemed to be directed to buses.

Our journey from that point on to Stockholm, Sweden was relatively un- eventful. There we had a few hours before the train to our destination during which we had a good meal. Then we found our way to a platform where we were to get the train. As we waited, a large group of people arrived accompanied by police and several other people who appeared to be guiding and interpreting. We soon realized these were among the many migrants. The group was more men than women, but there were several families with young children and one older woman. Our train turned out to be running about two hours late so we had a long wait with the group. We watched the toddlers running around and observed how the migrants acted as a community in keeping them from danger. When Red Cross workers came through giving them snacks and juice boxes for the children, I took out my cell phone to take a picture of the children. Several men sitting on the floor near where we were sitting on a bench took notice. One in particular wanted his picture taken. He helped me make a selfie of myself and him. He spoke a little English, so we began a communication. We learned that the group was headed to Finland and mimicked coming from a much warmer climate to a cold one. Individuals in the group looked tired, as we were also. It was late at night. We had a sleeper compartment booked. I think our fellow travelers were just eager for a train. They also looked happy and excited to be on their way and patient in their waiting for the train.

I reflected as we were experiencing all this on how alike we all were there for a couple hours, a long way from home, sitting in the cold waiting for a very late train and not knowing when or if it was going to come. Yet for my friend and me, the destination was a resort hotel and then a return home to our lives in the US. Our fellow travelers were leaving, possibly forever, what they had known as home and were going to an entirely new and very different place in hopes of making a home.

They train finally came and we all scrambled to find the cars we were to be in. Somewhere during the night, part of the train separated carrying the migrants on toward Finland. Our part got a different engine and went deeper into Sweden. But we keep wondering about the continuing journey of our fellow travelers of that evening.

Abuse of the Name of God


 

I have been a long time away from my blog. Circumstances of my life have played a part in this absence, but when I reflect, I think that is not all. I had wanted my blog to be uplifting, to bring ideas that would challenge but in a hopeful way. I have, however, not found much to be hopeful about during my web silence. Then, this morning while journaling I came to a realization. I have some really negative and angry thoughts that I keep suppressing. It’s hard to come up with anything of a hopeful nature when I am refusing to face the darkness that is troubling me. I can avoid it and pretend, but that leaves me empty, tired, unmotivated, and wordless.

I recently read Karen Armstrong’s book, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis. In it she emphasized that the great stories in the first book of the Bible are filled with struggle and wrestling with God. The divine revelation did not come to the patriarchs easily and in a form that was always pleasant. Often it came through dark and puzzling events.

So, here I am today in one of those places – a rather cloudy day outside and within myself. Is a storm on the horizon? I feel the tempest brewing internally from all those angry moments I have suppressed. The leading question coming to my mind is why is it that so often religion seems to bring out the bad in so many of us? A part of my mental and emotional storminess right now is about the brutality that is taking place in the world in the name of the divine – and what I hear in political ads. We can point to the young women recently kidnapped in Nigeria as an example of misdirected zeal of a religious nature.

There are some scientists who say that religion should be abolished because of that very thing – the evils done in its name. They say the world would be better off without any belief in God. But would that really solve the problem? It seems an overly simplistic solution. If we did away with religions, would people automatically stop fighting and hurting each other? After all, there are other powerful motivators – money and power, for example. Is it really about religion, or is it more about who is in control? I would suggest that it is more about power and/or the fear of powerlessness. When we look at the world today, this global village, as we call it, let’s look at the inequities.

And this brings me to the real questions about the abuse of the name of God. Not only do we hear the name of God or religious belief uttered where extreme violence is taking place, but we hear it a great deal in other arenas where the outcomes are much more subtle and deceptive. I speak here specifically of American politics.

I live near a city where a few years ago a great deal of energy went into a fight over having prayer at the beginning of city council meetings. This same city recently experienced the arrest of some thirty people involved in human trafficking. It is one of four in the state that lead the nation in food insecurity. The problem I have with the energy and money spent over the fight and court case to preserve prayer at city council meetings is that hunger and human trafficking can be going on under the noses of the praying city council and the council is not outraged and making some great effort to correct the problems. This, I contend, is a misuse of the name of God.

