Pilgrims and Tourists

This is an essay that I had originally submitted to a couple of literary journals. As is the norm in the publishing industry, I was rejected by both of them. I still like this essay a lot and decided to post it here. I suppose some might find it a bit pretentious, but I was reading Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris at the time. Although unconscious of it then, I suspect it is a poor attempt at emulating their style.

Markdown (the html flavor that WordPress uses) doesn’t lend itself to footnoting. I will therefore put the footnotes here. I referenced four works:
– Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
– Wendell Berry, Standing on Earth: Selected Essays, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1991), p. 22.
– The Berry quote was found in John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, 2nd ed., Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.
– Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives (2006) on the v2 label, Track 7, “The Tourist” and Track 9, “The Getaway.”

rock top land

This time we entered Capitol Reef by wending our way down the Grand Staircase toward the Fremont River. I was looking forward to this return trip to the largely undiscovered Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah because I had been utterly captivated by this land on a previous trip. It is neither as photogenic as Bryce Canyon nor as dramatic as Zion farther southwest, but this meant fewer people. It was as much the forgottenness as the beauty that drew me. This time we were extending our exploration from Capitol Reef into the Escalante, or Grand Staircase—a massive rock up-thrust of a magnitude that is simply incomprehensible. The combination of the lonely grandeur of the desert and the geologic mystery of this region were irresistible to one who had discovered the power of the desert several years before.

I had grown up in the semi-arid region of northeast Montana where cactus and yucca captured tumbleweeds in their thorns and competed with sagebrush to survive. I lived along one of those endless ribbons of cottonwood trees that marked the occasional rivers in the region, but I spent my days, both at work and at play, in the barren Larb Hills or riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me. Back then I took it all for granted.

Much later, having moved to Kentucky for school and then to the lush Flint Hills of Kansas for work, I recognized a yearning to return to the happy solitude of that emptiness. It was in this memory of childhood that I began to realize the empty quarters were spiritually powerful. I began to wonder if I were not a lesser person for having forsaken those quarters.

My youngest years – just on the edge of memory – were spent in Sheridan, Wyoming. Sheridan lies in the transitional area between the barren and arid plains stretching past Gillette to the east and the Bighorn Mountains to the west. As I cultivated the memory of that happy solitude of emptiness, an idea revealed itself. I had also spent some time at a Crozier monastery in Nebraska and there discovered the spiritual discipline of rigorous fasting, particularly water-only fasts, which some of the monks practiced as part of their discipline. But fasting in the temptatious city, full of billboards, glorious smells wafting from restaurants, and candy bars at every gas station counter, proved beyond my weak-willed ability. My new idea was to spend a week in the Bighorn Mountains with only a tent and sleeping bag, a prayer book, water – lots of water – and a camp stove for brewing herbal tea.

Much of the Bighorn range is arid and the tree line – that elevation above which trees can no longer grow – lies at a fairly low elevation because of the arid conditions. Much later I learned that Belden Lane calls such places “grotesque” and “wild” terrain, a sort of “vertical edge” to civilization in much the same way that a traditional desert creates a horizontal edge for the civilized world. At this stage of my life I knew little of the language of purgation, nor of the theology of what some have called the indifference of God that can only be discovered in an indifferent and hostile environment. My early spiritual tradition equated mountaintops with spiritual ecstasy. But what I experienced in the Bighorns was a glorious divine indifference that eroded my ego down to a more appropriate size and contoured my soul into a shape that was prepared to collect droplets and dew of divine presence rather than the expected rushing winds of ecstasy.

Such seeming divine indifference requires attentiveness to discern the almost invisible presence that is there. The magnificent solitude of the empty quarters calls for a different perception. This was not David dancing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, nor was it the not-yet-Apostle, still called Saul, blinded by the overwhelming divine light. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:11). This command stands in stark contrast to the shattering of the spear and the breaking of the chariots that occurs in the previous verse. This is Moses in the cleft of the rock, bereft because the storm, the wind, the lightning were all agnostic ecstasy. But Moses waited. He needed balance and steadfastness before he finally heard the Silence.

By this time in my life I had just begun to read the darkness of St. John of the Cross and brightness St. Gregory Palamas. On the grotesque and wild, but exceedingly empty yet expansive mountaintop, I glimpsed that they were saying the same thing. I also knew beyond anything to which I could put words that this was The Word, there from the beginning. I knew that grotesque was the correct description and that “grotesque” was precisely the same thing as “beautiful” in the same manner that blinding darkness was the same thing as the eternal brightness of day … and I knew that this silence was very good.

