A SAN FRANCISCO HAIRDRESSER AND A TEXAS CATTLE RANCHER

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Other than nothing, what do a Jewish Planned Parenthood counselor from Brooklyn, a male hairdresser from San Francisco, a Texas ranch wife and a Jesus-following missionary  have in common?  Actually, we do share one thing.  Four hours ago we were on a shuttle bus heading  south from La Paz, Mexico to the airport in San José del Cabo,  2-1/2 hours away.   I am the missionary in the group.

There were only five people on the small shuttle; and before we had even pulled out of the parking lot, four of us were talking about what for them  had been their individual vacations, but which for me is pretty much my daily experience since I live in La Paz.

First we talked about snorkeling with whale sharks, kayaking and going on the whale watching trips.  Then the conversation morphed to where we were all from.  It then meandered into occupations and then, of course, to Donald Trump.    A discussion about Donald Trump between a Texas ranch housewife and a male hairdresser from San Francisco is nothing short of a recipe for MAD (mutual assured destruction).

As far as life style goes, I was light years closer to the Texas rancher than I was to the other two; but as a follower of the Prince of Peace who has made us his ministers of reconciliation, my role became that of being the bridge builder, the peacemaker.  Without negating truth, my role was to bring people together, and to keep myself from falling into the ugly stereotype of Christians held by millions of people and which seems to be increasing day by day.   Jesus was gentle with people who didn’t understand and tended to reserve his fierce anger for the professional and fundamentalist leaders, the conservative religious right of his day, the kind of Christian many of us used to be before we decided to identify ourselves more closely with Jesus than with the current expression of Christianity.

My role was not to win an argument or to convince of truth – that is the job of the Holy Spirit.  My job was to keep the conversation going, to show this small group of people that  Jesus followers do not fit their stereotype of Christians. My job was to keep the door open for additional conversations in the future, probably not with me but hopefully with other Jesus followers who will build on today’s conversation and take these people one step closer to knowing truth.  My role was to create a safe place for people to express their views; because until we have verbalized our current view, it is really hard to listen to and accept a new truth.   At times Christians don’t  listen particularly well and are very quick to judge and try to correct the views of others.  This comes across as arrogant superiority.

What quickly became apparent is that these new friends are not my enemy. When they talked about the urgency of making condoms readily available to teens, they did so out of love for their own kids.  Their assumption is that their kids are or will be sexually active, so the loving thing is to give them condoms.  I expressed my admiration and respect for their love for their kids but also my concern that by assuming their children will become sexually active at too early of an age, they are  actually promoting  that which they fear.  I told my friends that if we truly love and respect our kids, we will know them to be capable of self-control and of waiting till marriage.  I think my new friends appreciated the high and trusting view I have of kids.   What I have to accept is that their actions, as are mine, are love-based.  They love their kids and sincerely want the best for them.  As a Jesus follower I probably have a more developed understanding of the consequences of behavior than do my new friends, and I certainly have a differently developed sense of right and wrong; but my friends  sincerely want the best for their kids.

When we talked about transgenderism, it was out of compassion for those lost souls who are confused to the point of intense suffering.  When we talked about immigration issues, they talked about people they knew, not a formless evil horde with no face and no name.  They are compassionate because they have taken the time to get to know the families others are simply willing to rip apart via heartless deportation.

We talked about abortion, transgenderism, homosexuality, immigration, racism, human trafficking – we covered it all.  The discussion was, at times,  very biologically graphic and the words were a bit earthy.  Some people would have been offended at the choice of words. There were some physiological activities mentioned that I hadn’t heard about since my lost years in Key West.   Honestly, I didn’t mind that the strong words were used around me because it indicated my friends’ level of comfort with me.  There was none of the “Sorry, reverend.  Pardon the French.” I was just one more of their group even though I chose not to be crude and graphic in my speech.

My takeaway from all of this?  People who disagree with me can be really good and friendly people.  They are not my enemy.  I think they are lost, misguided and unintentionally causing immeasurable harm to the very people they most love and are just trying to help.  My goal is not to defeat them.   It is possible to have deep discussions and express disagreements without being ugly and mean.   I learned that I really do love people who are at the extreme opposite of me on most issues.  I also recognize that these new friends have much to teach me and that we who follow Jesus do not have a monopoly on love and compassion.

What do I hope comes of this conversation?  I hope that my new friends realize that while American Christianity might appear to be their enemy, Jesus followers are not.   I hope that this small group of people will continue to pursue truth and that they will find it.  I hope that they will understand that there are Jesus-following people out there who will listen.

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THE WORLD’S LAZIEST THEOLOGIAN

SERMON PREP

THE WORLD’S LAZIEST THEOLOGIAN

Steve Dresselhaus

I’m the world’s laziest theologian.  Most people might not even consider me a theologian at all because I don’t have a title[1], I don’t read a lot of books by a bunch of disagreeing authors,  big words I can’t spell don’t roll off my tongue, and I have no elbow patches on any of my jackets.  When highly educated people have come down on opposite side of the same issue for two thousand years, it seems rather pointless to waste time and  energy arguing  about that which is currently unknowable or to presume that I might be the one who comes up with the cosmos-altering, correct,  tie-breaking third solution.   I’ve decided I’m just predestined to be a lazy skeptic.

