Sunday, September 04, 2016

Jesus Wept


A good man died the other day.


 He had a whole lot of friends and I knew most of his groups. Beyond his buddies at work and a closely knit neighborhood, he belonged to the church I went to in Garland. He was also on the staff of the Synod Youth Workshop with me for many years and to add icing to the cake, he was the half-time announcer for the high school band where my granddaughters both play flute.  It was easy and always a pleasure to run into Brad often. I knew him well enough that after he retired as half-time announcer I could still get him to give me my own personal rendition of his famous introduction:  "The Spine Tingling, Hair Raising' Mighty Eagle Band!”  I received more than my fair share of unsolicited bear hugs.  I saw his goofy side and knew enough of his scars to know he could switch to his serious and sincere side with kids in an instant. He was the kind of small group leader who cried on a regular basis.   Brad was the real deal and kids knew that.  He will be sorely missed. The world needs more people like Brad Phillips.  This isn't the way it's supposed to work.  We're supposed to have more, not less, people like him.

I was pretty angry at God the morning I found out.  It was one of those "Let me speak to the manager" mornings.  So I went outside on my back porch to give God a chance to explain himself.     

I waited.

And waited.  

And wouldn't you know it but God pulled out that tired old Job passage, the one at the end where God asks Job in chapters 38-41 where was Job when the earth was created, mocking him for his puny humanity, that he wasn't as smart as God and how dare he question God.  Put Job right in his place, didn't God?  What a bully. 

I shuffled back in the house, meek as a lamb.

Then I almost immediately turned around and walked back outside.  NO!  I'm not going to accept that answer!  That was the Old Testament.  I want your New Testament answer!  I will not be bullied. I want Jesus' answer! We're not finished. I grabbed my coffee cup and my bible and went back out on the porch. “I want a different answer,” I demanded.

We knew all along it was going to take a miracle to save Brad. So that’s what we had prayed for.  We prayed for it boldly. 

Glioblastoma.  That’s what Brad had.  It’s one of the worst brain cancers you can get.  It’s big and bad and fast. And no matter how much radiation and prayer you throw at it, it’s also pretty much incurable.  And Brad fought it with all his strength and optimism all the way.  If you could cure cancer with optimism we wouldn’t be having this conversation because he had enough for the whole world and Brad could have beat cancer with optimism alone if that was all that was needed. 

But we don’t get it that way.  We don’t get to make the rules.  We have very little control of what happens most of the time.  Shit just happens.

That’s when I realized that’s what I was looking for:  I needed a “Shit Happens” scripture. Have you got one of those, God?

I went back looking through the bible and in a few pages I found just what I was looking for.  It was one of the old standards that I’ve known since I was a kid; the one we always relied on every Monday morning in elementary school when you had to recite a bible verse to prove you had gone to church over the weekend-- old reliable: the shortest verse in the bible, two words: John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.”  Shit Happens.

The bible describes the scene when Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died. Shit happened and even Jesus couldn’t prevent it from happening.  When God created life there were built-in frailties that came with the package of mortality. And one of them was that we all have an expiration date. Jesus weeps out of love for Lazarus. Then Jesus performs a miracle and brings His friend back to life.  Jesus is mightier than death. 
Some of us have long lives and some of us don’t.  And we rarely have much notice of when our expiration date is due.  Even if we did, we would want more time.

My friend Leeann was talking about the Jesus Wept passage a couple of months ago with me and she had a totally different take on the quote than any I’ve ever heard.  Her theory was that Jesus wept because Jesus knew what he was taking Lazarus away from when he brought him back to life.  As much as Jesus wanted to see his old friend again he knew Lazarus' family wanted to see him even more and they were already accusing Jesus of falling down on the job, "If you had been here you could have saved him."  Did Jesus, knowing he had the power to raise him from the dead, weep at Lazarus' death? Or did Jesus weep because he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus back to a life here on earth and away from a heavenly life?  Did Jesus, knowing both worlds, wept at the change Lazarus would have to make?

We forget in this story that heaven is a better place than earth. And Jesus was bringing Lazarus out of heaven and back to life on earth.