Capitol Reef

At this point in my life I had no idea so many other people heard that same mystical whisper. From the days of the “desert fathers” to the latter wanderers from Sinai to Sedona, otherwise well-adjusted people sought out these inhospitable lands; people were drawn to the emptiness. These were lands full of brutal summer heat, bitter winter cold, and piercing wind that could divide bone and marrow while eroding the very soul to its unpretentious essence. It never occurred to me that civilized people who had grown up in civilized places would hear that same lonely call which I remembered from my uncivilized childhood and now experienced powerfully on the barren northern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. And not knowing this great tradition, afterwards the experience remained but a dull ache of memory.

Eventually I became more conversant with desert spirituality and that old dull ache of a memory began to turn into a longing to experience the desert, not just as “comfort food”—a return to the familiarity of childhood memories—but as spiritual nourishment. My sister-in-law taught school in the Navajo Nation and on a trip to see her we decided to spend some in Utah. It was a wide-ranging expedition in which we day-hiked everywhere from Capitol Reef to Glen Canyon to El Malpais, just west of Albuquerque. With textbooks, prayer books, and knapsacks in hand, it became wonderful exercise for both the body and the soul.

Specifically, the time in the wilderness was expansive. Specifically, for the first time I was able to parse the openness of the wilderness that I had experienced riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me when I was in high school. The empty spaces didn’t stretch a person thin, as did the expectations of job, church, and society; rather, they beckoned one to unravel the tangled threads of a life whose strands had been turned this way and that. And because it was expansive in this manner, it was liberating.

And here I was again—here we were again—wending our way from the mountains down into the Utah desert to once again unravel the tangled threads of our life. The arid, empty quarters were no longer just my childhood memory, a thing of the past; they were a wayside rest to prepare me for whatever may lay ahead. Toward that end Brenda was reading John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image. And as we followed the lonely road into the heart of the Escalante National Monument, she read out loud a passage from Wendell Berry that Chryssavgis had quoted:

Apparently with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness—which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.” Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadside. We became viewers of “views.” And because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domesticity. We forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness, that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered. Modern civilization has been built largely in this forgetfulness.

She meant well, but that brief recitation ruined any hope of this trip being a spiritual pilgrimage … that is, unless, a pilgrimage is merely a tourist vacation dressed up in a camel hair cloak. Now I could only sit back in the breeze of the air conditioning and enjoy the view. The mystical had evaporated as surely as the soda flat that lay to the left of highway.

rock top land

Brenda shared the quote because she didn’t hear Wendell Berry in the same way I heard him. She was in a place not unlike Lucy Pevensie transported to Narnia, and just as Lucy heard that she could not tame the lion, so Brenda heard that we could not tame nature. Just as Lucy recognized that a tame lion is no real lion at all, so Brenda recognized that domesticated nature is not nature at all, just an extension of the back yard. After reading Chryssavgis, she was ready to cross the fence out of the manicured back yard and try to find the Wilderness.

But I didn’t hear Lucy Pevensie when I heard Berry; rather, it was Ray Davies ringing in my ear. Davies, founding member of The Kinks, and now pursuing a successful solo musical career, is one of the best observers of life unvarnished among contemporary song writers. His song, The Tourist is a biting look at the rootlessness of modern life, and how we, ignorant of place but full of hubris, bang about the world as if we own and understand it: “The Empire State is so very tall / And the Taj Mahal has a pretty dome / And everywhere that I go I say / I want to make it my home.”

And yet, in spite all the urbanity of Ray Davies’ tourist, the song is deeply melancholy. The tourist wants to make everywhere his home, but because he is merely passing through, nowhere manages to be the place where he fits best.

Davies puts his finger on one of the failings of modern society: with such a life we have no home, never attaching ourselves to the joys of place and neighbor nor buckling down to deal with the associated troubles. It’s easier to just move on (or to make our “great escape” as Davies says a couple of tracks later in the song, The Getaway). Rather than people on a pilgrimage, we moderns have become pilgrims with no place—in other words, tourists. And, to bring this back to the point Berry made, we bring our “place” with us. Our place is located with our mp3 player, cup holder, cooler, and change of clothes in the trunk. As long as the A/C is working, the cooler is stocked with water and food, and we are within 100 miles of a gas station, we can make anywhere, no matter how natively inhospitable, our “place,” only to move on in the next few days.

And if this is the case, this condition begs the question, “What is the desert?” In the time when desert and an active or even militant spiritual life went hand in hand, the desert was a spiritual tool because it was the habitation of all that stood opposed to The Garden. It’s not that it wasn’t cultivated—and it certainly wasn’t—but rather, it was beyond the possibility of cultivation or any human management. It was the abode of jackals and demons. But with our technology we no longer fear jackals and with our education we no longer believe in demons.

So let’s reframe the question. Rather than focus on the desert, let’s ask what stands in opposition to all the good that God has given us. St. Anthony went to the land of jackals to battle the demons that stood between him and the fullness of God. Where is our land of jackals? What stands between us and the fullness of God?