Hunger statistics likewise place the state in which I live as one of the two leading the country in food insecurity. In recent years the governor and legislature, largely put in office by money donated and support given from one of the wealthiest men in the state, have taken a number of actions that have reduced assistance to people in need. While large bonuses have gone to political aids, teachers have gone six years without a raise; education has taken a massive hit. But in the name of God, legislation has taken place to limit the rights of citizens in an attempt to legislate what some would call “Christian values” into place. In addition, the tax structure has been changed in a way that hurts the poorest and benefits the wealthiest. Again, I find any allusion to Christianity and the name of God in recent politics in the state an abuse of such.

American politicians using Christianity and God in their efforts to sway the masses is nothing new. It has been going on for several decades now and has succeeded in recent years in keeping Congress deadlocked and ineffectual in dealing with the problems of our country. It is a fact that the wealthiest few have steadily distanced themselves in income from the majority, and it is the wealthiest few who can successfully donate themselves into a position of controlling many politicians. But the strategists steer away from the money to try to push public hot buttons in the name of religious values. That is abuse of the name of God and real Christ-like values. Didn’t Jesus align himself with the poor and underprivileged and come down a bit hard on the wealthy and privileged?

Of course, using God or religion to further one’s cause is nothing new. The major religious traditions of the world, at least those called the Abrahamic religions, have been doing it throughout history. And this is one of the reasons the scientists who say the world would be better off without religion make their claim. Leaders, viewing themselves as God’s chosen, have committed untold evils against others. In the name of God and church the Crusades took place and the Inquisitions. Many places in America were taken violently by Europeans who pressed their culture and religion on Native Americans if in one way or another they didn’t kill them first.

And as for our American founding fathers who, according to some, began this nation on Christian values, I challenge you to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography – all the way to the end where he says that in his adult life he had little use for going to church. Read good biographies, as well, of Jefferson who cut out parts of the Bible he didn’t agree with and fathered a child with a slave, and of Washington and others. While some of the European settlers came to America for freedom of religion – though they didn’t grant it to others who disagreed with them – others came for more arcane purposes, namely to find the wealth of a new territory and to exploit it. Many of our great founding fathers were deists more influenced by philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries than the Christian values attributed to then.

Much of what the religious right in America calls its values came out of the revivalism of the 19th Century, not from the constitution or even earlier religious tradition. Our founding fathers addressed as rights things that were a concern for them at the time because of the political situation they were in. They had come from centuries of fighting over religion in Europe and swings from Catholic to Protestant to Puritan and back again. Thus, they included freedom of religion. They had first been colonies subservient to kings who wanted the wealth from the new land. So, they said no taxation without representation and did not set up a monarchy. The mother countries in Europe were beginning a long period of colonialism that would go on to affect most of the rest of the world and leave as part of its aftermath the political dissention and unrest still stirring across the globe today. They subdued many areas by force and by not allowing colonists to bear arms. The right to bear arms given in the constitution comes from specifics of the situation at the time.

Current conservative politicians encourage a shallow knowledge of history, the Constitution, and religion. It is only if the people are uninformed and thus easily swayed with double-talk that they can achieve their goal: gaining power and control to further their agendas, that which keeps them in power and control, and keeps the big supporters of their campaigns happy. That is how the economic military industrial complex that favors the wealthy can continue to have its way in a world with ever increasing suffering on the part of those who have the least. And if they abuse the name of God in the course of their actions? Well, at least they are mouthing the right words to work their merciless woe. But is it any wonder there are so many people rebelling violently?

A Lenten Journey: Part Three – Reflections Looking Back


I have been distracted from my Lenten journey during the past week or two. My thoughts seem scattered, my focus lost. I set out at the beginning of Lent to spend less money indulging myself and to make a contribution to a charity or charities that address hunger. For almost a month I did that. Then I slipped a bit on the spending, but I made the contributions anyway. The fact that I could afford to do so shows that I haven’t really and truly sacrificed much.

Perhaps I should confess. My weaknesses are good coffee and buying books. What I decided to give up was buying more books during Lent. After all, I have a house full and some of them I hadn’t read yet. Many looked enticing when I bought them, but then others became more enticing, and so several sat on shelves, some of them for years. I did read one of those books that had been gathering dust, though, and reading it has been something of a Lenten journey in itself.