Let our grief be for Brad’s family and ourselves but not for Brad.  Shit happened to us. Brad is in a good place.  And Jesus knows all about it. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Our Trip to Europe



We planned our "Trip of a Lifetime" over a year before we actually took it and it happened kind of accidentally.  It started when I asked Beaven to do a chore around the house.  It was something ordinary that he normally does quite readily--like cutting a tree down.  But this time he declared that he was "too old" to do it.  Then he went into a whole list of things that he's now "too old" to do.  And one of the things on his list that he is now "too old" to do is travel.  When he got to the part about not being able to travel to Europe anymore because he's "too old" I stopped him.  Wait....I'm not too old.  Do you care if I go without you?  Given his blessing I suddenly wanted to go to Europe with a passion I had never felt before.  So I called Elizabeth, the only daughter with the money and the vacation time to make it happen.  "Sure!" she said.  So we started planning a trip. It would be so easy. Elizabeth and I travel well together. 

Then once we got to looking at the ideas, I noticed that our favorite tour group had one for families.  I called her up, "Hey!  Wanna take the girls with us?"  "Sure!" So now we were taking my granddaughters.  Easy enough.  We would just split the costs in half.  It would be so much fun to show them the world.  They are the prime age for this.

And, of course, once Beaven got wind of this, suddenly he wasn't so "old" anymore.  But as luck would have it, I couldn't remember the chore I had asked him to do for me that started this whole thing. But it did bring more energy to him. And for that alone I think the whole thing was worth it.

Now, my theory about vacations is that it really doesn't matter where you go. You can plan it all out to every last gas station if you want.




But the real purpose of a vacation is just hanging out together.  All the rest of it is just scenery. According to my theory you could just rent a van and cram the whole family into it and drive around town for a day or two, stopping once in a while for snacks and lunch, maybe stopping in at a motel for the night.  Everything valuable, all the memories--most of them, anyhow, the inside jokes, the laughs, are made while you're "getting where you're going."  A vacation to Europe is just better scenery with a little history thrown in. Most of the stories we told when we got home were of standing in lines at airports and what happened on the Metro, not what we saw at the museums.

It's been over a month since this vacation and I haven't posted anything.  You have my cousin Ann to thank for this.  She has gotten impatient for news and she doesn't do facebook.  Neither does Linda Terpstra.  Thank them both.

I thought I might have better luck  just moving the stuff I posted on facebook to the blog to describe our trip since I posted a lot about our trip on facebook, with the theory of one picture is worth a thousand words.  And it turns out there are very little words and a whole lot of pictures on facebook.

Still, I didn't take a lot of conventional photos.  This is one of the few of them.



This is one of the first photos I took once we landed in London.  It turned out to be the morning they had a huge parade for the Queen's 90th birthday--which we hadn't a clue about.  And the only thing we knew about was that when we checked into our hotel we found out it was across the street from the Lord's Cricket Grounds and there was a huge cricket match going on.  This made for boisterous noise and spirit all over the hotel so we assumed that was all that was going on in London that day.  When there was a red, white and blue fly-over with military jets as we walked down the street we thought it was the cricket matches.  The girls couldn't understand why England was doing a fly-over with the USA colors until we explained it was their colors before we stole them.

We enjoyed a good walk around London.

The next day we took a ride on the London Eye which gives you a great view of London.  While I was waxing glorious about how the east end is more modern because it was where the docks were and was bombed into smithereens during WWII and thus re-built recently their eyes glazed over and I knew we weren't going to learn any European history this week.  Still, it made for some good photos.








 
We knew going into this that food would be a challenge.  Sarah won't eat anything more foreign than a hamburger with catsup.  I sent out a challenge to both of them to try new things.  They did pretty good.  Both girls tasted duck.  Essie declared it tasted like beef.  Sarah said it was nasty.  Essie was a lot more adventurous and tried several new things, though both girls drew the line at snails.
 
But once we discovered a Five Guys Burgers and Fries in London Sarah was in heaven.  I think we ate there twice if not three times.  There may have even been one in Paris. They kind of blur together.  We also found a Hard Rock CafĂ© in Rome and, of course, MacDonalds were everywhere.  Once Sarah tried the chicken nuggets at MacDonalds I asked her if they were different from the ones in the US and she declared they were a LOT better.  When I asked why, she thought for a minute and declared with quiet suspicion, "I think they are made with real chicken."






Beaven hates taking cabs and loves the public transportation system in Europe.  We bought city passes for London and Paris before we even left home.  We could get on any bus or subway car we wanted with just our card.  The girls picked up a knowledge of the maps like they had been taught it in first grade.  We moved around faster than above ground and I found myself feeling sorry for the Queen until Elizabeth pointed out they stop traffic for her.  Still, we got to go a lot faster than I'll bet the Queen travels. And we met people I'll bet the Queen NEVER meets.