Of course the answer to that question is as varied as the persons who ask it. That was the case in St. Anthony’s time as much as it is today. But I am asking this question in the comfort of my air conditioned car, traveling forty miles per hour across a very well maintained gravel road that cuts straight and true, with few surprises (and no real obstacles!) right through the heart of the arid Escalante uplift. From St. Anthony’s perspective (sans road), this is every bit the forsaken desert as the Sinai. From my perspective (comfortably on the road), it’s both as curious and glorious as the “Empire State which is so very tall and the Taj Mahal with a pretty dome …”

What stands between us and the fullness of God? Possibly it’s the automobile itself. Possibly it’s the ability, because of the rise of industry “to romanticize the wilderness” to “institutionalize the concept of ‘scenic’” (to frame the question in Wendell Berry’s words), and finally to escape the responsibilities of place, community, annoying neighbors, and the dullness of making a living day after day in a neighborhood that is not nearly as romantic as a ski lodge in Park City, nor as scenic as the red sandstone cliffs of Sedona, nor as urbane as Santa Fe.

If I would have never left Montana and was still working in the arid and empty Larb Hills north of Fort Peck Reservoir, then possibly the arid and empty places would have been my desert where I struggled against jackals and demons in search of the fullness of God. Instead, I packed up my automobile and moved to Kentucky, and to Kansas, then to Alaska, and on to Nebraska … How can a wanderer such as that make a pilgrimage? For while I still have so many places which to go, I no longer have a specific place from which I come.

When Brenda read Wendell Berry in the midst of the massive rock stair steps of the Escalante, I realized that I am no St. Anthony. I cannot make pilgrimage into the desert to fight my demons when I am so accustomed to traveling to the desert to escape the demons with which I am so familiar.

Jim - Malpais

If I’m going to be a tourist, I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, I ought to fight tooth and claw, to embrace the wild fullness of God in the domesticated world where I live (in contrast to the wild world where I vacation). Such a stay-put pilgrimage is not nearly as romantic as southern Utah or the Bighorn Mountains, but it is in tune with my life. I have seen the “grotesque and wild.” I have clambered up to “the vertical edge.” And for me they’re not scary, but scenic. Now it is time to come home, to stay home, until I can find divine fullness here in this noisy, busy place. In the midst of the noise of society, the potential of the quiet stillness of God remains as profound as it did for Moses on the mountain, for St. Anthony in his hut, and for the monks on the Holy Mountain.

This spring, before it was so rudely interrupted by two record breaking snow storms, I was noticing how slowly and methodically spring blooms. The bark on the new growth of willows turns from a faded yellow or red to vibrant color over a period of weeks The gray hillsides take on a barely noticeable greenish hue. When the wind blows, the branches move just a bit differently and the sound of the wind is a little bit less harsh, no doubt because weight and girth are being added to the tips of the branches as the trees get ready to push their new leaves out into the unforgiving world.

All the while, things still have the appearance of late winter barrenness. If one hast been paying attention to the uninteresting grayness of winter, if one hasn’t been listening, not just to the wind, but to how the wind blows, if one hasn’t been seeing those specific colors of grayish red, grayish yellow, and grayish brown, one will be unable to notice these first signs of spring.

Spring doesn’t burst upon us in a moment of glory, the season emerges with painful slowness, in fits and starts. That final burst is every bit as much an ending as a beginning. The burst is not a surprise, although the moment is always rather unexpected, and because of its unexpectedness, all the more joyful.

In my reading I came upon Mat 16, and I thought, isn’t that rather the point that Jesus made so long ago? “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy weather, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (vv 2f).

He concludes in v. 4. “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign ..” Folded into this simple statement is the assumption that the sign is already there. The “evil and adulterous generation” asks for a sign because they are not paying attention.

And folded into the ridiculously long preparations and celebrations (by modern standards of time) for times and seasons, fasts and feasts, that Eastern Orthodoxy still maintains against the tide of hurriedness that marks the modern world, is this same sensibility.

Pascha’s not so much a glorious moment where everything changes in an instant, it’s more that final burst of something that’s been going on for a long time. Paul, in Galatians, offers that wonderful turn phrase, “in the fullness of time …” Salvation is not rooted in the resurrection nor in Christ’s death; that’s just the final burst. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son.” But neither is salvation rooted in the life of Christ, for that is simply the final burst of process that had been going on for generations. Salvation has been in process for a long, long time.

Forty days of Advent (yeah, the Orthodox observe the whole forty days, not just the truncated 4 weeks) and the twelve days of Christmas, the forty days of Lent (which, by the way, ends on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, since the Orthodox don’t skip Sundays), and then the six day fast of Holy Week, the fifty days of Pascha, etc. etc. Very few things are punctiliar in historic Christianity. Even Sunday morning Divine Liturgy takes a long time to unfold and reveal, since it essentially starts with vespers the evening before.