As the world’s laziest  theologian  I like bullet points. If I can avoid reading a book or taking a class or going to a conference on something that we all know will not resolve anything before it even starts, why waste  my time?  I’d much rather be shown the bullet point, meditate on it and then extrapolate and execute an appropriate action.  Transparency compels me to inform you that I did muddle my way through enough college to eventually, after several schools and several interruptions,  obtain a  degree, although I skipped my graduation, opting instead  for a dive trip in the Florida Keys.   I have also studied at theological institutions that made me read books and gave me  grades and everything  and where the professors had so many letters after their names they reminded me of  those Hawaiian fish.  “Students, meet Dr. Smith,  Humuhumunukunukuapuaah.”  I do read a few books now and again, or at least I glance at the captions under the photos.  I’m not opposed to formal education, unless  it creates intellectual gridlock, fosters inaction by requiring additional studies prior to performing,  or diminishes the value of those who have not taken the course or read the book but who are intuitively getting the job done.   I do recognize that it is usually the really smart, highly educated people who share their bullet points with me, so I am very indebted to these smart folks and hope they keep burning the midnight oil so I don’t have to.   I suffer from a condition called, in medical parlance, theologoparasitosis, a chronic condition in which I let others do the intellectual heavy lifting.  As you may have surmised by now, I did not like school when I was a kid and to date, nothing has changed.  My all-time  hero in education, the man to whom I would light candles were I a Catholic and believed in such things,  is Sir Ken Robinson (EDUCATIONAL HERO).  Where was this superhero when I needed him?

So, in my pursuit of bullet point theology, I have discovered one short phrase that has become my number 42[2], the axle to  my theological wheel, the North on my theological compass,  the starting and ending point of much of my belief.  This one short phrase guides virtually everything I do, think, or say.   It is Genesis 2:18 –“It is not good for man to be alone”–one of the very first thing God says about people.  Nine words – that’s all it takes to define my life’s current purpose, goals and actions.    This short phrase helps define my view of sin – sin creates loneliness and separation.  This short verse explains my view of Jesus’ death on the cross – to reconcile all things to God through his sacrifice.  These nine words , four of them only two letters long,  inform[3]  my view of eternity – we will be together with Jesus and each other forever.  This little phrase explains my view of the church – it is the mutually edifying togetherness that builds us up, not the complex and expensive program we have allowed to be defined as church.  This tiny phrase explains why I make disciples of Jesus – because disciples journey through life together.  Why do I promote caring for the environment?  It’s so people can enjoy being together in a pleasant place.  Why do I start new gatherings[4] of  Jesus followers?  Of course, you already know:  because “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Why do I help rescue abused women and children? – Go ahead and venture a guess.

So, in my role as the world’s laziest theologian I give you most of the theology you will ever need in just nine short words, only one of which is more than one syllable long. “It is not good for man to be alone.”

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[1] Actually, I have been ordained, so technically I can be called “Reverend”; although there will be ice skating in Hell long  before I ever  let myself be addressed  as “Reverend.”   

[2] 42 , according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is  the  “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.”

[3] I had to insert the word “inform” since all theologians are currently using this word a lot and I want to be counted among the smart people.  The word “seminal,” once the rage, has now fallen into general disuse so I no longer use it.  Using the right words helps theologians shift the “paradigm.”  There, now that I have used the word paradigm , the most popular smart person buzzword  of all time  since a caveman uttered the first “Ugh,”  I have confirmed  the legitimacy of my status as a theological erudite.

[4] Jesus only used the word “church” two times in his recorded ministry, and when he used it, it had zero religious connotation. I would hope we could come up with a better way of distinguishing between the Sunday morning program, which looks a lot like school (shudder shudder),  and the way of life instituted by Jesus. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SO, A MISSIONARY WALKS INTO A BAR……

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SO, A MISSIONARY WALKS INTO A BAR……

                  Steve Dresselhaus

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Last night my wife and  I spent two hours in a bar in  La Paz, Mexico where we live.  Strange place for a missionary, pastor, and mission executive, — or is it?  In  the background a live jazz band played its music, but it was not overpowering; it did not disrupt normal conversation.

The event was a fundraiser for a reef and mangrove cleanup project.  Once a month the sponsoring group organizes big trash collections on the beaches, in the mangroves, and underwater on the reefs.  Kayaks, Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPS), SCUBA and power boats are the vehicles and tools  used to accomplish the task.  The money raised last night will provide a stipend to marine biology university students who do public speaking in the area grade schools to help the children learn to love and appreciate the ocean from an early age.