When we got to Paris the Eurocup was playing.  This meant several things:  they were EXPECTING a terrorist attack and there was a military presence like I've never seen before. Once we needed to cross through the fan zone (which was free) and found it wasn't quite a walk in the park.  The fan zone was surrounded by (1) metal riot fencing forming a ring around the fan zone  (2) Gendarmes, which is the French military police.  They had Humvees parked bumper to bumper in a circle around the fan zone and two Gendarmes stationed at each Humvee.  Outside this ring was (3) the Paris city police with their police cars parked bumper to bumper and policemen stationed at each car.  To get past this corridor you had to be frisked.  I've never been frisked so thoroughly before.

There were people from all over Europe crammed into Paris.  You could drink to your heart's content on the Metro since you weren't operating a motor vehicle. The people from all over Europe who were drinking to their heart's content were on the Metro with us.

At 10:30 A.M. That's right: Ante Meridiem
 .....BEFORE noon..... we got on the Metro in Paris with a group of English guys who were supporting their team in a soccer match that day.  The game had not even started.  Yet they were already in the "spirit" of the game.  Each guy had a plastic sack with a six pack of beer.  And the instant they got on the car and the car started they each opened a can of beer.  They were loud and boisterous but with an English accent which sounded SO PROPER that they almost didn't sound drunk.  But they were still obnoxious so we were glad--everyone on the car was glad-- when they got off.

We went to Europe as part of a Rick Steve's tour.  I can't say enough good things about the Rick Steve's tours.  For our family it's the perfect blend of doing things on your own with just the right amount of having a tour guide drive you places and explain things to you.  Our guide was fantastic.  The tour left us with lots of time on our own.  One of the things the tour didn't cover that we did on our own was going to the Eiffel Tower.....We marked our calendar six months ahead and made our reservations on the first opportunity you could get them because they sell out so fast.  It's one of those tourists Must Do" things that we didn't want the girls to miss.  Plus they got fantastic photos of the Eurocup game below the tower.  We had several discussions over whether this was the actual game site but we do know this was also the site of the Fan Zone.  The Fan Zone was free and anyone could go.  There was a huge TV screen so you could see all the action--probably better than if you were at the actual game.  The ground was muddy.  Remember how full of spirit our friends on the Metro were?  I heard a sighting of one guy with mud all over the front of his shirt and muddy footprints on the back of his shirt. 





And the girls have a picture of themselves atop the Eiffel Tower.  There's about three levels.  To get to the top you have to climb stairs. They actually went to the top.  I didn't.  I don't do heights.




Because this was a Family Tour there were some unusual activities for kids.  One that we enjoyed in Paris was learning to play Petanque, which is a lot like the British game of Boule.........maybe more like bowling in America.  It means in French, literally, "put your ankle"  and you throw a heavy ball trying to hit another ball without doing something.....I got cloudy on the rules once they brought out French pastries to nibble on while we played.  I nibbled more than I played.  Beaven kept his British hat and cut a very Continental pose. I was distracted by knowing there were pastries on the bench right behind me.






A day earlier some madman n Orlando, Florida had attacked a bunch of people at a gay nightclub and killed a lot of people.  We were feeling very sad and disconnected.  Then we saw the Paris municipal office with the rainbow flag on display in solidarity.  We would later see this same thing in Florence and Rome.



We went to the Louvre and saw all the standard stuff like the Mona Lisa and such.  The biggest attraction for the Els family, however, was the bathroom at the Louvre.  Notably, (thanks to our guide's advice) the Japanese Spa treatment for an extra Euro payment.  For this extra payment you get not just the regular clean bathroom but an "extra" clean and "sanitized" bathroom plus a built-in bidet which was much better than the ones the bathrooms had.  (And by the end of the trip we were experts on bidets.)  You could also buy colored toilet paper there--which Essie did, and later found out it was also scented. OK, yes, we go to the most famous art museum in the world and bring home toilet paper.

We split up once which only meant that I got lost and it took them an hour to find me.  But I had some great moments with Michaelangelo's Prisoners.





After Paris We traveled to Burgundy to a villa for a couple of days.


For dinner that evening our guide wanted everyone to get to know each other so she encouraged all to dance. She brought in a local accordionist to play for us and later that evening a guy came and played the Alpenhorn.






I can't add the video of the alpenhorn or the accordion yet.  I'll have to do it later.