We Americans are people of Easter Bunny and the day the cherry blossoms burst on the National Mall. Christianity, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate people of the willow branches slowly shedding their gray sleepiness for vibrant yellow, of a Pascha celebration that starts with Abraham, and a weekend liturgy that begins with creation on Saturday night and concludes with the Apocalypse about lunchtime on Sunday.

Apocalypse literally means “a tearing open.” Only a sinful and adulterous generation would ask for a hint as to when that final burst is going to occur. People of the Christ have been watching that seam grow … and stretch … and slowly change from the gray of death to the yellow, red, and green of vibrant life for a very long time. That final “pop!” of the Consummation of All Things will be a surprise, but not unexpected.

How Big Was the 2011 Flood?

So, just how big was that 2011 flood of the Missouri River? Well there are many different ways to measure it. For instance, the flood on the lower Missouri (let’s say from the mouth of the Platte River — Plattsmouth, NE and south) started in late winter/early spring because of high water in tributaries below all the dams on the Missouri River. Rulo, Nebraska and northern Missouri flood almost every year because of water from the James, Big and Little Sioux, Platte, and Nishnabotna Rivers, which are all below the last dam on the river, and are therefore beyond the possibility of traditional flood control. (And this, by the way, is why the Corps was not at liberty to release large amounts of water to empty to reservoirs in March and April — southern Nebraska and northern Missouri were already experiencing significant flooding which would have been seriously exacerbated if the Corps would have lowered the reservoir levels.

So, let’s narrow it down and ask, how big was the flood on the Upper Missouri River (that would be Threeforks, MT to Sioux City, IA)? The USGS has records for the last 113 years and 2011 is the biggest runoff on record by a large margin. The 2011 runoff was 246% larger than normal.

But there’s more. Let’s just consider the ten weeks from early May to late July of 2011. If those ten weeks alone are compared to previous full years, only ten full years had runoffs that exceeded those ten weeks of 2011.

In June 2011 alone, 14.8 million acre feet (MAF) entered the upper Missouri River. The previous monthly record was April 1952 when 13.2 MAF entered the upper Missouri.

One Million Acre Foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre of ground to the depth of one foot. I can’t conceive of that, much less 14.8 million of them.

But of course all that rain and snow melt had little to do with the flood of 2011. We all know it was actually the fault of the Corps of Engineers.

The Case of the Disappearing Bald Eagle

Brenda and I attended a conference about the Missouri River at Ponca State Park this weekend. One of the presenters (and his cohorts) deserves to be called out. His talk was based on a paper entitled, “Dynamics of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides) forests and historic landscape change across the upper Missouri River, USA, Environmental Management,” published in 2010.

The study that led to the publication of this paper was initiated and funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) back in the days when the bald eagle was still on the endangered species list.  Congress has told USACE that they can bring no further harm to any endangered species in their management of the Missouri River. (In other words, they have to take endangered species into consideration as part of their logic for when and how they will release water from the six major reservoirs along the Missouri River.)

As part of their mandate they asked for input on the impact of the river management on bald eagles. One of the studies that the USACE paid for in full was done by the following people:

  • Mark Dixon, professor at the University of South Dakota
  • W. Carter Johnson, professor at South Dakota State University
  • Mike L. Scott, biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, currently stationed in Fort Collins, CO
  • Daniel E. Bowen, professor at Benedictine College, Atchison, KS
  • Lisa A. Rabbe, scientist in the employ of the USACE

The study is quite fascinating, and I suspect the results of the study will be quite helpful as policy decisions are made in the years after the 2011 flood along the Missouri River. One of the things they found is that if the river is managed in such a way that cottonwood forests are encouraged to thrive, the chances of massive destructive floods are reduced. That seems like a good thing to me.

But we taxpayers paid millions for this study specifically because of a mandate to study bald eagles. This study was proposed and carried out under the umbrella of bald eagle research.

Of course, early in the study the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list, so the urgency of the study was lost. (But the research went on!)

The study focused particularly on the transformation of cottonwood forests along the banks of the Missouri into more durable hardwood forests. Among the findings is that cottonwood forests support woodpeckers, ovenbirds, and certain songbirds while hardwood forests support Bell’s vireos and other songbirds. Because of how the Missouri River has been managed over the last fifty years, cottonwood forests are declining while hardwood forests are thriving. As a result, woodpecker and ovenbird populations are declining while Bell’s vireo populations are increasing.

After the paper was presented I asked, “How does the decline of cottonwood forests affect bald eagle populations?”

In one of those “You can’t make this stuff up” moments, Professor Mark Dixon got this deer-in-the-headlights look in his eye and said, “You know, that would be a good question to study.” He admitted that they never actually considered bald eagle populations in the study and that the study itself didn’t easily apply itself to bald eagle populations. It was much more applicable to song bird populations.

