We Didn’t See This Very Often in Mississippi

This is what I woke up to, outside my office window this morning.

Morning snow from my office window.Well, technically, I woke up to dark with widely scattered light an hour or so later, as the Hippy Dippy Weatherman would say, but this was the view at about 9:00 a.m. Fortunately, mother nature was kind enough not to snow on the cement (as you can see, on the neighbor’s driveway, if you peer closely). With 41° today and 48° tomorrow, I suspect it won’t last long.

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Belated Annunciation Thoughts

This post is several days late because we’ve been travelling this weekend and I haven’t had computer access. Friday, March 25, was Annunciation. Because of our “exile” among the Protestants for the last few months, I didn’t even realize it was Annunciation until late Friday evening when I looked at my phone and saw the day/date was Friday, 3/25. (For those not accustomed to honoring the Feasts of the historic Church, 3/25 is exactly nine months before 12/25 – Christmas – and therefore is when we celebrate the Annunciation of his birth to Mary.) As a result I’ve been thinking some about the Annunciation as we’ve travelled around (albeit, after the fact).

Mary is often called the archetypal or exemplary Christian because her response to the Annunciation by the angel, “… Let it be with me according to your word,” is the quintessential Christian attitude or posture. This weekend it occurred to me that she is also the archetypal prophet. A prophet is one who does not speak on his or her own behalf, but rather speaks forth the very word that God has given. Similarly, giving birth to the very Word of God – the living Word of God – is the archetypal prophetic activity.

This prophetic activity reminded me of Ezekiel, the only other prophet who actually took the Word of God within his very being. (Okay, this may be a stretch, but bear with me.) Consider Ezek. 2:9-3:3.

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

Just as Mary is the archetypal human prophet, so Jesus, the Word, is the archetypal prophecy, or “Word from God.” His life-giving presence in the world is “lamentation and mourning and woe” because so many people reject the implications of that life-giving power and therefore assume that Jesus (and his Church) is all about judgment. But ultimately the Christian experience (for those who eat the bitter words) is like honey in the mouth.

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between judgment and mercy, no doubt because of my fundamentalist upbringing which focused so strongly on judgment that mercy tended to be lost behind a caricature of an angry God.

But in more recent years I have come to realize that judgment (or wrath, or “words of lamentation and mourning and woe,” or whatever you want to call it) can never be the final word, nor even the penultimate word. Divine wrath, as Karl Barth was fond of observing, is not a reality in and of itself, but is rather the mysterious and shadowy inverse side of grace. The seemingly harsh words of God wrongly incorporated – ignored, treated as a curio, rubbed on vigorously like sunblock, or rocked out to in the privacy of one’s ipod, rather than ingested, as in “O mortal, eat what is offered to you …” – is experienced as wrath. But when ingested as commanded, it turns out that the “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are “sweet as honey.” That is the mystery of grace.

But I digress … back to the Feast of Annunciation … Similarly this was a bitter message for Mary. Her seeming pre-marital dalliance (after all, that’s what everyone assumed! How else do we get babies?) was the least of her woes. Her beloved child was “despised and rejected,” a “man of suffering” and “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).

Mary, of all the disciples, had the toughest burden in my opinion. She knew when no one else understood, so her terrible suffering did not begin with the crucifixion but rather with the destruction of the babies of Israel by Herod. She is the embodiment of Rachel weeping and her weeping never stopped, even with the Resurrection, for after that her fellow Christians were increasingly treated in the same manner as her son.

And yet, who can disagree that this bitter pill was indeed the ultimate sweetness in the mouth of Mary. As she herself said in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Ezekiel, Mary, and the Annunciation … bitter things that are like honey in the mouth of those who do as they are commanded.

Wrong on So Many Levels

We moved out of the house we were renting in Port Gibson today. In Sioux City we recycle plastic grocery sacks. I saved our grocery sacks because there’s a place about 30 miles away where we can recycle them. But I always forget the sacks when we go that direction (and, although it seems a perfectly legitimate excuse to go for a drive, I have a hunch it would be counterproductive to blow a couple gallons of gas just to recycle a few plastic sacks), so the job never got done. Today we threw them out. Of course, a large number of plastic sacks quickly becomes an unruly mess, so I needed a good way to corral them. I found a paper sack that was a bit small, but would do the trick … a Whole Foods Markets paper grocery sack. I stuffed all the plastic inside and tossed it in the dumpster.

I suppose there’s a special place in bunny hugger purgatory for people like me.