Then we went to Switzerland.



Believe it or not this is the ONLY photo we got of all five of us together.  We're not very good tourists. This was before we went inside the Trummelbach Falls--a waterfall inside a mountain.





I can't get the video of inside the waterfall inside a mountain to post......and I'm only half-way through the vacation and this blog already posted accidentally.  So I'll fix the typos and let you have it.  Then I'll post the second half of the vacation later.  Stay tuned.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Letter from Fannie

As promised, I received a letter from Fannie.  Fannie is a busy gal and I'm used to her always sending me notes from around the world.  Ever since her time in Guatemala when she spent some time with the Quetzal birds learning about the peace and justice issues in that country she has dedicated her life to helping others.  Shortly after that a friend, Mamie Broadhurst, caught sight of her in North Carolina and sent me a photo.  Neither of us were sure what it meant and I'm not really sure if the picture was taken before or after Fannie checked into the Betty Ford Clinic but it does show that Fannie had started questioning things.

But every since then Fannie has been on the move wherever there was a need.  She was in New York City on September 11, 2001 and helped lead people across the Brooklyn Bridge when  they were able to see her bright pink plumage through the gray dust.  Then she stay on for weeks afterwards to managed the Displaced Pigeon Project, helping to find new homes for all the pigeons who had lived atop the Twin Towers.  For that work she received a nice plaque from Mayor Guiliani.

She did so much work and kept moving so fast after Hurricane Katrina that no one was able to tie her to any one agency or effort that could recognize her efforts.  Suffice it to say that she has a bed and a bowl of gumbo waiting for her at any house on the Gulf Coast.

I seldom see her nowadays except around the fall when she usually comes to town to see her sister Fernie who runs a funnel cake stand at the state fair. Most of her time is spent with her long-time boyfriend, Sam who lives in D.C.  He's a bald eagle--retired from the postal department with a nice pension.  She met him during the Anthrax scare in 2001.He has a nice nest on top of the Washington Monument.

But I did get a letter from her yesterday from Paris because she knows we are travelling there next week and we'll have a chance to see each other. I always enjoy a reunion with Fannie.



 
Musee de Louvre

Paris, France

Dear Jane,

The State Department called and asked me to fly to Paris to help with the flooding.  Of course, I accepted at once.  A little too quickly it seems, because I didn’t realize they have cut back on their spending and when they said “fly” they didn’t mean in a luxury jumbo jet as I am accustomed to under these circumstances in the past.  No…..they meant for me to flap my own weary, tattered old wings. When I tried to complain to Michelle she just told me to get over it; I was one of the few resources they have who could shave a few bucks off the total bill and I should be grateful for my talents and I might think of losing a few pounds while I’m at it and eat more vegetables.  My, how things change when people aren’t not running for office any more. 

So I arrived in Paris a little later than I had hoped or we might have been able to sandbag this lovely museum.  Instead we had to go to Plan B and move things from the basement to the halls upstairs.  Also by this time they had lost power so the only light was the emergency lights.  It was very dark and dusty work.  But since I travel without baggage or need of hotel rooms I was able to go straight to work. 

Almost the first thing I did, however, was step on some tubes of paint they had piled up in the corner. Paint squeezed all over my feet.   Then I landed onto some blank art canvases they had leaning against the wall.  In the floundering about I ended up walking over one of them a bit.  I put it aside back against the wall and cleaned up my mess.  I don’t think they could even tell. It all looked like a pile of trash if you ask me.  This would be a great time to clean things up. They need to organize this place, throw a bunch of trash out and vacuum the place. 
I moved to another side of the basement where I could see better and inserted myself into one of the lines where they had a kind of bucket brigade passing artwork and valuables along the line moving things upstairs to safety.  Oh, such marvels!  And these were the things deemed not good enough to show to the public.  The bargain basement of the Louvre, so the speak. Each one beautiful in its own right.

We worked until we had everything moved and were going out for a drink.  Everyone was exhausted.  Just then someone shouted out that they had found an undiscovered masterpiece of Picasso’s in the corner!!  All rushed to gather around and I was left on the fringes of the mob.  I’ve never seen people so excited in my life. Who knew it had been there in the basement all this time!  One of the master’s most dramatic works!  They started making plans immediately.  They would have such an announcement!  They would have an exhibit of the painting with some other Picassos as support pieces but with this one as the main centerpiece.  After a year, they might let it tour but wait!... it was far too valuable to allow it to tour.  They would have to convene a panel of experts to consider the matter. 