The title of the book was what caught my eye. It haunted my imagination. However, when I picked the book up and began reading a month or so ago, I found it very challenging. The book is written by someone from a different culture. The style of writing is very different from what I usually read. For the first two hundred pages I wrestled and half hated the book, but sticking with it, reading it through, became something I had to do. I had to complete this portion of my Lenten task of giving up buying new books and reading some I already had. I can be a bit obsessive about things I set out to do.

The book is about a man’s journey, wandering through the hinterlands of his own country searching for some remnant of what he had known as a child. I finally realized I could relate to that. Last year this time I revisited one of my earliest home areas. I am close to the same age as the author of the book , and like him, I found the landscape changed from what I remembered from my childhood. The world has moved on and doing so it totally erased what was there and built something new in its place. That is progress working.

That progress in my childhood home area destroyed a community occupied by poor working people, but people who were able to garden and supplement their low incomes to keep their families well fed. My great-grandfather’s farm, part of larger homestead that fed five generations, is now sitting in ruin in the shadow of progress in the form of a giant slag heap from a large power plant.

Like the writer of the book I read, I see progress changing the landscape, and I question if it is all a good progress. Is there a point where we need to curb our appetites for progress and pay more attention to the environment that we are irrevocably changing? People’s appetites for more electricity built the power plant that has heaped its waste by the family farm and closed the mill and mill village where my grandparents lived to build a lake and a dam to feed the power plants. The homes of simple people getting by have been replaced by luxurious lakeside homes of those with more money.

The irony is that the book I read was written by a Chinese writer. He pictures the changes made in a communist country while I’m seeing those made in a capitalist country, but in so many ways they are the same. While our economic and political systems differ, the end result is the same – ravaging the landscape, changing the way of life from individuals being able to sustain themselves off the land to crowding them into cities and developing more and more technologies, more and more so-called progress. And the truth is that while this has been happening, more and more people have fallen into the hungry category. The gap between the rich and the poor has become greater. The environment,also, has suffered leading to the near extinction of some species and to global warming and extreme weather events.

In the end I feel my miniscule sacrifice of not buying new books until I have read those I already have was hardly anything. And what does it have to do with being Christian anyway? But I am led back to another book I read recently, one that talked about a theology that embraces all of creation as coming from God and that stresses taking care of it. That theology says that all human beings are equally worthy, which seems to me to mean that it isn’t all right to hurt some so that others may prosper. To me it suggests that we all need to think about giving up more luxuries, not just for Lent, but as a life style, so that we can take care of the planet and all living things.

A Lenten Journey: Part Two – About Hunger


I don’t remember exactly when and how I became so aware of hunger in the world and right around us here at home. Maybe it was the fact that through years of teaching in the public schools I knew students who didn’t have enough to eat. I can remember a student who was about to get in a fight with another. I pulled her into an empty classroom to talk about what was going on, and she said she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours. I knew she had a part-time job. So, why was it she hadn’t eaten.  I asked a few more questions and learned that in the household where she lived, there were family members addicted to drugs who took her earnings to pay the rent and/or buy drugs. There was nothing left for food. That sort of scenario wasn’t an isolated event.

Now that I am retired, and with the last four years being a time of such economic hardship for many, I’ve looked into the facts about hunger a little more closely. The first year after I retired, I took an anthropology course, just out of interest. One statement the instructor made really jumped out at me. She said that there’s not a shortage of food in the world; it’s a matter of distribution.

Yesterday, again, I researched some facts on world hunger and hunger in the United States. I saw a similar statement about food in the information I was reading. It’s about the distribution and the way that distribution in the modern world is controlled by the military-industrial-economic complex that operates on the theory that it’s okay if some people get hurt as long as the economy keeps benefitting the majority.  One of the great flaws I see in the logic and practice of that theory is that the more, more, more profit mantra of the economic machine is causing more, more, more people to get hurt, and the benefit is becoming centralized in fewer and fewer hands.  For example, World Hunger Education Service says

Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. The causes of poverty include poor people’s lack of resources, an extremely unequal income distribution in the world and within specific countries, conflict, and hunger itself.