The Tabasco Buddha and other wonders on Avery Island

While in south-central Louisiana last week we made a pilgrimage to Avery Island, the home of Tabasco Sauce. The factory tour was very short – a five minute lecture by a tour guide and a 15 minute video – and the factory itself was closed for Mardi Gras, but I suspect all bottling plants look pretty much alike, so I’m not particularly disappointed.

Avery Island, a private island along the Gulf Coast, is owned by the McIlhenny family, the makers of Tabasco Sauce. The island sits atop a large salt dome and the salt mine actually predates the white man’s presence on the island. The Avery family (which Mr. McIlhenny married into) mined salt for a living. Then a Civil War era soldier gave Mr. McIlhenny some pepper seeds he had brought back from Mexico during the Mexican War. McIlhenny grew the peppers, packed them in salt from the local salt mine, and eventually mixed the aged peppers with vinegar to create the mother of all American hot sauces: Tabasco Sauce.

[Note: click on the thumbnails to see larger sized photos.]

Alligator crawling out of swamp

This is not the Tabasco Gator

Edmund (Ned) McIlhenny, son of the founder of the company, aside from being an astute businessman was an avid sportsman and naturalist. In fact, in 1890 he bagged the largest alligator ever killed in Louisiana (19′ 2″) dubbed the Tabasco Gator. During Ned’s lifetime the Great Egret was nearly hunted to extinction and Edmund set aside a nesting sanctuary on Avery Island for the Egrets. It eventually became “Bird City,” part of the Jungle Gardens, a wildlife and plant preserve on the island. The sanctuary is the real reason to visit Avery Island in my opinion.

Egrets Nesting at Bird City, Avery Island, LA

Egrets gathered on the nesting platforms at the lake dubbed "Bird City."

Ned’s naturalist credentials are besmirched by the nutria incident. Along with the bird refuge, McIlhenny imported a South American rodent (which we now call the nutria) to Avery Island for the purpose of fur production. A hurricane allowed the nutria to escape and cross to the mainland where they have multiplied in rodent-like fashion for a century causing havoc for dam and levee builders.

After Katrina there has been an all-out war on the nutria. Ridding New Orleans of nutria has even become a bit of a media event. With people as different as comedian Dave Attell, on his Comedy Central series, Insomniac, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, on his Travel Channel series, No Reservations, being featured on prime time television shooting the furry creatures with rifles, as they emerge from their dens dug into the levees, exterminating nutria by any means possible is even celebrated by many of the Hollywood left.

So, what to do with the executed rodents? An enterprising businessman in the flagging New York furrier business offered a line of nutria fur coats, hats, etc. with a brilliant “let’s feel sorry for New Orleans residents and help them by wearing exterminated nutria coats” campaign that, whether financially successful or not, has deeply divided the animal rights folks. (Evidently the moral dilemma goes something like this: Ridding south Louisiana of an invasive species is good, but wearing them is, if not bad, still in bad taste.)

How can you not love Tabasco Sauce with these “kill the gator,” “save the egret,” “import a destructive invasive species for financial gain,” “steal the Buddha” (oh, I haven’t told you about the 1,000 year old Buddha yet?) credentials? This little bottle of hot sauce represents that which is as ambivalently American as it is possible to get!

A stand of bamboo

This bamboo is similar to an aspen wood. Notice the egrets nesting at "Bird City" in the background.

As I said above, the real reason to visit Avery Island is the Jungle Gardens. I don’t have many good pictures because our visit was late in the afternoon on a very dark and dreary day. Second to the egrets which nest there, the sanctuary is most famous for its exotic plants which Ned McIlhenny collected, especially the remarkable variety of camellias and azaleas as well as several varieties of bamboo. When we were there the camellias were just finishing their bloom cycle (and the morning’s heavy rain did not improve the blooms in the least bit) while the azaleas were just beginning to bloom. As a result, neither were spectacular, but both were interesting.

Most fascinating to me was the bamboo. Near Bird City the caretakers had thinned out a patch of very large, green trunked bamboo. With the wispy leaves rustling above my head it was very much like walking through an aspen wood in the western mountains.

A "shock" of bamboo

Brenda standing in front of bamboo.

There were also thick stands of smaller bamboo densely packed together but planted in such a way that they were somewhat reminiscent of a shock of wheat, but on a much larger scale.

McIlhenny’s interest in bamboo (so we were told) led to the donation of a 1,000 year old Buddha statue which is now the centerpiece of the sanctuary. The woman who sold us the tickets and gave us an overview of the driving tour leaned over the counter conspiratorially and said, “It’s a stolen Buddha, you know. Ned didn’t steal it himself, but the people that gave it to him did.”