I was in awe to be present at such an historic moment.  To think it had been hidden in the basement of the Louvre all this time unnoticed.

Finally the crowd thinned out enough for me to step up and see the painting for myself.  It was the canvas I had stepped on with my painted feet. But by now the project had advanced too far to stop it. If they wanted to venerate something a clumsy flamingo painted with her feet as world class art, let it be their business. Nobody understands the French.
The Seine is receding and the museum should re-open in time for your visit.  There is still a lot of clean up to do around town.  You wouldn’t believe the trash the river brought.  Just wine corks alone surfacing on the river have littered the banks with enough cork to build a boat. 

See you soon!
Your friend,
the Picasso of the United States
Fan

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Possum Story Again


I washed a possum in the washing machine once. It wasn’t on purpose. I really don’t care how clean the neighborhood animals are. And I rarely invite them into my home for social functions. No, it was totally by accident. Years ago the house we lived in had the washer and dryer in the garage. And we lived close enough to a vacant field that we occasionally harbored wildlife. I guess I left the door to all the wrong things open. Our friend must have wandered into our garage, fallen in the washer and started on a good nap when I came to add a few clothes, shut the lid and start the machine.

No, I did not grab him and say, “looks like you need a dusting off old boy, hop in.”

And I certainly did not realize what had happened when I opened the machine the next morning. Half asleep, I reached out to move the wet clothes into the dryer. I was stopped by the strange odor. My clothes don’t normally come out of the washer smelling like the landfill. Then I saw what appeared to be either a very large rat or a very ugly cat. And a very dead one. After examining this sight for about a billionth of a nanosecond, I slammed the lid shut and went inside the house to write my husband a note. It read something to the effect that I loved him veryveryveryvery much and would do anything in the world for him and hoped he felt the same way about me because there was something dead in the washer and would he please get rid of it. Then I left for work.

I wasn’t a completely liberated woman at that stage of my life. God help me, I probably will never be that liberated. I’ve always agreed with the great television sage, Suzanne Sugarbaker from Designing Women, who decreed that “the man always has to kill the bug.”

When I talked to Beaven later that day, he assured me that the possum was gone from my life forever and went to heaven in a very clean condition. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

My brother was in the Navy on a nuclear submarine at that time. They were on a secret mission somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Each family member was allowed to send him two letters, which would be radioed to him. The rules were very strict: our message to him could be no more than 50 words and you couldn’t send any “coded” messages. This sounded simple but, actually, the 50 words was a real challenge. That’s not enough for a real story. But I wanted to use every word available and send a little bit of “home” to him. And to cap it all off, my life at that time was actually pretty boring. The most exciting thing that had happened to me in months had been Perfect Panty Day, when the youngest had finally gone all day with dry underwear. I couldn’t really expect Doss to get excited about that. Somewhere between “We’re all fine.” and “Take Care, We love you” I had to give him something interesting. So I included the sentence: “I washed a possum in the washer today.”

Somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, in the middle of the night, my brother was summoned brusquely from his bunk to see the Captain. I’m sure he was concerned and intimidated at the same time. The captain handed him the cable to read and demanded an explanation. “Allard, you know you can’t receive messages in code” My brother read the letter, threw back his head and laughed. “Captain, this isn’t a code, it’s just my sister. She probably DID wash a possum in the washer.”

Maybe in that quirky message I sent more of home to him than 50 words could say.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Memorial Day

Allow me a short lesson on Memorial Day.  Memorial Day is to celebrate military folks who died in a war.  It’s not for veterans who served in the military.  They have another day and it’s called, coincidentally, Veteran’s Day.  Even my husband who never carried a gun in the Viet Nam war but instead took a bunch of correspondence courses in Air Conditioning during his night shift in a power plant—even he gets to celebrate Veteran’s Day. I don’t think he suffered anything more than long lines and bad food in his war.

