Thursday, December 31, 2009


In very short order and somewhat simultaneously, I just finished reading "The Death of Adam", "Home", and "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson.


I have to go watch the rain fall, soak the earth, and leach into the aquifer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa, Washington, and Public Religion

I took my daughter to visit some friends at a local mall the other day. They had some business to transact regarding speech and debate for the upcoming year. While they met, I did some work on my laptop, chatted with a person I didn't even know (He started it!) about my laptop, and watched people go by while I also enjoyed some rather good coffee (NOT the locally-owned and internationally recognized brand of course - it was good coffee).

This isn't one of the big mega-malls in the area. It's much smaller, all geared towards the neighborhood. When my son and daughter were younger, we visited there regularly to browse the library, the bookstore, and the bread-making company. In fact, we took both children there at separate times for a "behind-the-oven-door" tour of the breadbaker's business when they were in pre-school.

All in all, it's a neighborhood mall, one that sees itself as part of a community where people live, and not a destination where your money disappears easily.

As I entered and left the mall, I noticed the number of families coming in, with the children all nicely dressed, and most of the parents as well. "Ah, it's Christmas," I thought to myself, "and they are going to visit Santa." Fond memories wafted through my mind as I watched them stroll by.

Something seemed out of place, however. Here, in one of the least churched places in the US, I was watching a fair number of families come to visit a modern representation of an ancient believer of Jesus Christ. Nicholas, after all, was a prominent bishop in the Middle East prior to the elevation of Christianity to a formally recognized state religion. He gave away what he had to help the poor and needy; he bought slaves on the open market and gave them their freedom; he suffered imprisonment and torture for his trust in God and the life that trust caused him to live. It was his generosity of spirit and material wealth that earned him his reputation and ultimately led to his popularization as the entity we now call Santa Claus.

That entity today, of course, is known to check his list to see who was naughty and who was nice. He knows if you've been sleeping or if you're awake; he knows if you've been bad or good - so be good for goodness sake.

To me, that sounds an awful lot like the God Nicholas served wholeheartedly, minus His omnipresence, omnipotence, transcendence, immanence, and everything else that so poorly defines God for us. Like God, Santa has (presumably) the power to reward and punish.

In a region that (for the most part) at best ignores God, Santa is quite popular. I wonder, why do people come to visit once a year? Is it to seek absolution? To remind Santa (God) that they're not so bad after all? That they deserve his (His) grace and forgiveness? That they aren't that bad after all?

For the moment (and only for a moment), let's put aside the fact that God has already expressed His love to us at the cross, and He is not willing that any should perish, and that He extends mercy to those who acknowledge who they are, who He is, and that He accomplished all that is necessary to restore us to Himself.

What I can't ignore is the trust that parents put into a man who gave a resounding testimony to the grace of God, and whom they encourage their children to believe in, and write to, and visit, but then ignore the real power behind the symbol. It saddens me.

It seems that Christmas is at once stripped of it's power and majesty and mystery as seen in the Gift of God to us, but is still upheld as a part of our public religion.

I wonder...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

College Pleasures

I finally figured out why I enjoy living in the Great Pacific Northwet. Yes, I like having access to mountains, large trees, snow, the ocean. I do enjoy getting outside and re-creating my soul. I also enjoy the rain. I even enjoy the rain; I especially enjoy the rain. And it is all because I enjoyed college tremendously.

There are the usual reasons that most people think of - the intellectual challenges, the new acquaintances, and new found independence. Although I enjoyed all of those reasons (and a few more that don't deserve additional press), my greatest enjoyment found it's origin in more prosaic pursuits.

When I attended college, and high school before that, I lived in Alaska. In fact, my high school years were spent in a little town by the name of Delta Junction. The true terminus of the AlCan Highway (which many residents of Fairbanks will dispute), Delta Junction is situated about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. It was fairly small (and likely still is), with probably no more than 2500 people in the immediate area (a 25 mile radius). It was also famous for two other reasons. First, it had the second largest buffalo herd in North America which was celebrated at the annual Buffalo Bar-B-Que held every summer. I actually never tasted a buffalo burger or any other buffalo meat until long after I had left Delta. Lots of moose and caribou, but no buffalo.

Delta could get cold in the winter. That was the second reason. Mid-winter temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit weren't unusual, and we usually had at least one cold snap that would go down to -50 or below. When I was a junior, our cold snap came over Christmas break. It reached -60 degrees and hung there for over a week. The permafrost level was driven further below ground and the school's sewage and water pipes froze and broke - sometime within the last few days before school was supposed to open again. Our break was extended by two weeks while the school dug up the pipes and repaired the system.

Delta was also located near Fort Greeley, Alaska. The Fort was the location of the Northern Warfare Training Center and the Arctic Test Facility. As a training center, that meant the Fort hosted large groups of troops during the winter for winter warfare training. Cross-country skiiing, winter camping, winter camouflage, frozen C-rations, and cold muzzles - all were a part of a new experience for many troops.

Now the cold was also the reason for the existence of the Arctic Test Facility at Fort Greeley. It gave the Army an opportunity to test new vehicles and other technology in the extreme cold of winter. My Dad came to Fort Greeley in the mid-50's with the Army. When he retired, he joined the Corps of Engineers and operated a small nuclear power generator that provided electrical power for the post as well as Delta Junction. The test was shut down quietly without protest or accident.

Although Delta wasn't technically a bush town (somewhere you had to fly to), it was pretty remote. We could drive north to Fairbanks or south towards Glenallen and Valdez or Anchorage beyond. But it was a long drive.

We lived almost five miles outside of town, so the only real "service" or utility we had was electricity. Our water came from a well (it was equipped with a pump and we did have indoor plumbing) and our waste was collected in an underground tank that had to be pumped regularly. Yes, it was a different slice of life.

Because we drew our water from a well, we had to be very conservative in our use of water. We couldn't use too much because we had to get rid of it and we couldn't overflow our tank. So five minute showers and judicious use of toilet paper was something we learned very quickly.

However, this resulted in a very utilitarian view of showers. You got in to get clean. You used only what you had to in order to do so, and no more. And it was always showers - taking a bath used too much water. I never had the chance to enjoy a long, warm shower.

Until college.

Because Alaska Methodist University and the University of Fairbanks had their own plumbing systems and an infinite supply (to me!) of hot water, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I could, and quite often did, take hour-long showers. Just because I enjoyed the feel of hot water hitting my face and streaming over my body. Just because I could. Just because no one was going to pound on the bathroom door waiting to get in or to complain about the amount of water I was using. Just sitting on the floor of the shower stall and letting the water fall all over and around me was almost more than I could stand. It was more than I deserved. Just because.

When we finally left Alaska, we moved to the Seattle area. We had been warned about the winter rains and how gloomy it got, but it wasn't any gloomier than Alaska in the middle of winter. Actually, it was a lot brighter, even in the winter. But the rains don't bother me. Because that is what I longed to hear and experience as I went through high school - long showers. So now, I get to enjoy them. (But now that I have to pay the bills, I still watch my water usage.) But I get to fall asleep listening to the rain hit the roof. I get to emerge from the shower and hear the rain falling on our bathroom skylight.

I get to hear one of the most wonderfully soothing sounds in the world - rain fall.