In fairness this gang of merry money spenders more recently received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant for a study entitled, “Projecting Long-term Landscape Change along the Missouri River: Implications for Cottonwood Forests and Songbird Populations, Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative.” So they are specifically capitalizing on the songbird connection, but I think we the taxpayers should demand that Dixon, Johnson, Scott, Bowen, and Rabbe return their millions of dollars (out of their own pockets!) from this study, which was foisted upon us as a bald eagle study.

And finally, the moral of the story: University professors would likely go extinct without massive federal funding and protection. The American Bald Eagle is quite capable of taking care of itself – cottonwoods or no cottonwoods … professors or no professors … government grants or no government grants.

Another Thought on Easter Metaphors

I am doing more thinking about the metaphor I used for the resurrection in the previous essay. In that essay I offered a two-part metaphor of a stormy night for Jesus’ time in the grave where he defeated death by death and a bright, clear morning for the announcement of his resurrection – a movement from terror to joy. That works for Luke’s version of the story, but not so much for Mark’s. For those of you not familiar with the problem of the various endings of Mark’s gospel, let me offer a quick lesson in textual studies.

Both the oldest and most reliable manuscripts end Mark’s Gospel at 16:8. Later manuscripts and many “witnesses” (that is, writers who quote the Gospel) include or mention 16:9-20. But stylistically, verses 9-20 are very different from the rest of Mark. As a result, there is almost universal agreement that verses 9-20 were not part of the Gospel of Mark as originally written.

To add to the mystery, there is also a “shorter ending” which appears in just a few manuscripts, replacing verses 9-20. It reads as follows:

And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

Imagine the consternation, shock, and in some cases, crisis of faith, when, as young fundamentalist Christians, attending a fundamentalist Bible College, we were introduced to this textual problem in Advanced Greek Exegesis class. The stylistic differences were obvious even to us. We were a half dozen young people who all believed in the verbal plenary inerrancy of scripture. We all knew that Mark’s Gospel was written by John-Mark. And suddenly we were faced with overwhelming textual evidence that the last twelve verses of the Gospel didn’t belong.

For our Greek instructor (and let me assure you, he was every bit as fundamentalist as we students were, albeit, more mature) it was a “teachable moment.” That famous fundamentalist doctrine of the “verbal plenary inerrancy of scripture” applied, not to the English text, nor even the King James Version which was (and still is) revered so highly by a few. It referred to the “original documents.” And the simple historical fact was that we did not have the original documents. In this instance, and in a handful of other incidents in scripture, there was no way of knowing exactly what the original document said.

Most believers over the centuries evidently had a difficult time believing that John-Mark actually intended to end his Gospel at 16:8. Verses 6-7 record what the angel at the tomb said to the disciples. Verse 8 records their response. Here is a translation of Mark 16:6-8 (where the most ancient and authoritative manuscripts end):

6 And [the angel] said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. (RSV)

Several plausible theories have been offered. One is that John-Mark never got a chance to finish his Gospel. (It was likely written in a time of persecution, after all.) Another is that the very end of the manuscript was damaged or destroyed so that what John-Mark wrote was lost. In this case it is often theorized that the longer ending (what is now vv. 9-20) is a recreation from memory of what was on that destroyed end of the scroll.

Others revert to a sort of “well, it should have been included” mentality, and simply propose that faithful believers added the last few verses in order to say what God intended the text to say in the first place if John-Mark would have been paying attention.

But the fact is, nobody (except John-Mark, and possibly Peter, who was almost certainly the apostolic source of Mark’s writing, and the Risen and Reigning Lord himself) knows the truth of the matter. It’s all either speculation or opinion based on a larger theological framework.

Here’s my speculation. (And not mine alone; while a minority view, many students and scholars take this approach, including my Bible College Advanced Greek Exegesis instructor.)

Mark’s Gospel is not “good news” in the sense that it’s a happy, victorious, and feel-good sort of story. The gist of the story is that the disciples never get who Jesus is until long after the story is over – some point after fifty days, to be precise, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to reveal all truth. Literary scholars call Mark’s literary method “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, the theme that runs through the whole gospel is that Jesus’ Messiahship is a secret that no human understands. Only the demons understood (Mk 5:7, for instance), but they tried to use this information against him. Even Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (Mk 8:29) was clearly misunderstood, for it led to a false understanding of reality after which Jesus calls Peter “Satan” (v. 33).