It is no secret that I am a mission executive, a devout churchgoer and a follower of Jesus.  The subject of my work came up several times  during the evening’s conversations and my friends  have scoped me out on Facebook so they know who I am and what I do.  Facebook is a wonderful tool if properly used;  to paraphrase Jesus, “out of the abundance of the heart one posts on FB.”

Should I go to a bar?  What if someone sees me there?  Will this ruin my testimony?  These questions scrolled through my mind for a couple of days prior to the event. I came to the conclusion that not only did I need to go to the bar, I wanted to go.  I wanted to be with my friends–and make new ones.  I wanted to be identified with their cause. I wanted them to know that I like what they like.*  I wanted them to discover that the frequently held stereotype of “Christians” might not be true for Jesus followers. I discovered that any anxiety I may have felt was a vestigial remnant  from my  cultural upbringing  and a latent predisposition towards negativism  prevalent among some evangelicals whose favorite word often seems to be “No.”

This particular bar, La Perla Negra (Black Pearl) is tastefully decorated, not a seedy dive; and it is the kind of place I envision as a Jesus hangout.    Honestly, I suspect Jesus would be much more comfortable in this bar than he would be in many traditional churches where program has replaced relationship and where competitive preaching  is the draw.  As I sat in the bar I wished Jesus had been there with us, joining in the laughter, telling  hilarious jokes and sharing life-changing stories.  I don’t know that Jesus would have had a beer or not since wine seems to be more his thing.   I imagined him enthralling us with his stories and challenging us to grow  while sipping a glass of wine.    I imagined the  bar owner being a bit nervous about having the world’s most famous  vintner  and the actual creator of the fermentation process  in his establishment.   I could imagine Jesus speaking to event organizers  and thanking them for their work in cleaning up the mess that has been made of the  beautiful  world he created.  Since the customers in the bar were not part of the religious right, nor church professionals, I think Jesus would have been very gentle with them.  Jesus seemed to have reserved his anger for the religious conservatives of his day, the traditionalists, the haughty literalists, the detailists,   the arguing theologians, those who used the Scriptures for manipulative purposes – people just like many of us. I wonder with whom Jesus would be angry today.

Should I have gone to the bar?  What if someone saw me?  What if my going offends someone?  My guess is that the only people who would be offended would be those who have been taught to be offended by this type of thing.  No one can use the Bible to build a case against  spending a pleasant evening in a decent place with new friends.  Since I am not tempted towards animism, I was not concerned about the physical space of the bar.  Might my going to a bar cause  a “weaker brother to stumble”? Maybe – – that is a possibility, assuming he truly is  a weaker brother and not an evangelical manipulator or a professional weaker brother dictating the behavior of others via his weakness of choice.  Had the bar been decorated with an image of Gaia and my contribution gone to buy incense to burn for her,  I would not have gone.  That  could cause a legitimate weaker brother to stumble as he would have seen an  apparent  act of worship,  which is the point the passage in the Bible is speaking about – not a religiously neutral activity.  The weaker brother argument, while biblically valid,  has been  highly misused.  Some church leaders have used it to selectively  manipulate and control people in regard to specific activities, but they have failed to use it uniformly.    Should I use a computer since computers are the main source of pornography?  Should I go into a donut shop since many of my friends are obese and diabetic and my eating a donut might tempt them?   Am I sinning by going into a Best Buy when most Americans are tempted towards greed and sinfully  view hyperpossesionism as a blessing from God? Am I sinning by using an iPhone since Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist?   We mustn’t use the weaker brother argument as a catch all to govern any behavior which makes others uncomfortable.   We mustn’t be led by American evangelical traditions if they are training and inducing people to live in  perpetual weakness.

Because I am aware of the potential discomfort my going to a bar might create among the more conservative American-style Christians, I went to the bar protected by the presence of my wife.  I also contacted a missionary coworker to let him know where we were going to be and I texted him at 9 PM when we got home to let him know that  the event was over.  Sin is generally  done in secret.  Secrecy breeds suspicion and fear and breaks trust. I want to be totally open about the fact that I went to a bar.   Jesus certainly had no qualms about boldly going into places which gave the legalists cause for attacking him.  What’s more,  he had his questionable acts  recorded in God’s Word for all of eternity.  Do you think that maybe he was trying to tell us something?

It was a wonderful evening, and I’ll do it again in a heartbeat.

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* The first thing God says about humanity in the Bible  is that “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Bars are a human  attempt to facilitate togetherness.   Drinking is an activity done in bars but is not their main attraction.  The fact that someone is in a bar is proof positive that they are searching for something.  If it is alcohol they are after they are more likely to go to a liquor store, a convenience store or a grocery store where it is far cheaper and faster to obtain it.   Living like I do in an alcohol ravaged city, I’m not downplaying the horrific problems caused by drunkenness and alcoholism,  but I can’t help but wonder if it  might not be  time for Jesus followers to redeem bars and  transform them into useful places in which  to share the good news of what Jesus has done for us?   I look forward to the day when people go to church for the same reason they go to a bar – to spend time with people.   In a bar alcohol is the tool used to break down inhibitions and facilitate relationships.  In the community  of Jesus followers it is reconciliation and forgiveness that allow true relationships.