You gotta die to get celebrated for Memorial Day.
I say this because I’ve never had anyone to celebrate on Memorial Day.  All the military folks I’ve known all made it home safe and sound. The closest thing I ever had to a relative in danger was Uncle Harry who earned the Purple Heart for getting shrapnel in his butt yet he never liked to talk about it. I guess the circumstances were a little embarrassing. 
The thing is I’ve never had anyone to name on facebook or anyone to visit at a cemetery.
And a lot of people get their holidays mixed up and try to claim veterans on Memorial Day and I get a little upset or maybe jealous.  I’m not so sure what it is that upsets me.
But now I found out that I have someone I can celebrate on both days and it’s not everybody you can do that for and if I have to bend the rules a little I will because I think an exception can be allowed here.  I’m only sorry I didn’t learn the story until after my veteran’s death…..a good death, of natural causes, in his own bed five days after his 92nd birthday.  Technically, it wasn’t a battle death but hear my story.
My step-father was a quiet man of few words.  He was my step-father longer than my father was my father.  He married Daddy’s second wife who had been my step-mother longer than my mother had been my mother.  Neither one raised me but they functioned as my parents longer than actual parents had. 
In the over 40 years I knew Terry I heard far less about his time in the Army than I heard about my Daddy’s service in the short time I spent with him.  Daddy told stories and showed photos; he loved to talk about the war.  But Terry was  a humble man who didn’t go into a lot of details about his life.  About all I knew was that he had trained to be a paratrooper but landed wrong on his first practice jump and crushed his ankle.  I knew he was part of a platoon that was scheduled to land as part of the D Day forces but he missed the whole thing because he was still in the hospital.  And that’s all he ever said. A lot of time people would accuse him of breaking his ankle on purpose to get out of the Army.  He would merely deny it and let the conversation go.
I think he was discharged from the Army when he got out of the hospital.  I know he had a medical benefit for his ankle so I guess the Army didn’t think he was of much use to them anymore.  For the rest of his life the ankle would swell periodically and hurt most of the time. But he never had a limp or anything.  I always thought he got a pretty good deal out of it.
It wasn’t until after Terry died that his widow, Betty, told me the part of the story that Terry never told anyone. She said that he spent a lot of time in his last days getting things off his chest.  Every once in a while he would tell her to come sit by him. “I’ve got something I need to tell you.”  Mostly it was plans for what she should do after he was gone, how to handle the bills and such.  But sometimes it was a detail from his life.  And, at last, he told her the story.
While he was laid up in the hospital on D Day, his whole platoon was killed parachuting from the sky into France.  He was the only one left alive. All the man of few words said was, “None of them came back.”
I can only imagine what it was like to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.  No buddies to reminisce with about the war. No stories to swap.  Everyone gone.  The survivor’s guilt. 
Terry was a quiet and humble guy.  And now I wonder how much of that was a result of having your entire platoon killed while you were laid up in the hospital.  What does life become when your own is somehow singled out in such a seemingly miraculous manner? 
I can only imagine what Memorial Day was like for him.  And he never let on.
 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Waylon

We have inherited the best dog ever.  Except we can't let Stinky hear that because we always tell him that he's the best dog ever. 

And when I say we inherited him, I mean that somebody died and we ended up with him. 

The two most beloved saints of our Garland church were promoted to the Church Eternal within about 18 months of each other and about a month ago the wife followed her husband.  Some were amazed that Ardyce didn't follow Ron more quickly; her cancer was just as advanced as his, after all.  But I think she had some things to do and she did them and then she was ready.  In the end we were all of us left totally alone as orphans.  We had depended on them both to be our mentors in matters both spiritual and practical.  At Ron's memorial service I realized that for the first time in the 40 years I had been a member of the church I had no idea who had turned on the lights in the church.  It had always been Ron.  They were that dependable.

Ron, with all of his assuredness of knowing just the right way to do things, could be a bit steadfast in his insistence that his way was the only correct way to do something.  The reason we loved him so much and could forgive him so often was that he was usually right.  But if there was ever a soul that could be a handful for the Lord God Almighty it would be Ron Schmidt.  I am sure Ron was up there making all sorts of suggestions to the Creator, "Are you really sure you want that star right there?  Have you ever thought of putting it over there instead?  And the Amazon river really is too long.  How about ending it at Iquitos? You realize you made the avocado pit entirely too big, don't you?...." And the only person on earth who could handle him was Ardyce.  So we all agreed that the 18 months that God had to deal with Ron alone in heaven was a real test of the Omnipotence if there ever was one. Our quiet little theory is that God called Ardyce home in self-defense more than anything.

And this left Waylon without a family.

Ardyce's family sent out an appeal for anyone who might be able to find a place for him at their home.  It didn't look promising:  he is an old dog at around 12-14 years.  His file at the vet was pretty thick. He had been devoted to one elderly couple.  In fact, some said they weren't even sure he could adjust to life without Ardyce.  He had originally been Ron's dog but had become devoted to her. 