Even though Jesus Christ’s resurrection is good news because it is God’s victory over death, the disciples don’t figure it out for 50 days, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. During the ten days following the resurrection it is decidedly bad news because in response the disciples hide in fear, even though Jesus appears to them individually and in groups, demonstrating the reality of the resurrection. The women get it and are joyous; the men are much less sure of themselves. After ten days Jesus tells the disciples to go to the Mount of Olives where he ascends to heaven. This is clearly a joyous event, but even in Matthew’s version (the most triumphalistic of the Gospels), it says that “some doubted” at the Ascension (28:17). It’s not until the coming of the Holy Spirit, who is the revealer of truth and the comforter of hearts, that the disciples finally figure it out and begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection which changes everything.

But Pentecost (that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit) is a church event, not a Jesus event. In Luke’s two volume story, it’s the start of the Acts of the Apostles and not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark’s gospel is not about the church, it’s about Jesus. Furthermore, historical evidence points out that he was writing during a time of severe persecution when a lot of Christians were denying their faith because of the fear of torture and death. Within this historical context it makes sense that Mark would want to hammer home the fact that even the twelve apostles, who spent three years with Jesus himself, failed in their various moments of crisis. Christian faith, if Mark’s Gospel is taken at face value, is best viewed as a series of failures which in retrospect are chock full of God’s guidance and care. To jump ahead to the victory is to gloss over the growth which shows itself as trials and failures. To focus on the joy is to miss the terrors and doubts of actual daily life. Mark’s Gospel is good news, not because he offers a happy ending, but rather because he tells it as it actually was, and not through the lens of retrospect.

Mark was the first gospel written. Luke explains at the very beginning of his gospel that he uses sources “handed on to me” in the writing of his gospel. Mark was without a doubt one of those sources because Luke quotes large passages of Mark verbatim (as does Matthew). But I propose the apostles, the believers, the church in general, recognized that Mark’s approach to the gospel wasn’t necessarily the best way to go. We, as Christians, do see everything through the lens of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ’s life can’t just be taken at face value; it has to be seen through the eyes of faith, or from the perspective of the indwelling Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not perfect as Jesus was perfect. Neither were they all-knowing as God in heaven is all knowing. So, while Mark’s gospel is both an accurate description of how it all happened and a true account of the life of Christ, in the judgment of the church, it is not the best way to tell the story: It’s a real Gospel, but not the final word. The Gospel according to Mark is like a first draft in this whole business of putting the preached gospel to text. Luke and Matthew started with his version but added to it, and more importantly, did not follow the “Messianic secret” theme, but chose to tell the story through the eyes of post-Pentecost Christian faith. In subsequent years the church in general was uncomfortable enough with Mark’s ending that the church added an ending more in line with the Christological perspective of viewing all life (past, present, and future) through the lens of Christian faith.

That’s my speculation on how we got the two different endings of Mark, neither of which was written by Mark himself at the time the rest of the Gospel was written.  Assuming that I (and again, I remind you that I am not alone in this opinion) got it right, this Gospel has something profound to tell us that cannot be found elsewhere in scripture, other than the profoundly negative Psalm 88 and a handful of similar texts.

Sometimes the reality of God’s presence and his hand in our life are absolutely invisible. John of the Cross calls it “the Dark Night of the Soul.” He goes so far as to say that the dark night is a necessary Christian experience. Faith in God, when you can feel and experience God’s guiding hand, is not faith at all. Faith involves the unknown and therefore requires trust. If my experience is that God always takes care of me, always reveals the correct path, and always gets me out of a jamb, then my interaction with God is not based of faith but on sight. True faith is trusting in God when God is seemingly absent. And we can’t know that we authentically and profoundly believe in God until we have believed in God when it goes against everything we know and experience. (The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is a biblical example of this sort of faith.)

This is the Gospel of Mark in a nutshell. It is the knowledge that God is God and I am his creature even though my only experience is fear and failure and the only thing I hear from God (or in the case of the disciples, from Jesus the Rabbi) don’t make sense. That is a sense of grace that far surpasses any understanding of grace that can happen when one first realizes the truth of the matter and accepts Christ as one’s savior. It is a sort of Christian faith that can only come about after the crucible of real life has been lived. And only when this sort of utterly profound divine grace which extends far beyond human belief is experienced can we turn to God with utterly profound gratitude for what he has done.

Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ words, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” writ large through the lives of the disciples.

Just over a year ago a huge tornado passed through Siouxland and laid waste to the town of Mapleton, to the southeast of Sioux City. When the citizens of Mapleton woke up the next morning (if they had even slept at all, given all the terror), the sun was probably shining in a crystal clear sky. But their experience wasn’t overwhelming joy; it was fear, sorrow, despair. Maybe the image of Mapleton laid waste by an apocalyptic creation gone made, the destruction even more pronounced because of the brightness and clarity of the dawning sun is a far more accurate metaphor for Easter morning. We rightfully celebrate Christ’s Pascha at Easter from the eyes of Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Spirit. We rightfully observe this Feast of Feasts as the most joyous of all occasions in the life of the church. But the way it is experienced in everyday life is rather different. When Easter moments (or more accurately paschal moments) come into our everyday lives they are upsetting and we don’t understand them, so we typically respond in fear, “not saying anything to anyone, for we are afraid” (Mark 16:9 – the final words of the book altered for tense).