 

THEN A FISH JUMPED….AND OTHER TROUBLING THOUGHTS

This was the sunrise that started it all.

THEN A FISH JUMPED  …. AND OTHER TROUBLING THOUGHTS

Steve Dresselhaus

I was alone, totally alone and from all the evidence available to me, I was the only  person in the cosmos.    I was on a solo kayak expedition in the Sea of Cortez, something I do periodically.  My campsite was on a  solitary beach in a small rocky cove on Espíritu Santo Island, the kind of place seen on postcards, in National  Geographic, in ads for expensive hotels or in the escapist dreams of over-stressed executives.  In front of  me was a quiet sea  mirroring the magnificent  sunrise.  Around me were old granite boulders and cliffs dyed gold by the light from the rising sun.  Above me were a billion light years of nothing.  Tranquility, serenity, quiet.  Glorious peace.  Silent solitude.  I didn’t want it to end.   Romans 1:20  came to mind, For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”  In my surroundings I could sense the peace of God, see the beauty of his creation, and feel his love.  It was a magical moment as I experienced God in this gloriously peaceful part of his creation.

Then a fish jumped. ——————– Why?  To celebrate the joy of life with me?  Or because it was being chased by something bigger that wanted to rip it apart into swallowable chunks and eat it?  Later a vulture glided by above me  effortlessly,  relaxed.  It was a desperate relaxation to conserve  energy between scarce and unpredictable meals of rotting corpses in order to keep itself from becoming a rotting corpse meal for something else.   At my feet, upon closer inspection,  I could see tiny copepods and other creatures scurrying about either killing or trying to keep from being killed.  Another fish jumped, then a school of them,  each of them  in private, absolute  terror  from the threat of imminent painful death or in attempt to cause an imminent painful death for some other creature whose turn for dismemberment had come.

Even boulders around me were a testimony to violence.  Some were sedimentary, indicating they had been built underwater during  a prior much higher preAlGoreian sea level.  Some were volcanic in nature, indicating their origin as a molten drop far below  the earth’s surface before freezing to hardness when they were birthed in a cooler place.  Other rocks had thousands of embedded sea shells in them, a permanent record of death and suffering.   Regardless of the origin of the rock, they all gave testimony to a tumultuous, violent past.  Even the sand at my feet was the result of violence as each grain used to be part of a larger whole, now broken up. Much of the sand at my feet started its career as  elegant and delicate coral  till it was bitten off by large parrot fish and turned into the nice white poop we think of as a beautiful tropical white sand beach.

The twinkling stars above me, disappearing as the sun brightened, had no need of the poetic phrase “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”   We know what they are.  They are burning, exploding,  deteriorating balls of gas inexorably consuming themselves towards annihilation.

God’s invisible qualities….. – All this violence in God’s creation —Wow!  I’m not sure I like that verse any more.  It troubles me.  It scares me a bit.   All of a sudden our creator God doesn’t seem so benign, so gentle, so safe.  God’s purpose in existing might no longer be to make me happy.    I may have lost my control over him because he is no longer  confined to my  selected,  self-serving understanding of him.  God’s invisible qualities . . .”:  the simple,  memorized answers from my childhood have failed me–no longer  adequate,  their expiration inversely linked to my increasing  understanding of nature.   Were I an atheist, which I am not, I would simply place my  faith in  the omnipotence of time, believing that   given enough of it, nature would  create itself out of  nothing,  the void becoming a  palpable something, the great eternally  pre-existent nothing unilaterally mandating itself into measurable organization.  If you believe in divine creation, which  I do,  we may tempted to flee to the easy, but  sometimes overly simplistic answers found in  relegating  all unpleasant unknowns to  humanity’s fall into sin and to  Noah’s flood,  using them as the all-encompassing catch-all explanations for all things we don’t understand about Earth and may not want to know.    Is it possible that the  God to whom we sing happy, loving worship songs on Sunday could be responsible for  designing something so violent, so bloodletting, so consuming? Or are we guilty of using ourselves as the template for creating a  God we desire, a God  of our convenience?  The unmeasurable immensity of the  violence in nature requires preplanning  and intentionality  because each act of  natural violence fulfills a necessary and utilitarian function contributing  to God’s  grand ongoing design.  Might we have focused only on the parts of creation and the Bible we like and used them as the guide from which we  manufactured  a customized God of our liking?

If we are Jesus followers we use the Bible as our ultimate authority and source of truth. However,  let’s be honest: the Bible is a book filled with violence: or have you not read the minor prophets or Revelation, or have you not read between the lines  the account of the flood?  Have you not read Exodus and the other books of history in the Bible?  A couple of years ago my wife asked what she should do as an object lesson to teach  her kindergarten Sunday school class about  Noah’s flood. I suggested she drown a puppy in a bucket of water. Noah’s flood is  about judgment, death and devastation every bit as  much as it is about love and rescue; and that rescue was only made necessary because of the greatest act of  intentional and premeditated  violence ever recorded.   What does all the violence in the Bible tell us about God’s character?  . . . Um, next question please.  What we discover might not fit what we have selected to believe.