But the minute I heard Waylon needed a home I knew I wanted him.  How could you not want a dog with a name like Waylon?  And how could I not want Ardyce's dog?  It would be like having a part of her with me.  All I had to do was convince Beaven that we needed a second dog to join our cat.  But I think once he realized he would have Ron's dog he ended up feeling the same way I did.

And once we got the dog home it was like a miracle had happened in the car.  The dog who got out of the car at my house in the country was not the same old dog we helped into the car back in the suburbs 90 miles before.  Once he got a sniff of country air, noticed there are no fences or traffic here he became a new dog.  There is a pep in his step now.

Within a couple of days Waylon became part of the pack that regularly runs between our house with our other dog (Stinky), the dogs next door (Hank the Cow Dog and Annie) and the two dogs from the place on the other side of our field (whose names I don't know except one of them killed my duck which I know for a fact because I caught it with my duck in his mouth so I call him the Duck Killer. We don't encourage our dogs to play with them but their owners are perfectly nice people.)  Waylon has mastered the doggie door and comes and goes as he pleases, mostly hanging around with Stinky.

If Beaven is working outside Waylon will shadow him and watch his every move.  Then every once in a while for no reason the dog will bark at Beaven and Beaven knows it's Ron's spirit at work keeping him in line.  In the same way, sometimes he will walk up to me in my chair and rest his head on my knees and look deep into my eyes with a reassuring stare and I feel like it's Ardyce telling me everything is going to be OK.

For all the people who worried about how Waylon would do without Ardyce I wanted to take a video of him to show how active he is.  But I found a real challenge in getting a video of him.  About all I could get was about three seconds and then he was gone.  Trust me when I say he seems to be content.

https://youtu.be/n7Ecq5CIV1Q

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Our Italian Easter


We're watching a TV special on how they celebrate Easter in Europe but they've left out the most outlandish Easter celebration I've ever seen and I can't let the day go by without sharing it with you.  Easter in Florence, Italy is like nothing you've ever seen.  And we happened upon it totally by accident.

We hadn’t really planned to be in Italy for Easter, it just happened. We just went in the springtime of 2006 and Easter happened. When I figured it out I started asking around Florence about a good place in town for Easter services. The answer came back enthusiastic and unanimous: We must see the Scoppio del Carro. Translated, this means “Explosion of the Cart”.

Huh? They blow up things for Easter there? Wouldn’t a simple “Hallelujah” be enough? Or maybe some chocolate bunnies?

The tradition of Scoppio del Carro goes back to around the year 1,000. Wrap your brain around that one for a minute. A thousand year old tradition. The story goes that it started during the First Crusade when a guy from Florence went to Jerusalem and was the first man to climb the city walls. In exchange for his bravery (They don’t say why this was a brave thing to do; maybe it was a high wall or maybe somebody was shooting arrows at him) they gave him pieces of stone from the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried.

So far so good. Jerusalem and Easter. OK. When the guy got back to Florence he started using the stones to start a ‘holy fire’ that would be carried throughout the city as a religious symbol for all of Florence, Italy.

Then the story gets complicated, the way all traditions do after people start gussying it up. Around 1300 they started building an ornately decorated cart (carro) to transport the flame. The procession starts at another church where the original stones from Jerusalem are housed. The procession ends at the Piazza del Duomo where the grand cathedral stands.. There at the plaza the cart waits for a dove to fly out of the cathedral and ignite the fireworks inside the cart. According to the tradition if the cart explodes without a hitch, peace and prosperity would reign over Florence for the next year and they would have good crops. This sounded to me like what you would get if you combined the Fourth of July with Groundhog Day.

We decided to go watch them blow up the cart on Easter.

We were about an hour and a half early and there was already such a crowd in the plaza that I knew we wouldn’t be able to see much. The crowd had the same feel to it as Friday night in a small Texas town during football season. But because of the crowd we opted to watch the pageantry from inside the church. There was a pretty respectable group of folks inside, lined on either side of the main aisle of the cathedral. They had sturdy crowd barricades lining the center aisle. We picked a couple of seats close to the front and on the aisle. We could see the altar by leaning toward the main aisle. We had chosen wisely. There are two main centers of action for the event. Part happens inside the cathedral and part outside. We had ringside seats for the inside part.