Brenda and I speculate that if it were a museum rather than an island, there would probably be some legal issues involved. There are almost certainly some ethical issues, given the current attitude about protection of artifacts.

The poor Buddha had his right ear cut off by a visitor some years ago. As a result, not only can the Buddha not hear your prayers (at least if you stand on that side of him – maybe he’s still efficacious for left-leaning religious types), but he’s imprisoned in a wood and glass cell in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp. I suppose it’s not quite what Mr. Shakyamuni (who we know better as the Buddha) had in mind when he said he was proceeding to Nirvana after he died. Oh well, that’s one of the risks of being a lesser god.

But Buddha statues are not why I went to Avery Island. The gators, egrets, camellias, azaleas, and bamboo were quite enough to make the $8 cover charge worth it.

Lake Martin Swamp Tour

As I said, in the previous essay, Brenda and I went on a swamp tour last week. I suppose if you’re a Cajun living along the Bayou Tesche or the Atchafalaya Basis, this is no big deal. But for this Montana boy transplanted to Nebraska, the following is pretty cool. (You can click on the picture to see the full-sized version.)

An anhinga drying its wings in the windWe saw a few anhingas. This one is drying his wings in the wind. They are the only flying bird currently alive that has solid bones (not unlike the ancient flying dinosaurs). Modern flying birds have hollow bones. Their closest relatives are cormorants which were also abundant. Neither anhingas nor cormorants have oil in their feathers but they dive under the water to catch fish, so they spread their wings in order to dry their feathers.

A Little Blue Heron and Great EgretIn early March the egrets are nesting on Martin Lake. The nesting area is off limits to boats, but there were many egrets around. Along with the egrets were Great Blue Herons (which are abundant in Montana and Nebraska, so I didn’t bother taking a picture) and Little Blue Herons, which are new to me, so in a touristy manner, I clicked away with my camera.

Our tour guide did tell us something about Great Blue Herons that I did not know. He claimed they are the true bad boys of the swamp and, other than man, the only significant threat to alligators. He even had a series of photos of a Great Blue Heron killing and eating a three foot alligator (by spearing it in the head, flipping it up in the air, and swallowing it whole). We also saw a black crowned night heron and a spoonbill from a great distance but did not manage pictures of either.

Alligator laying on a logWe also got to see a number of alligators. This particular one, probably because it was Mardi Gras, had festively adorned himself with the closest thing he could find to Mardi Gras beads.

Cypress trunk made into a duck blindOur guide had also found a hollow cypress trunk that he was able to work loose from the ground. He attached it to a log and transformed it into a floating duck blind.

Pink cypress lichensThe cypress trees also had a lot of lichen and moss on it, including this neon pink variety. (Is it participating in the “Race for the Cure”? $100 for every tree ring I can grow in the next few centuries.)

The most disconcerting thing is how utterly turned around I got in the swamp. One cypress looks pretty much like the next one and the egrets on this side of the lake are pretty much like the egrets on the other side of the lake. An hour into the tour I was so totally lost that I had no sense of direction (it was a very cloudy day) and no sense of which direction the open water or the shore might have been. But in the hands of a good guide, it was most marvelous couple of hours.

Cypress tress growing in Martin LakeSnowy Egret

Mardi Gras

We scheduled a swamp tour on Lake Martin, St. Martinsville Parish, Louisiana, for Tuesday, March 8. It wasn’t until after the fact that we realized it was Mardi Gras. We therefore decided to head down the night before and take in some of the Mardi Gras festivities in Lafayette. (Lake Martin is just a few minutes from Lafayette.)

Having lived close to Omaha on and off during the last several years, I have a soft spot for Lafayette, the home of the Ragin’ Cajuns at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Omaha is the home of the College World Series. The Ragin’ Cajuns get into the Series almost every year and years when neither Creighton nor the University of Nebraska make the Series (which is almost every year!) the ULL Ragin’ Cajuns are the default team to root for. (Geaux Cajuns!!)

We discovered that Lafayette takes Mardi Gras pretty seriously. They have more than a dozen parades in the days leading up to Mardi Gras and a festival at Cajunfield that also runs for several days, featuring live music, beads – lots of beads – and deep fried crawfish and gator on a stick. It all sounded like great fun, so we decided to combine our swamp tour with Mardi Gras Cajun style.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate. It rained off and on all day Tuesday and the weather turned right down severe on Tuesday night (with tornadoes and flying mobile homes – if the news is to be believed – farther to the east around New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile).

We found a parking place in an alley behind the parade route and were all ready to watch the King’s Parade (10 a.m. Tuesday) when the tour guide called and asked if we could do the swamp tour at 11 a.m. instead of 1:00, to try to beat the severe weather. That worked for us, so we walked a few blocks up to the staging area, got a look at the floats, and then headed for Martin Lake.