Harmful economic systems are the principal cause of poverty and hunger. Hunger Notes believes that the principal underlying cause of poverty and hunger is the ordinary operation of the economic and political systems in the world. Essentially control over resources and income is based on military, political and economic power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority, who live well, while those at the bottom barely survive, if they do.  http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

In the light of that big picture the efforts I make privately and through my church in conjunction with other members there to address hunger seem miniscule compared to the problem. Every little bit helps, but what about the whole operating system that makes the rich richer and more people poor.  What is a Christ-like response to this situation?  Isn’t it time we say enough is enough?

And that word “enough” sticks with me. At this present point in my life I have enough. I’m not wealthy. I was a public school teacher. But I have a comfortable enough home and sufficient income to take care of my needs with some left over for whatever I chose to spend it on. I can’t live lavishly, but then I don’t need to.

Let me be a bit utopian here, what if everybody stopped with what they really needed. What if they could draw the line and say this is enough? Share the rest with those who don’t have. Give up indulging in so many things we don’t really need and see that everybody has a fair share of the necessities.

Oh, I know the objections. It will make people lazy. They will not even try to work and carry their share of the effort. But the people from whom I hear that kind of response are sitting on top of the economic pyramid living rather large compared to most of the world’s population. Where does the more, more, more thinking end? And aside from its questionable ethic, is it even sustainable in the long term?

A Lenten Journey: Part One – About Lent


It is another dark morning, but I hear some birds singing anyway in the rain outside. The temperature is officially a degree or two above freezing, although the droplets on the trees look more like a glaze of ice than yesterday when ice was predicted. Winter 20130222_1000weather. I find myself a bit in the dumps from it.

And to cap it all, the season of Lent began recently. Something in me seems to recoil automatically at the mention of the word. For me, it conjures up more dark and dreary images overlaid by guilt. I try to hear what my minister says about the season in the church calendar. Part of my inner rebellion against celebrating Lent is that doing so is a relatively new thing in the denomination I’m a part of. I didn’t grow up observing Lent. Another part is that it seems to focus on a theology that I have a problem with. The sacrifice of Jesus for the world, which can be dealt with in a way that seems barbaric. What kind of God would require a human sacrifice in order to forgive us, I ask. But maybe that is not what Jesus’s sacrifice was about, though what I’ve often heard suggests that train of thought. What if his death was a bridge of love where he was saying, I would even die in order to get the point across to you. Really look at what I’ve been teaching and doing.

But then why should I pick any particular forty days in the year to give up something and repent when I am always falling short? Shouldn’t I always be repentant in an ongoing way, daily, for my shortcomings?

This year, in spite of my prejudices against the season, I am trying to observe Lent. I went against the inner revolt and found something that I could honestly make an effort to give up for a time. But it had to be something with more meaning and purpose attached than just giving up something. I ended up denying myself something that would save a little money. That money, instead of using to indulge myself, I will give to charities that address hunger. I will attempt to follow the example of Jesus and do something to help others. For me that is the only way that the whole business of Lent can be meaningful. And after Easter? Well, we’ll see. Maybe it won’t just be for forty days. After all, hunger is an ongoing problem.

Advent: Waiting for God


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For part of my title here I’ve borrowed from a British sitcom, the reruns of which I have often enjoyed watching.  In it the setting is a retirement community. The main characters are Diana and Tom. Diana is facing her aging by railing against it and her situation with all the strength she can muster. Tom escapes into a fantasy world where he re-enacts old movies. But together they often cleverly challenge the status quo or the wrongs they see taking place in the world. They may be “waiting for God,” but they’re not dead yet.

Just over a dozen years ago in a sudden sweep of events taking place over a three-month period of time, both my husband and his mother became disabled. The years that followed have left me much to contemplate. And just now, a aching joints have forced me to confront my own aging.

Much like Diana, in the sitcom, I want to cry out not only against the pangs of aging but also against the injustices in the world, the things I see happening that I think are shallow and meaningless or just plain wrong. Diana in the “Waiting for God” series is an avowed atheist. I am not. But we have some things in common. Like Diana, I have trouble with the way politicians and many other people try to use God or religion as an excuse for manipulating others for the sake of having their way or gaining power. So, with Diana, I have to rail a bit about the things we humans do to each other in the name of religion. What should unify us and bring out the best in us for everyone sometimes becomes the most divisive and hateful thing in the world.