The bottom line?  We probably don’t understand  violence the way  God does.  We  interpret violence and death in light of our imperceptibly  short 80 years or so on the planet, believing that violence poses a terminating threat to our existence.  We have no choice but to perceive and interpret  time as beginning and ending with us; that is all we can do.   We fail to understand, because we cannot  truly conceive it in our limited minds,  that God sees  the entirety of the cosmos from a timeless point of view.   God’s violence is ultimately a tool for good.  It is purposeful and not random, or  titillating, or for entertainment.  God’s violence is a shaping tool, a tool to shape people, and mountains, and oceans, and culture.  Sometimes the violence God uses is for the purpose of judgement, after he gives fair and ample warning to people to stop doing the harmful things they are doing.    God is far bigger, grander, more complex  and more mysterious than we can possibly know.  We must not let our theologians, even our good ones, systematize the Almighty, restricting him  to the  safe  theological Petri dishes into   which they have placed him for observation so they can argue among themselves about him later.  Nor can we let the charlatans of the prosperity gospel convince us that the Almighty is nothing but our butler or our cash cow in the sky.   God is not our cool, cloud-dwelling pal, the man upstairs, the old guy with the white beard. He is God, and he is  fearsome.  We must be grateful that in spite of the awesome violence that is part of God’s character he also gently loves us.   We must be eternally grateful that God’s immeasurable violence appears to be exceeded  by his limitless love,   a love so great that he exercised great violence against himself in order to spare us the eternal, ultimate violence we deserve.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis writes, in a discussion taking place among the animals  and children,  about Aslan, the lion,  the  king, “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  C.S Lewis got it right.  God is not safe, but he is good–very, very good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wind, Waves and Worry

Crossing the Canal de San Lorenzo was not easy.  Espirtu Santo island is 5 mils offshore

Crossing the Canal de San Lorenzo was not easy. Espirtu Santo island is 5 miles offshore.  These were not ideal conditions for a kayak.

 

                                                           WIND, WAVES AND WORRY                                                            Steve Dresselhaus

The 25-knot winds were not the predicted 14-knot winds.  My plans to cross the Canal de San Lorenzo in the Sea of Cortez near Baja’s capital city of La Paz where I live had been based on the smaller number from the current weather forecast.  At sea,  a wind speed difference of 11 knots can be huge.   The five-mile crossing I was making is normally  quite calm and benign and I have done it many times   in my kayak with never any trouble.  This time it was different, very different.

I was on a solo multi-day kayak trip, something I have been doing for many years. These solo trips, normally done in the Sea of Cortez, are part of my spiritual discipline.  They are times  of solitude, reflection, prayer, meditation and worship.  These times at sea,  alone with God,  have always, yes always, proven to be influential in my spiritual journey.  New ideas, fresh understanding, enhanced vision for the future, corrections to my  theology,  and innovative direction for ministry are generally the outcomes of these voyages.  On this particular voyage I had to do some serious thinking about my career path and some potential changes looming in the near future.

As I made this particular crossing I felt very close to God, extremely close.  In fact,  I was wondering if I was not about to meet him at any moment.  The winds were fierce, relentless, unforgiving and cold, not temperature cold but the cold that comes from  merely being an emotionless, non-caring,  pitiless  force.    When I started  the  return crossing to the Baja mainland from Espíritu Santo Island, the winds were fresh and blowing out of the northwest at the predicted speeds.  Doable.  Not particularly  difficult.  Intermediate skill level was all that was required.  Shortly into the paddle, the winds shifted to  the northeast and  exploded in their intensity.  The winds grew and so did the waves–large waves, many of them breaking whitecaps surrounded me,  making  the surface of the sea look like a cavorting flock  of rambunctious sheep.  Because of the island immediately to my north, the waves curled around the island, attacking me from both right and left as well as from dead astern.  Whitecaps, steep wave faces, from the right, from the left, howling wind – next possible landing – five miles away – five  long miles away – five neverending miles away – this was not a good place to be.

I looked to the bow of my kayak, hoping to find Jesus asleep, like in the  storm story from the Gospels.  A scolding from him for my lack of faith would have been welcome about now.  It was rough slogging.  Stroke after stroke–countless strokes – unending repetition – unable to  pause  to rest for even a second.  Brace against the wave.  Wide paddle sweep to keep my boat’s stern to the waves as much as possible.   Brace again.  White foam pouring across my boat. Water up to my chest as  breaking waves rolled  across my boat.  “Dear Jesus, if you get me out of this predicament, I promise I’ll become a missionary.”  Wait. I already am a missionary in Mexico.  That bullet had long since been fired.  Quick, what else can I promise in exchange for a safe crossing?