The swamp tour was pretty good, although it started raining about ten minutes before the tour and it rained on and off the whole time we were out on the lake. Since our schedule was completely messed up at this point and the weather was getting increasingly worse, we abandoned all plans to return to the Mardi Gras festival. Instead we headed south to Avery Island (where the weather, if cloudy, was at least dry) and took in all things Tabasco Sauce. We toured the factory and also went through the “Jungle Gardens” – a bird preserve and eclectic garden developed by the McIlhenny family (more about that later). The Jungle Gardens is where I got the new header picture, by the way.

We also ate lots of Cajun food: crawfish, catfish, shrimp, gator, boudin, etc, in many styles: blackened, in etouffee, deep fried, and boiled … We even tried Tabasco flavored ice cream at Avery Island (not bad, actually) and picked up a bottle of Tabasco’s latest offering, an Oriental style garlic pepper sauce that’s pretty darn good.

Click to enlarge the pictures. I’ll post more pictures later.

Floats ready for the King's Parade, Lafayette, LA

Floats lined up and ready to go for the King's Parade -- the first parade of the day -- in Lafayette, Louisiana

The reception area for the Tabaso Tour on Avery Islan, LA

Brenda waiting for the start of the Tabasco Tour and pondering the bottle of brimstone-hot sauce towering abover her on this second day of Lent (Byzantine calendar) and Shrove Tuesday (Western Calendar)

Tour guide preparing boat for the swamp tour, Martin Lake, LA

One of the college kids on the swamp tour watching the tour guide dry off the seats.

A Journey From the Outside In

Jason Peters offered up his standard fare of snarky, arrogantly self-satisfied Eastern Orthodox reflections over at Front Porch Republic on Ash Wednesday. (It’s an amusing read if you can get past his superiority, which he tries to pass off as humor.) In the midst of all that self-congratulatory superiority, he managed to say something quite profound.

His topic is Clean Monday – the first day of Lent on the Orthodox calendar. It is a day when one is encouraged to participate in an absolute fast (drinking water is acceptable). This year Easter on the Byzantine and Western calendar coincide, so the start of Lent also coincides within a couple of days. And with the beginning of Lent, the old question of why we fast and the old accusation of works salvation once again arise.

Of course, Lent is not about salvation, it is about repentance. Salvation is a gracious gift from God whereas our repentance is an act of gratitude in return. Peters is rather slow and meandering when getting to his point, so allow me to quote at length:

That first Monday in Lent can be unpleasant … But, oddly enough, by Tuesday the body already somehow enjoys its abstinence and even suffers it more easily. The mind, as usual, sharpens, the intention of the sol asserts itself more forcefully. You undergo a deliverance of sorts. … “Clean” is the right word so far as the body is concerned. Of course it must extend to the soul as well, but for the moment I am concerned only with the body, for it is the first to feel the bracing Lenten slap.

And that’s the proper order and direction of things – outside in; through the flesh, through the material world, to what’s inside it: the athletic penetration of the finite.

The fathers often compare Lent to an athletic event, or more specifically to the training that an athlete goes through in preparation for the event. As Peters’ goes on to observe, it is also a journey. The genius of Lent

is that it goes somewhere. It is a journey that, like any journey, starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. And, as always – as we learn from the Pentateuch and St. Augustine and Chaucer and Graham Greene – the purpose of the journey is transformation, of being worthy of the feast that awaits us. [Note that Peters does not say we are becoming worthy of salvation, but worthy of the feast. A proper time of feasting is predicated by a proper time of preparation: a fast.]

And I know, mostly from failure, that that doesn’t happen without intention. It doesn’t happen without our availing ourselves of the best-kept weight-loss program in the world. (You want to stay trim? Keep liturgical time vigilantly.)

This, as Prof. Peters says, is the journey from the outside in. It begins with forcing the body into a sort of submission that it does not like. And this external or physical act of submission can, for those who are vigilant, lead to a submission of the heart and a discovery of our true longing – our longing for God – of which our other lusts and desires are derivative.

So, have a blessed Lent … this forty days of bright sorrow by which we train to be ready to go with our Lord to the Garden of Gethsemane, to the hall of judgment, to Golgotha, and the tomb, and into the eternal glory of our life in Christ … have a blessed season of preparation, a blessed “putting to death” the deeds of the body, by which we will live, as St. Paul says in Romans 8:13.