But in the Christian faith at this time of year we are in a period of again “waiting for God” in a sense, but not in the sense in which Diana and Tom of the sitcom are waiting for God as they live out the end of their earthly days. We are in Advent, the season approaching the celebration of Jesus’ birth and recognition of a new revelation of God to the world. Rather than a time of despair and railing at all the wrongs, it is a time of hope, a time of seeing some possibility coming into the world for a new way of living together.

Yes, I am prone to rail against the commercialization of the supposed religious holiday. Our economy has put such a heavy burden for making money on this period of the year that we often are distracted from the religious meaning. But the season also draws out some of the best in people as the idea of giving spreads to include those in need. Even Diana in the sitcom sometimes softens into kindness and caring for others, just as Scrooge in Dickens’ classic had a turn-around in his attitude. Would that our moments of caring and sharing in this season could become part of our consciousness and lives all the year round. What if we no longer were “waiting for God” but embodied the compassion of God all the time?

Wrestling with a Psalm


This morning I read Psalm 146 as a part of a devotional program in which I am participating at church. The Psalm opens with praise, then gives a brief admonition not to put one’s trust in mortals who may not live to fulfill any promises they’ve made. The major part of the psalm, however, calls the reader to put trust in the Divine, who according to the psalmist is the one who brings justice to the oppressed, feeds the hungry, helps those who are suffering in various ways, and brings the wicked to ruin.

I am a Christian.  As I read this passage from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, I have to say that I wish I could see that happening to a greater extent in our world today – especially the justice to the oppressed and bringing of the wicked to ruin. How are we really supposed to interpret these words in the present when we see hunger rising in my own country, the United States, as well as in other parts of the world, and as we see the victims of Superstorm Sandy still homeless or without basic needs? Are the words of comfort to the downtrodden simply the psalmist’s wish for the answer in his day?

Perhaps as much as a thousand years after the psalmist wrote those words, Jesus was still dealing with those same problems of the oppressed people in his day. But Jesus took a further step. In New Testament stories we see him not just talking, but doing – feeding, healing, comforting those in need. And though Christianity has a great deal more to say about the meaning of the life and death of this Jesus, he did set an example and issue something of challenge for those who would to follow his example.

When I finished reading Psalm 146 this morning, my first thoughts went to all the ways I see justice not happening in the world, all the unfairness and suffering. But as I pondered and thought not just of this particular Psalm but all that I have been taught and have learned in the pursuit of Christianity, it came to me that the psalm spoke of a way that things can happen, not by the Divine reaching down from on high all alone and magically making things happen, but through people, the people who practice any faith that embodies the main principals of the world’s great religions: honoring God or the Divine in whatever name we worship him and living compassionately with other people. These basic principals are ancient and reach across different cultures and different faiths. In the name of the Divine, if we treat others as we would wish to be treated, could we not perform miracles for the hungry and those who are suffering?

Furthermore, when I open my eyes, I do see these measures happening. Maybe not to the extent that we would want them to. Maybe not enough. But instead of despair that God isn’t waving a magic wand and fixing all the problems of the world, I can feel some thankfulness for all the ways the problems are being addressed. And I can be involved in efforts that are being made. I can’t solve the big problems myself, but I can give some of the plenty I have of money, time, energy, and whatever else I am blessed with. If I am who I say I am by claiming the name Christian, I must.

The Last Great Adventure


During our married life, my husband and I had a number of great adventures, besides taking on marriage itself, that is. Though many of them included harrowing moments, they were fond memories we often recalled, good times over all, in spite of all the things that went wrong that we could laugh about only later. Some became the stuff of laughter-filled conversation with family and friends around the dinner table or on relaxed evenings. Now they remain as pleasant reverie and comfort.

The first such adventure began when we packed the few things we owned into a U-Haul trailer around the time of our first anniversary and moved from our home in the beautiful mountains that we loved across the length of the state to a lonely outpost on the coast of northeastern North Carolina. We’d gotten a job offer from that area when none were forthcoming in our home area of Asheville. And to cap it off, the person recruiting us had painted the area we would be moving to as a Garden of Eden. How could we decline that?

Once we were settled in a rented cottage on the Currituck Sound, we discovered we were also just at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp and that, perhaps, we’d been a bit naive. Dismal was a good word for much of the year we spent there, though it was educational and was a big adventure in a way – living through a very cold winter in a summer cottage not built to hold in heat. We learned many things from the experience, not the least of which was that we wanted to move back, closer to home and to civilization. Enough of the raw, undeveloped coast of North Carolina. At least, that part was undeveloped back then.