Stroke, brace, stroke, brace, sweep left, sweep right. Keep stern to the waves.  Whoa! Almost went over that time, and that time and that time.  Boat filling with water as the spray skirt around my waist can’t keep up with the constant pounding of the breaking whitecaps.   There was only one other boat, much bigger than mine and with a big engine,  at sea the entire crossing.  I didn’t know the port had been closed and that the port captain had issued a small craft advisory.  I was in the smallest of small craft – a human-powered craft – a sea touring kayak. The smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure.   What had gone wrong with the forecast?  I have always trusted  the forecast in the past without any problems.  This time it was different, very different.

Is the distant shore, my destination, any  closer?  Yes, I can distinguish individual features, a silhouetted cactus atop a hill, a bus, a beach-side restaurant.  I am getting closer.  I am still far off shore but not as far.  The waves are still huge, still breaking, and I still cannot pause for even a second to rest; but I am getting closer.  Do I dare to think I might win this battle?  At what point in this crossing will  I start to feel safe and in control?  I still have to paddle along a half-mile cliff downwind and down-wave from me, but I can at least now see the tip of Punta Tecolote , my immediate destination. Once I get around that point I’ll be safe.  But for now the shore to my left is nothing but  one big continuous cliff with waves crashing into its base.  If I go over now it is likely that my boat will be smashed to bits.  I can swim the remaining distance but I would have to stay far from the surf smashing into the rocks.  It would take an hour to swim to safety in these rough conditions but the water is not cold, so no big deal.  Feelings that I just might make it, boat and body intact,  begin to surface.  Like a playground teeter-totter my feelings of  fear and victory take their turns going up and going down.

I drew closer and closer to Punta Tecolote and the known safety to be found by  tucking in behind the steep cliffs that  mark the entrance to the bay and would shield me from the wind.  If I capsize now I’ll simply grab the swim fins tucked under the deck bungee and swim the rest of the way.  Sure my boat will be dashed to bits on the rocks and I’ll lose my camping gear but I’ll be safe.  One hundred yards to go, then fifty.    I have to stay far enough off the rocks so that that the rebound waves won’t catch me in their collision with the incoming waves.  I made it past the rocky point.  Now I have to  nearly reverse my course  and turn the boat almost 170 degrees to be able to get behind the sheltering rocks.  When  the rocky cliffs  were south of me they were my enemy.  When the very same rocks are to my north they will be my salvation. Sermon illustration somewhere in that idea.  As I make the turn, for a few seconds  I’ll be broadside to the steep, now collapsing waves–waves collapsing  not because of the wind but because their underwater base is hitting the bottom,  shifting the energy upwards into steep collapsing wave faces.  But who cares?  I’m only a few yards from calm water now, so capsizing would be nothing but an inconvenience, a minor embarrassment in front of all the other boaters seeking shelter in the  same bay.

I’m behind the wall of rock – the wind is gone.  The water is calm.  For the first time in several hours I simply sit still,  floating.  Prayer after prayer of gratitude drift from my heart to God’s ears.  The bow of my boat slides  up onto the soft white  sand beach being caressed by gentle wavelets.  I was safe but I did not feel like celebrating.  My elation at what I had just accomplished  was tempered by my humble gratitude to God for having given me the courage to not give up and the energy to keep paddling.  Any festivity I may have contemplated was nipped in the bud by the thought of how many times I had narrowly escaped a  very serious problem at sea.  God had answered my prayers either by his direct intervention or by giving me the courage to not give up and the strength to keep going.  I’ll let theologians argue the efficacy of prayer  and who does what for whom,  but  I will not let the mysteries  of prayer rob me of gratitude.

This is my kayak in the shelter of Punta Tecolote.  Never before had a calm beach been so welcoming.

This is my kayak in the shelter of Punta Tecolote.   Never before had a calm beach been so welcoming.

Embarking on solo kayak trips is something  I will continue doing, just as I have for the past two decades.  These trips are a very important part of my life.  I suspect we guys are genetically programmed to need healthy tests and reasonably risky adventures.  We were not designed by the Almighty to sit behind a desk or in front of a screen or spend our lives  merely reading books about other guys’ adventures or other guys’ ideas. Each of us  must have his own adventures,  his own tests, his own reaffirmations of manhood.   We need those times when we find  our fears taking  us to the portal of panic when we have to beat them  back through self-control and calling on God.