Freedom Without Fear

What does the phrase, “free to worship God without fear” mean? In both modern political philosophy and American civil religion, where everything tends to be viewed from the perspective of keeping both church and state out of each other’s business, it implies that we supposedly have the God-given right to worship God without fear of state interference or persecution in general.

But the phrase isn’t political in its origins; it comes from the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and specifically from the standard metrical form that is often used in worship in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches alike. Verses 74-75 (NRSV) read, “… that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The metrical version, translated specifically with worship in mind, reads, “… to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”

I would argue that this liturgical setting gets at the meaning of Zechariah’s words better than the literal translation. Zechariah worked in the temple. This song was sung over the infant Jesus in the temple. In that place the word “serve” almost certainly means service around the altar specifically in the context of temple worship.

Temple worship was a fearful thing. The two things that illustrate that fear better than anything else, as you know doubt remember (this has to be one of the best Sunday School stories ever!), is that on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place, he wore bells around the bottom of his robe and a rope around his leg. The bells, it seems, were so the Levites could hear him working. If the bells stopped jingling for any amount of time it could be assumed that the sacrifice was unacceptable and God had struck the high priest dead … which brings us to the rope. Being the Most Holy Place, no one but the High Priest on his annual entrance, was allowed in. If the sacrifice was found unacceptable and the people’s representative was struck dead, the Levites needed a way to get the priest out of the Most Holy Place. This is what the rope was for. (There is no record, by the way, of a High Priest being struck dead on the Day of Atonement.)

Everyone agrees – Hebrew and Christian alike – that only God can make us holy. Nothing we do on our own can be acceptable to God. But as long as we humans are responsible (as we were under the Old Covenant) for getting the God-ordained sacrifice just right, worshiping God is a frightful thing, because if we don’t follow the laws of sacrifice to the letter and get it wrong, physical death might ensue.

And this is where Jesus, the Promised One, comes in. Although Zechariah probably didn’t understand it down to the last detail, he recognized he was witnessing a new thing. This was God carrying out God’s plan (rather than a mere human carrying out God’s plan). This changed everything. Zechariah could see the day when the people of God would be “free to worship him without fear,” because the people of God would be “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Zechariah was saying we didn’t need the rope around the ankle any longer.

Now, let’s go back to the question of the opening paragraph: What does the phrase, “free to worship God without fear” mean? The contemporary idea that it refers to freedom of religion is reductionist to the extreme. Of course the idea of “freedom of religion” itself is hardly Christian; sure, we can worship God any old way we like, but “any old way we like” is not acceptable to the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Father of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Keep in mind that freedom of worship implies freedom to enjoy the consequences of our tragic little idolatries as well.

No, freedom to worship God without fear has nothing to do with any human institution. What frees us from the fear of government, family, tribal, or military intervention is neither the Constitution nor the World Court in the Hague, it is rather the boldness of the indwelling Spirit, as illustrated by Paul and Silas singing hymns in a prison cell after being tortured for their faith. It is freedom that comes from knowing it is better to serve Almighty God rather than kings or emperors.

True freedom can be expressed in dungeon chains as easily as in the comfort of a church sanctuary.

What frees us from the fear of the wrath of God (and this is what Zechariah was talking about) is Jesus Christ, who is God made flesh on our behalf. The relationship between God and man is fundamentally changed. Any attempt to reduce this idea of “freedom to worship without fear” to a relationship between man and human institutions thus becomes a subtle idolatry, a change of focus from God to man, a mistaken assumption that what we have to fear is powerful people.

In contrast to the fear is the promise. And is that promise we seek based in a constitutional guarantee that we can go to church on Sunday morning? God forbid! Rather, listen to Zechariah’s words, as he continues his paean of praise: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”

Now that’s freedom without fear!

Great News for Winos

Bottle of Smirnoff Blueberry VodkaAccording to a 2010 study by Wang, Chang, and Zhang [and you think I’m making this up … no really, see citation below], blueberries promote liver health. In this day and age when every fruit, vegetable, and fat is marketed as a super-food because of some obscure polyphenol, micro-nutrient, or anti-oxident, this study is a fabulous advertising opportunity for the cheap vodka segment of the booze industry. [They even have a real scientific study on which to base their ad campaign. I’d personally recommend signs on park benches.] Winos can now have their cake and eat it too, protecting their livers even as they drink themselves into oblivion.

And for the classier alcoholic, what smoothie would be complete without a bit of blueberry?

[Wang, Y.P., Chang, M.L., Zhang, B.F., et al, “Effects of blueberry on hepatic fibrosis and transcription factor Nrf2 in rats,” World J. Gastroenterol. June 7, 2010;16(21):2657-63]