Resurrection joy comes after the fact, some fifty days later, when the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. But in the transformative moment of death and resurrection, when we do not understand but can only hope (a classic apocalyptic theological term – not a vague desire, but a confidence held somewhere deep within that contradicts our experience of this sinful and broken created order) that God will be God and come through, even though he’s hidden behind the veil.

As we mature and become more Christ-like, as we, over time, become the saints God has already named us and called us to be, we can respond to these transformative paschal moments in profound trust. But that’s the end of the story; that’s not even the second or third draft. It’s more like the twelfth draft, or twelve hundredth draft, of our Christian lives. The first time through … the first several times through, for that matter, like the Apostles, in whom Jesus entrusted the whole church, we “flee.” “Terror and amazement seizes us.” We “say nothing to anyone, for we are afraid.”

And in a very strange and profound way, that is the good news of the Gospel.

And what is Christian maturity rooted in this strangely profound good news of the Gospel? Let’s return to Mapleton and its hail, wind, tornado, and rain of apocalyptic proportions. (The storm and tornado is Holy Saturday – the hours before Easter.) Christian maturity is walking out of your tornado shelter the next morning, surrounded by the debris and destruction of what used to be your house and your community, taking the aftermath of that terror of destruction in, but rather than quailing at the sight, having your heart overflow with gratitude, joy, and love for God because of crystal blue sky, the glorious sunrise, and the birds singing from what’s left of the trees.

In a very strange and profound way, Mapleton razed by a tornado as seen in the glaring light of the morning sun (and not just a beautiful Easter sunrise on a pastoral morning) is the proper metaphor of a mature Christian rejoicing in the Resurrection as it is rooted in the actual good news of the Gospel. Thanks be to God.

Trampling … and Other Great Easter Words

Newness and violence are inextricably related. I was reminded of this last night as the massive spring storms moved across the central U.S. even as Orthodox churches throughout the region were ringing in the news that Christ is risen from the dead, during the midnight Pascha service. (Today, not last Sunday, is Pascha – or Easter – on the Orthodox Christian calendar.)

It reminds me of Mat. 11:12, where we find Jesus’ unexpected declaration, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This verse is notoriously difficult to interpret. Some have even go so far as to translate the Greek back into Aramaic in order to speculate what Jesus actually said (since Aramaic was Jesus’ native language). When one does that, it is possible (some even argue it’s likely) that the violence becomes passive: “The Kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent are trying to snatch it away.”

I’m not going to weigh in on precisely what this verse means except to note that Jesus recognized that the Resurrection and the resulting Kingdom were inextricably tied to violence. (Although I will note that the traditional interpretation is that we are called on to inflict the violence on ourselves. Our desire to please ourselves rather than please God is so overwhelming that we must “violently” practice discipline – not in the pre-Reformation Martin Luther sense of beating oneself with whips, but rather the violence of eating vegetables when one desperately wants a hamburger or giving away a hundred dollars when one desperately wants to update an ancient smart phone. And anyone who has attempted to observe Lent in gratitude to God for all that he has given, the idea that these are violent actions against the self is obvious.)

The new order creates violence, not because it is inherently violent, but rather because the old corrupt order does not want to be replaced. In the wildly and wonderfully excessive language of the apocalyptic tradition, the newness of the Kingdom, the action of God’s “mighty arm,” is expressed as the fabric of the sky being torn open, mountains being toppled into the sea, the sun going dark, and the stars falling (or being cast down) from heaven.

That imagery is not unlike the spring storms that ravage the central part of the U.S. every year at the time we celebrate the resurrection of Christ as he “tramples down” (now there’s a violent image!) “death by death …”

For those of us who just want to blend in, who go to church but don’t want to make waves, who believe that Christians ought to just be good citizens and not rabble rousers, who believe that they don’t have to work very hard at their faith because salvation is free and God’s grace covers all, we should learn from this confluence (which is by no means accidental!) of the season of spring and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. (This is the Paschal Troparion , which is sung ad infinitum during the Paschal service and in the weeks that follow.) (And at this point, a bolt of lightning from an ominous black cloud, a thunder clap and an onslaught of hail, followed by a crystal-clear sunrise, would be appropriate. I suspect that is how we ought to translate the Paschal Troparion into the language of nature.)

It’s EXACTLY the Same … Except for the Sleet, Snow, and ICE!

The Sioux City Journal reports that Sioux City is in for sleet, ice, snow, rain, and even a thunderstorm, pretty much all at the same time. Columnist Earl Horlyk calls it a day of “weather’s greatest hits.”