I think we really made the decision to move closer toward home after making an impromptu trip back to Asheville for Thanksgiving – eight hours drive each way, during which time I read aloud to my husband and our puppy from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. We really got into that book, especially with the dog and all.

A few years later in our new home in the Piedmont of North Carolina, after we’d taken on the adventure of becoming parents and then building a house and settling in, we began to muse about our dream vacations. We didn’t have the money to do it the way we dreamed of, so we came up with an alternate plan for seeing as much of the country as possible on a budget, inspired, of course, by Steinbeck and Charley. Like Steinbeck, we decided to use a camper.

Our first big trip to see the world was to New England. Our budget called for borrowing a friend’s pop-up camper and dragging it through as much of the Northeast as we could cover in ten or eleven days. We experienced an earthquake in Massachusetts and a heat wave and black flies in Maine. But we saw Boston, Plymouth, Salem, and Walden Pond (one of a list of historical and literary spots on my “must see” list) as well as much, much more. Our son, the only one we had then, learned to his excitement what a urinal was in a historic building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we learned that we had planned to cover too much ground with a camper that we had to set up, unfold, then take down and refold every couple days.

After the birth of another child and several more years gone by, we set out to circle west through Kentucky and Tennessee. By this time we had a larger vehicle, an old Chevy Suburban, with which we pulled another friend’s small Airstream. No folding out and back. On this adventure we saw Boonesboro and horse race country and laid our five-month-old in a cradle that Abe Lincoln once occupied. Then we explored Mammoth Cave and a number of other sites before the evening I cooked our Tuna Helper over an open campfire near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After the meal when we tried to scrape out what was left – most of it, unfortunately still warm – into a trash bag, it simply melted a hole in the bag. Thus, the lingering memory of the Tuna Helper that “ate up” Tennessee. Lesson learned: no more Tuna Helper, especially near Oak Ridge. Maybe it was a good thing we didn’t eat much of it.

The next trip was to Cherokee and Chattanooga, then into Georgia where we visited some Indian mounds before heading for Six Flags. By this time we had our own small travel trailer, fully stocked so that all we had to pack was our clothes. We still pulled it with the same old, green Suburban, which got us from Atlanta back to my brother’s yard in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There it died and refused even to try to crank again. It was our good fortune that my brother worked for an auto dealership and was able to get a mechanic to come to his house on a weekend to put on a new timing belt. That adventure gave not only us, but also my brother and sister-in-law a lasting memory. The lesson here, I suppose, is that if you drive an old and unreliable vehicle, stay close to people you know.

We had but one more long and adventurous trip of this sort. After another couple of years, when I was a delegate to the National Education Association convention in Minneapolis, we decided to make a vacation of it in our camper. By this time we had a newer Suburban, though. We have no relatives in the vicinity of Minnesota.

All went well, except for the heat. We seemed to have had a knack for attracting heat waves wherever we went. But the great thing about this trip was that, finally, the question I’d always asked when we started planning our excursions was answered satisfactorily. I’d had an American lit teacher in college who was from Hannibal, Missouri. She’d shown us slides, and I’d decided that was a place I definitely needed to visit sometime. With our first big trip when we planned for New England, I had asked, “And how far out of the way would it be to go by Hannibal, Missouri?” My husband had simply raised his eyebrows in a “duh, it’s the wrong direction” sort of way.

My question had been repeated every time we got out the road atlas and began plotting a route. I’d hoped from Kentucky the year we went there that we could just swing across the Mississippi River, but my plan got nixed for some reason. When we made the loop through Cherokee and around, the car probably wouldn’t have made it even if we’d tried. Plus again, it was the wrong direction, at least after Chattanooga.

But I knew if we were going to go twelve hundred miles to Minnesota and then all that way back, it couldn’t be all that much further to come back through Hannibal. I sat with the atlas and added up the miles. Only three hundred more this way, I insisted. Finally I prevailed. Thus, we got to walk in Tom Sawyer’s footsteps (or at least those of Samuel Clemens), as well as see St. Louis, even if it was a hundred and two the whole time we were in the state of Missouri. And the Suburban we had this time kept running. Only the air conditioner broke down.