In addition to adventure, I need the freedom of periodic  solitude  in order to find and enjoy  new ideas, to be creative,  to find escape from the constant input of others wanting to hijack my thoughts and ideas and implant their own.  I long for those times of solitude in which I am  no longer merely reacting to the pressures imposed on me by others and no longer subject to  the approbation of group-think. God’s creation inspires creativity.   When I have no books, no internet, and no  electronic entertainment programmed by others for my purchase,  I can invest a couple of hours  watching  a billion stars drift by.   I can lie in my sleeping bag and watch shooting stars race across the sky, leaving a trail of sparkles as they disintegrate. I can listen to the lapping wavelets on the beach and let them be the white noise that lulls me to sleep.  I can without feeling guilty of wasting time lie on my belly in the sand and watch a hermit crab gnaw on a piece of seaweed.   Alone, I can sit in the sand with my back against a boulder and watch God say “good morning” with a spectacular, slow motion sunrise while sipping hot coffee from my beaten and battered metal travel mug.   When I’m totally alone at sea, God is the only person available with whom to speak,  so it is with him I converse.  My worship of him becomes personal, private, intimate and not borrowed from a popular Christian performer du jour nor molded by the influence of the latest market driven  best-selling book.

Each trip I take sharpens my skills and  makes me a better mariner.  Each solo trip I make lets me read new chapters in the book of the sea, thus enhancing my knowledge of the oceans; and each trip self-writes new chapters in my  life story.   Each solo trip creates creativity.  Each solo trip is gift from God, both physically and spiritually.   Can’t wait till the next one.  I’d invite you to join me but….three’s a crowd.

JESUS GIRAFFES AND A LEOPARD

The herd of giraffes was all looking at somethhing

                                    The herd of giraffes was all looking at something.

I was recently on a working trip to  South Africa.  During a side excursion  after one of the business meetings had concluded for the day,  our small group of mission executives toured part of the Kruger National Park in eastern South Africa where we were staying.  What a delightful place.  The scenery is just average, but the wildlife is spectacular to the point of being indescribable.  Elephants, rhinos, wildebeest, cheetahs, cape buffalo, you name it and it was there, and in such great numbers that just attempting to count them would have been a futile endeavor.   I never thought the day would come when I would drive past a herd of elephants and consider it too common to be noteworthy and not worth the effort to even slow down the vehicle.

At one point during our meandering drive through the untamed African wilderness, we came across a group of five or six giraffes, tall, majestic, beautiful and for some reason motionless, almost as if they were petrified.  All the giraffes were staring intently at one spot, away from us.  Normally, in the wild, animals will keep a wary eye on humans.  In this case, even though we were close to the giraffes and approaching them from behind, they willfully chose to ignore our presence.

None of us in the group could claim to be animal trackers or be in any way knowledgeable of animal psychology, although some of us are quite comfortable in the out-of-doors.  We surmised that we were the lesser threat to the giraffes than what must have been the fearsome creature on which they were focusing their attention.  Using junior high level trigonometry, we calculated where the giraffes were looking and then, still in our van, headed towards the spot on which  the giraffes had locked their stare.

Before long we found a drivable trail that led us to a point a little beyond where the giraffes were still looking.  We backtracked their line of vision.  We saw nothing special.   Then suddenly, a slight movement caused a large leopard to magically  emerge from his cloak of invisibility.  It was the leopard that  overwhelmingly commanded the attention of the giraffes, causing  them to ignore us humans.

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It was the unified vision of the giraffes that had betrayed the position of the leopard.  Because the giraffes were all looking at the same thing, we were able to navigate till we discovered what they were staring at.   This got  me to thinking about my life as a follower of Jesus.  Am I looking at Jesus in a way that others will be able to find him by watching me?    What will people find if they backtrack my line of sight?   If I’m with a group of fellow Jesus followers, will anyone outside our group be able to detect  a unified focal point?  Are we all looking at Jesus and allowing others to find him, or are we Christians each looking to our own interests,  creating a scattered vision that points nowhere?  The  Bible says in  Hebrews 12:2 that we should “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  What do you think would happen if we Jesus followers really focused our attention on him instead of on our own pleasures and opinions?

VERONICA (not her real name)

This is the beach where I found Veronica

This is the beach where I found Veronica

VERONICA (not her real name)

Steve Dresselhaus

“Hi Verónica [not her real name].   How are you?”  The truly  blank stare I got in return to my friendly query was neither hostile nor questioning.  It was blank, an empty vacuous open eyed nothing.  It was the blankest of blank stares – no emotion, recognition or acknowledgment.  For all the feeling they conveyed, the  eyes looking at me could have been looking at a rock, a palm tree or a garage door.  Verónica has sunk to and is existing in that horrible stage of drug addiction known as anhedonism, in which there is no longer any emotion, good or bad.  Sadness?  Happiness?  They feel the same.  How do you measure something that doesn’t exist?  Fear? It no longer exists because whether the addict lives or dies, “me es igual” – it’s all the same.  Anhedonism is the number one employment condition if you want to be a “sicario,” a trigger-man for the Mexican drug cartels.  If you kill your target or your target kills you, “me es igual.”

I have known Verónica for many years.   She was my across-the-street neighbor from the time she was 16 or so to her current late 20s.   Verónica is dirty, unkempt, and to the uninformed appears to be  an undeterminable age  much older than she really is.  Her hair is a matted, tangled mess that makes Bob Marley look like someone having a good hair day.  Her skin is old, street-grimy black; her feet are now the flattened wide feet of a barefoot person living on pavement, and her exposed belly could pass for that of an iguana.