The first thing I noticed inside the church was a green wood pillar about 20 feet high. Leaning against the pillar in the midst of this ornate renaissance chancel was a very simple brown wooden ladder, the most ordinary kind of ladder you could ever see—all it lacked was paint splatters. Coming out of the top of the pillar was a wire that fell to the ground and extended on the floor down the main aisle and out the door of the cathedral. Periodically a workman would climb the ladder and check on something at the top. At the top of the pillar sitting on this wire was a white wooden bird. It was about 6 inches high with tiny black eyes looking very intimidated. This dove, according to the tradition, was to swoop down the wire to the cart waiting outside and ignite the explosions. Now you can see why the bird looked a little uncertain about all of this.

At 11 am the cathedral was full and we heard a loud commotion outside the church. There was the clomping sounds from the oxen’s feet and the sound of a band with trumpets blaring. People looked down the aisle toward the open front door in anticipation. The sound got louder. The choir in black robes processed into the cathedral and up the aisle right past us. Then about 30 priests. The older ones wore white with gold trimmed brocade robes and the younger ones simply black. Then came a similar contingent of nuns. The church bells started ringing. I had already heard these bells at various times during the day walking around Florence. These are serious bells with a loud but beautiful deep, mellow sound. The wire connecting the bird inside the chancel to the cart outside began to taut. More trumpet music. I could hear the crowd outside.

Inside, the church choir began singing, making a contest between the choir inside and the football game music outside. The organ music swelled and suddenly, everyone knew to stand. A group of acolytes entered with one of them carrying a candle that had to be ten feet tall and about a foot thick. Then a huge cross. Then a flag. Then the Vatican Guard (We're talking about Easter morning in the grand cathedral in Florence, Italy remember) with their brilliant red and gold uniforms and ornate helmets, carrying long trumpets. But the parade wasn’t over: still more priests and a couple of uniformed police (The police here wear ornate uniforms with huge white hats.) followed by a couple of flags and a few city officials. By this time the chancel was crammed with clergy. Did I mention the archbishop wearing his magnificent tall white and gold mitre? Or the team of oxen outside who carried the 30 ft high cart into the plaza? The oxen had to wait outside in the plaza but every other official in the Roman Catholic Church except the Pope were all there.

Worship began in a rather quiet and dignified way. The liturgy was in Italian or Latin; since I can’t speak either, I couldn’t tell you. But I guess God speaks all languages and it doesn’t matter. After about five minutes I could make out one phrase said with great drama: “Espiritu Santo.” Holy Spirit seemed to be the cue because the priest holding the tall candle walked up to the bird and lit her tail. This was the fuse that would ignite the fireworks outside.

I would swear the bird’s expression changed from a blank stare to a very startled look. It straightened up for just a second then whizzed down the wire, tail feathers twirling in a merry dance. It was just fast enough to excite me and just slow enough to allow me to see it clearly. I got a funny feeling in my throat-- I couldn’t tell if it was a laugh or a sob. Within mere seconds the bird was out the door and the fireworks started in the plaza.

That’s pretty much when everything inside paused for a while. I heard the lady next to me say to her family that the bird eventually comes back up the wire inside the church. I passed this information along to Beaven and we waited. There was such an abundance of fireworks that smoke filled the doorway and we couldn’t really see anything. Once in a while we would see huge flames that I didn’t remember from any fireworks show I had ever seen. It made me worry that something had gone wrong. The object of this tradition is for the cart to explode but to still be able to use it for the following year. They’ve used the same cart for over 400 years now. Don’t ask me how they achieve this—exploding something without destroying it. But apparently the cart came out good to go for next year. After about 20 minutes of constant explosions the noise stopped and the center of activity shifted back to inside the church.

Then, amid every ornately-clad clergy person in the Catholic Church, one man wearing blue jeans and a work shirt climbed up the old brown ladder to the pedestal in the chancel. Once at the top, he pulled a pair of wire cutters from his back pocket, cut the wire and climbed down. The wire was pulled back out to the plaza. Beaven turned to me and said, “I hate to tell you this but I don’t think your bird is coming back.”

The focus returned to the worship service and after a while we found ourselves listening to a sermon in Italian for about 20 minutes. Being neither Roman Catholic nor Italian I sat and prayed my own private little Presbyterian prayer, ending with “God, you’ve got to get me out of this place, I gotta have a gelato.”

Thus ended our Italian Easter. It wasn’t the Vatican and it wasn’t First Presbyterian. But it was the stuff the church does best, no matter where they are, especially when they think God is watching them.