I think the lesson I learned from that last great camping adventure – to Minnesota and finally to Hannibal – was that maybe persistence does win out, eventually. But life has taught me other lessons just in the course of living these more recent years. One is sometimes there’s a limit to what even persistence can do.

After the Minnesota year, the gas prices went up, and traveling with a Suburban that got eight miles to the gallon when pulling the trailer became less affordable. Also, our family grew, and we did our camping thereafter much nearer home. Finally, we even sold the trailer and bought a tent. Then a time came when we quit camping all together. We learned that our lives were continually changing and sometimes not in the ways we that we would have preferred. Perhaps the adventure in that is in adapting to what one is faced with at the time.

Life brings not only adventures but also great challenges. After we gave up camping, we continued to have adventures of other kinds, like the marriages of two of our sons and the births of our grandchildren, but these travel adventures I’ve recounted are the ones I recalled for my husband on the day after he’d been moved into Palliative Care. For two months he had been facing one of the biggest challenges of his life in the form of critical illness. Like Steinbeck’s when he traveled the country in his camper, my husband’s health was failing. When, per his wishes, the feeding tube had been removed, and his illness was sapping the last of his life, I reminded him of all the great adventures we’d had. We held hands and laughed and wept together, and accepted that inevitable one great adventure he was preparing to face.

The (HOT) Air We Breathe


One evening this past week I was tending the small garden our church grows in order to give fresh vegetables to persons in our city who may not have enough food. In the heat wave that has lasted most of July in our state, and indeed in most of the United States, daily watering has been a necessity. Even when scattered thunderstorms have dropped several inches of rain, causing flash floods in areas nearby, they seem to have missed the part of the city where our church is located. The dry, cracked earth there has attested to that.

Though where I live we’ve had enough rain this summer to be pulling us out of a drought, I hear on the nightly news that the our country as a whole is suffering the worst drought conditions in many years. All time heat records have been broken as well. In the spring devastating tornadoes ravaged areas across the country. At other times in recent years floods have overwhelmed some areas, freak snow storms have delivered record amounts of snowfall, and in general, weather patterns have shown erratic changes with more extremes. Not only has this been happening in the United States, but also around the world.

Scientists tell us that global warming is behind the changing weather patterns and extremes we’re seeing. They’ve been telling us for some years now that the continuing pollution of our atmosphere would take a toll in the future. Well, it seems that the future is now for us on planet earth. Yet, there are those who would still spurn the information available to us about the climate change that is taking place and its causes.

Granted, scientists agree that climate changes take place over great periods of time as a natural occurrence. We know there have been warming and cooling trends in the past. Researchers can even tell us things about the atmospheric conditions from those long ago times when the climate changed by drilling ice cores from the Antarctic and studying them. Then, by comparing the amount of ozone in our atmosphere today and the amount of melting taking place in places like the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic to the information from the ice cores, they can tell us how we are doing in comparison to ages past. And the answer is, not so well.

We are living in a time when the earth is experiencing a human population that it has never before had. In addition, we humans are using natural resources at a rate never seen before. Scientists tell us that a major concern facing the planet is having enough drinking water. While the oceans may continue to rise slowly in the current conditions, the fresh water supply is being polluted and used up.

The other thing that is happening is that the number of people without sufficient food and clean drinking water is growing. It’s easy to pretend it isn’t happening, but the problems are mounting. Maybe we turn blind eyes to such conditions at times because it is difficult for us as individuals to know how even to begin to scratch the surface of such enormous problems. There are, however, organizations and groups who are making efforts to address some of these issues. If we wish to help work to solve the problems of the environment and hunger and lack of water, we can participate through those in the wider efforts, as well as making changes in our own lives.

Another way we as individuals can play a part in effecting some change in the world is that those of us who live in democratic societies like the United States can take the responsibility to put pressure on our politicians and leaders to be more aware and to take greater steps in protecting the environment and natural resources. It isn’t just a party issue, though in American politics it sometimes seems so. It is a very real problem that needs to faced and addressed.

Why do I say this so vehemently? As the United States faces the current disastrous drought, and we hear once again that global warming is causing the extremes in our weather, can we really continue to turn deaf ears and blind eyes? How many more people will have to go hungry, die from extreme heat or cold? How big a disaster will it take to get our attention? Will we merely be distracted by election year rhetoric and let this slide?