Her clothes are old, dirty, torn–covering little, revealing much.  She is dressed in a way that exposes most of her,  way too much of her,  to the gawking eyes of men, the kind of low-life men  for whom momentary availability is the only  requirement and for whom  attractiveness is an unaffordable  budget-busting luxury.  Verónica’s way of dressing advertises her current career choice, but abuse, overuse, and lack of maintenance have relegated  her to the equivalent of a clearance bin at Walmart.   Yet somehow, she generates enough business to keep herself in drugs;  to keep herself stoned to the point of disengagement from normal life.

“Verónica, do you know who I am?  I used to live across the street from you.”  The blank stare simply looked at me and said with  unspoken words, “Go ahead and have me, use me,  just give me something.”  I urged her to get help.  I offered to take her to a recovery center.   When she failed to recognize me as her former neighbor and when she failed to acknowledge me as the missionary pastor that I am, and when she failed to accept my offers of help, I said  “goodbye”   and walked away down the sandy beach that separates the city of La Paz, Mexico from the Sea of Cortez.  I was conflicted in my soul.   I wanted to help, but there really was nothing I could do at that time.

On my return walk along the beach I found Verónica again, but this time face down in the sand in a deep sleep, the kind of deep sleep  that only a witch’s brew of drugs can induce.  I checked to make sure her airway was open and then walked away.  She’ll wake up in a couple of hours, stagger back to her shack across the street from where I used to live, and sleep  the day  away. Tonight she’ll head back to the street looking for men willing to rent her for nothing more than a small plastic bag half filled  with some white powder or tiny crystals.  If she eats anything at all it will only be so that she’ll find the energy to discover her next little bag of powder.

Verónica may have descended to anhedonism and feels nothing, cares for nothing, and lives the life of “me es igual.”   I have not made that descent to Hell.    I feel all kinds of things, and right now what I feel is not pretty.  I feel  profound sadness, lots of it.  My sadness  is caused by  people who, choosing not to exercise  self-control,  propel themselves  into horrifically harmful activities with predictable, guaranteed consequences.   I feel sadness mixed with revulsion  at  knowing what mentally depraved and physically  dirty  men have done to Verónica’s body and soul and what they will be doing to her again twelve hours from now.  I feel sadness for Verónica as she has made and continues to make choices which confirm in her mind that she is a worthless dirty nobody, a mere plaything for a certain class of disgusting, degenerate men,  and of no more worth to them  than a basketball or bottle of beer, to  be tossed aside after performing her limited function.    I am very angry with those merchants who peddle drugs. I am sad that so many churches justifiably condemn the behavior but far too often refuse to participate in the dirty and  messy process of healing and recovery; by their actions they  seem to indicate their belief that one can simply teach someone out of addictions.   I am upset at those churches which say “we need to preach the Gospel (Good News) in order to save the lost,”  unless  by Gospel they mean the Gospel preached by Jesus in which he taught truth,  touched the untouchable, shared life with the rejected, slammed ritualistic religion,  and invited people to journey through life with him.   I applaud those groups of Jesus followers willing to dirty themselves in order to help clean the lost.   I feel compassion for all those young people trapped in Verónica’s world, young people who made the wrong choices over and over again and who are now suffering greatly for having made those sinful choices.

Just like a rag cleans up a mess by absorbing the filth from the object being cleaned,  Jesus heals and cleans people by taking their filth from them and smearing  it  on himself.  When Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  it was because at that moment he became as dirty as all the  Verónicas of the world.  In that moment Jesus felt the  accumulated  consequence of all the sin,  the abuse, the treason, the immeasurable pain of a million Verónicas and he became as vile in God the Father’s eyes as Verónica.  But this is still not the end of it.  Jesus also took on the sin of assumed-to-be-clean, wealthy, comfortable  Americans and Europeans  who sin just as much as Verónica and whose sins are just as dirty and may be even more dangerous on a global scale  than Verónica’s sins will ever be,  but who are better able to hide their sins under a veneer of wealth.  Verónica destroyed herself with her sin – of that there is no doubt.  The sins of wealthy Americans and Europeans  (greed, pursuit of comfort, self-indulgence, entitlement, sense of superiority, self-declared national exceptionalism, violence,  incessant warfare) are  destroying millions of lives.  Jesus, the only sinless person to walk this earth, because of his perfect love for Verónica, you and me became, for a short time,  the ugliest sin-dirtied person to ever live.  God the Father did something to Jesus he never did nor ever will do  to us: he turned his back on him.

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This story happened and was written down a long time ago.  My wife and I just moved back to La Paz, Mexico, after a six-year absence.  We saw Verónica yesterday, which is what caused me to unearth this story. We were surprised she was still alive; but nothing has changed.  She was as dirty as always, her hair was a matted mess as always.   She was dragging a bag full of cans down the street, probably to turn them in for cash in order to get her next fix.  She talked to us but we couldn’t understand a word she said.   Heartbreaking.