We’re getting exactly the same stuff down here in Mississippi … except for the sleet, snow, and ice. That’s probably because the overnight low was 60 and it’s supposed to get into the 70s today.

In related news, the Sioux City Muskateers … that’s the local hockey team … there’s really no need to add the adjective ice hockey because in the land of snow, sleet, and ice it’s pretty easy to figure out that we’re not talking about field hockey … but I digress … refer to the previous post for how this relates to field hockey … The Sioux City Muskateers lost a game to Des Moines.

At least the Muskies didn’t lose to the Ice Rebels … or Slush Rebels, or Luke-Warm-Water-Flooding-an-Arena-Rebels, or whatever they call that ice hockey squad up in Oxford, MS, where, by the way, they too are getting exactly the same weather as Sioux City … except for the sleet, snow, and ice.

Brutal Winter

We have a snow storm rolling in tomorrow, and it seems like we can’t even get rid of the first bunch of snow before the second bunch comes rolling in.

Remaining snow in yard.Well, if this were ESPN they’d show a re-run in super-slo-mo with arrows and highlights pointing at the action. I don’t have super-slo-mo, but here’s a rerun, in case you missed it the first time.

It’s been in the 50s all week and above freezing all month, except for the occasional system that evidently wanders into Siouxland by mistake. We’ll see (1) if this storm actually develops tomorrow, or if it’s another sunny day in the 50s and (2) how long it lasts.

p.s. We did have sunshine, so evidently we have 6 more weeks of this.

Illegal Aliens

Down in Texas they have a group called “Border Watch”.” It’s an ad hoc group of citizens doing citizen justice trying to protect the United States from illegal aliens.

Today Brenda and I took part in such an effort up here, just south of the Great White North. This part of the U.S. has been overrun by illegal aliens from the north. Snowy owls are severely short of food this year up in Manitoba and a lot of them have crossed the border, travelling as far south as Iowa and Nebraska in search of food.

A few days ago a friend of Brenda’s called her up to see if she wanted to go in search of snowy owls this morning. Her husband had a good lead on where several might be. So off to the corner of 310th St and Eastland Ave (before you get the wrong idea, that’s two gravel roads out among the corn fields) to the east of Sloan, Iowa, binoculars and cameras in hand, we began our search for those illegal aliens, the snowy owl.

We never did see any today. Just a few red tailed hawks and another bird I initially thought was a marsh hawk, but was probably a rough-legged hawk. (It had a white butt instead of a dark one — Cornell University says that’s how you tell the difference between a marsh hawk and a rough-legged hawk. So, if that’s the case, why don’t they call it a white-butted hawk? Just wondering.)

Well, we never did see our snowy owl, but that doesn’t mean that American resources shouldn’t be saved for Americans. So we prayed for all the poor little field mice, hoped that American culture might stay as pure as the white butt on that hawk, and then went over to La Salsita restaurant to get some authentic tacos and stuff — none of that imposter food like they have at Taco Bell for us, after all.

Christmas Hike

A Christmas hike has become a bit of a tradition around our house. After turkey it’s either a nap or a walk, and in the last few years, we’ve opted for the exercise. Of course it helps that in the last few years (with a couple of notable exceptions) the snow cover has not been a significant factor.

Snow on hiking trail

We had to go to Ponca State Park to find any Christmas snow at all.

We decided to hike the “Discovery Corps Trail” at Ponca State Park, a trail that follows along the Missouri for a few hundred yards, and then turns up a “holler” (as my Arkansas relatives would say) to the top of the bluff.

On this trip we saw a hawk, juncos, and sparrows. We heard crows, blue jays, and chickadees. And of course, squirrels were dashing through the leaves chasing each other. The big find was three mergansers on the Missouri River. They’re a fairly rare visitor to the area, so it was fun to watch them through the binoculars.

As we walked through what used to be the riverside camp ground, the light was such that the height of this summer’s flood waters was very clear on the cottonwood trees. As you can see, based on the people in the picture, there was seven or more feet of water over the campground this summer.

Riverside campground at Ponca State Park

Click on the picture for a larger view, then hit the "back" button to return to the post.

The last time we walked through this “campground” it was still filled with flood debris. They have at least gotten rid of that along with a foot or so of silt. Now it’s a matter of restoring the electrical lines and boxes, the water, and bringing back the picnic tables and biffies. That’s a lot of work! I wonder if it will be ready for use by this summer. I doubt it. Of course the park has a lot of other camp sites, so they’re still doing a brisk business. In fact, it looked like all the winterized cabins were full for Christmas. It seems a little odd to spend Christmas at a state park where the sledding hill, cross country ski course, and snow mobile trails are slightly less than groomed (see first picture above). That doesn’t leave a lot to do. But on the other hand, we drove all the way out there just to take a hike.