It is not uncommon for politicians to use an appeal to a particular religious stance in order to try to win voters. Then, is it not time to demand that that those same politicians act with some sense of stewardship of the earth’s resources and the welfare of all the earth’s inhabitants? None of the major religions of the world, or for that matter, the minor ones, support cold-hearted selfishness and greed by a few such as we have seen defended in the name of creating jobs or preserving individual rights in recent years. If we continue to destroy the environment, how can the economic situation possibly get better, much less all the social issues?

As a part of one small effort at just one church that is trying to make some tiny efforts to use what we have been given to help others and to take care of the environment in the process, we are facing challenges this summer. Our garden hasn’t done as well this year as in previous years. But we’ll keep at it because it is through the small efforts of many, many individuals, groups, and organizations that hopefully positive changes will take place. But we need many more people to join in with their small efforts. We need more people who will think about their values and what is most important for the good of all the earth and people.

Related Links: Organizations working to make a difference

Climate Reality on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/climatereality?ref=stream

Heifer Internationalhttp://www.heifer.org/ourwork/approach/heifers-cornerstone

Salva Terra – (for a spirituality that embodies taking care of the earth) – http://salvaterravision.org/about-us/about-salva-terra

Missing the Boat


Just over a year ago I was privileged to go on a pilgrimage to Scotland The and northern England.  As I reflect upon all the wonderful experiences from that journey, I also remember a part of the trip where everything seemed to go wrong.  The morning we left the island of Iona, which can only be reached by ferry, we had taken the first of two ferry rides to get back to the mainland – this one to the island of Mull – and sat near the landing watching a fisherman’s pet seal swimming nearby while we waited for the coach that was to take us across that island to the second ferry.  We had understood that the driver would be waiting for us, and as time passed and he still hadn’t come, we became anxious.  The drive across Mull takes at least and hour and a half, and we had a scheduled time for the much larger ferry that would take us, coach and all, to the mainland. 

Finally our driver arrived and gave us some excuse for being late.  He loaded our bags, and we were off at what seemed at times speeds much too high for the narrow road.  One can only go so fast on this drive across Mull, at least safely.  And there are times when vehicles from opposite the direction approach, and one must pull off in a lay-by and wait for the other to pass.  It was with some exhilaration that we arrived at the ferry port and found the vessel was still there.  We were five minutes ahead of departure time, and lines of cars were still loading.  However, when we pulled into the lane for coaches and larger vehicles, our driver was told that all such modes of transportation had already been loaded.  We were supposed to have been ready to board fifteen minutes earlier.  Our driver appealed, but we were denied. 

As we were resigning ourselves to a two-hour wait and a visit to nearby shops, the driver informed us that since tickets to that ferry were by reservation only, we were not assured a passage on the later ferry.  There was, however, another ferry that would leave from a different site a couple miles down.  We agreed to try that.  He drove as fast as possible to a one-lane driveway through scrubby foliage to a much less impressive landing.  Within a few minutes a ferry arrived  The road had widened to accommodate two lanes of traffic.  We were clearly in line to board the ferry when the ferryman waved us aside into the second line.  The ferry filled.  Once again we were left – missing the boat.  This time there were not even any shops.  Only a small food stand that seemed to be running out of food, and we had missed lunch. 

Eventually, after a two hour wait, we did get to cross to the mainland.  But we landed in an altogether different place from where our itinerary had stated.  Our drive to our ultimate destination was longer.  On top of that, we got in a traffic jam near the end. But we did go through some parts of Scotland that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise and experienced some things we wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.  While we were hungry and annoyed 20110501_0535by the delays, at the time, in the over-all big picture, it was a slight mishap that one day. 

My reason for telling this story is not that missing the boat was such a big deal in the end, but that it reminds me of how often in life, things don’t go as we plan.  And when they don’t, when events take unexpected turns, we often react with displeasure, great or small.  Many times, though, it may good for us to stop complaining about whatever missed opportunity and look for new ones that may appear as a result.  While we prefer to know where we are going and to get there on time, maybe there is something worth the experience in going the unexpected route and just taking in stride a different kind of adventure.  Missing the boat doesn’t have to be all bad!

Pictures:

1 – The “foot” ferry from Iona at the dock on Mull

2 – One of the views on the long way around