About Steven Dresselhaus

Steve is a career missionary with TEAM. TEAM is a faith based, international, non-profit, humanitarian organization dedicated to making life better for everyone now and in the future. We do this by creating sustainable and reproducing gatherings of Jesus followers who understand that as long as they are here they have the privilege of serving Jesus by serving their neighbors and by teaching them spiritual truths found in the Bible. Steve is a SCUBA diver, sea kayaker and an avid cyclist. Meeting with followers of Jesus every week is a number one priority for him. Making the world a better place by obeying Jesus is what energizes him.

The Father and Son Holy Spirit Island Trip

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My son Joel on a kayaking expedition in Baja

                                  The Father and  Son Holy Spirit Island Trip                                                                                           Steve Dresselhaus               

“Girls are like potato chips. Once you get started it is really, really hard to stop.” This may not be the best way to start out a father/son talk about boy-girl relationships; but for a shy dad and a not-always-communicative 14-year-old son, it did get the ball rolling.

While the discussion topic was not always easy,  the setting was unequaled. My son Joel and I were on a three-day circumnavigation by sea kayak  of Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit) island off the coast of Baja California Sur in the southern reaches of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The purpose of the trip? Adventure and a chance to get away from it all and talk about all the things that a dad should talk about with  his son.

Espiritu Santo Island- West side

Espiritu Santo Island- West side

The island, sometimes called the Pearl of the Sea of Cortez, is a 12-mile-long, three-mile-wide desert island shaped much like a huge,  thick-bodied comb. One side of the island is a series of deeply indented, cliff-lined bays, each of which terminates in a perfect white sand beach. The other side, the eastern side of the island, is like the back of a comb, relatively straight, with no coves, bays or other protected inlets.  For a mariner, a windy day on the eastern side ranges from challenging to downright dangerous as it becomes a lee shore with  pounding waves relentlessly beating on mile after mile of unyielding rocks, cliffs and reefs. Woe to the sailor who finds himself in distress on that shore.

Our first day out was like a photo postcard. A gentle breeze cooled us as we paddled the 4.5 miles from the Baja mainland out to the southern tip of Espiritu Santo. The transparent blue water parted gently as our two fiberglass sea touring kayaks created V-shaped mini-wakes in the silky smooth water. The upturned bows of the kayaks nosed into the barely perceptible head wind. The occasional flying fish or diving sea bird let us know that we were not the last life forms on earth. Every so often a sports fishing boat would race past us on the near horizon in pursuit of dorado, marlin or tuna – but then silence again. The solitude and silence discovered while in  human-powered craft far from shore is a delight that needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

Playa Despensa near the southern tip of Espiritu Santo Island.

Playa Despensa near the southern tip of Espiritu Santo Island.

Our crossing lasted a little under two hours. It was Joel’s first crossing of a deepwater channel and the farthest he had ever paddled off shore. In typical adolescent fashion, any emotional display for a job well done was masked with a feigned “Ho Hum.” We ducked into Playa Despensa, a horseshoe-shaped bay that is often used as the staging area for kayaking groups embarking on multi-day adventures. For us it was a time to open up the can of Pringles stuck in the bungee chords of Joel’s waterproof deck bag, get a drink, and stretch our legs. It was also a time to gaze at the  water, a multi-hued blue and green masterpiece highlighted by a white sand beach and a stratified red and pink layer-cake cliff opposite our landing site.

Isla Gallina

Isla Gallina

After a brief stop, we climbed back into the boats to begin the next leg, three hours of exploring coves, small islands and white sand beaches. Our next stop was Isla Gallina, or Chicken Island. Isla Gallina is a tiny red rock island with sheer cliffs running nearly all around it, denying even  the remotest  hope of a beach.  At its base, on the southern side of the 200-yard-long island, there is a small rock shelf about a foot above the water line at high tide. We put our boats up on the shelf, dug out our snorkeling gear, and jumped into the clear blue water. The island is a starfish paradise. Blue, purple, and red starfish were everywhere. Other starfish, including the chocolate chip star, (yes, it looks like it is covered with chocolate chips) were also abundant. Trumpet fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors and Cortez Angels filled the water like a two-page spread in National Geographic. A variety of brown, stringy,  twisted corals blanketed many of the white rocks, transforming them into the envy of any dredlocked Rastafarian.

Chilled, we exited the water. Joel climbed up a short cliff to the top of the island. He discovered the island to be one of those guano-frosted islands often seen on Animal Planet. It was a madhouse of angry birds threatening to run us off their island and away from their eggs, which were lying around the ground in hastily assembled nests of twigs and dried seaweed. The haphazard, unplanned nature of the nests evinced little pride in homemaking. As the angry birds shrieked and flapped overhead, I couldn’t help but think of some of the horror movies of yesteryear such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I was glad to be wearing sunglasses, just in case.

View from our camp at Playa Mesteno

View from our camp at Playa Mesteno

Late in the afternoon we slowly paddled into Playa Mesteño, one of those long, narrow indentations that cuts deep into the island. The water in the bay was flat calm, the sand white and perfect, the beach deserted, clean and unspoiled. Our most visible companion was a large blue heron who stood on the shore waiting for…. whatever herons wait for on the beach. We set up camp, which consisted of breaking out the stove and throwing our sleeping bags onto the sand. The temperature was ideal and there were no bugs; a tent would have been superfluous and a waste of energy to set up.

I don’t believe in retributive karma, nor do I believe that good and evil are doled out in precise,  predestined allotments  to each person. However, the trip which up to now had been perfect took a turn for the worse, almost making me doubt my unbelief.   Our first cooked camp meal  became a cook’s nightmare. Though difficult to believe, I did the impossible:  I ruined a meal of “Hamburger Helper,”  although it wasn’t exactly my fault. Just after browning the ground beef, the stove started to act up and the heat it produced dwindled till it was barely enough to warm the water, much less boil the noodles to softness. The water refused to boil, the ground beef began to turn into a liverwurst-like pate, and the noodles remained  al dente  al maximus.  “Good job, Dad,” was the less-than-sincere praise heaped upon my culinary efforts. It did keep us alive.

The stove issue was one that had to be resolved, since Espiritu Santo has a strictly enforced no open fire rule owing to its status as a United Nations World Heritage area. I suspected that the white gasoline, purchased in a local hardware store, might be the culprit. The troubleshooters’ guide that came with the tiny camp stove seemed to corroborate my suspicions. I dismantled the stove and replaced the white gasoline jet with the one for kerosene, assuming that the finer orifice used by the white gasoline was clogged with gunk. That more than did the trick. The stove became a raging blowtorch, a welder’s fantasy, a micro Hell.  The stove became all or nothing.   For the rest of our three-day camping/kayaking trip, every cooked meal was  like an Oreo cookie: the outside hard, black and burned, with the inside raw and gooey. The fact that I am now writing this 24 hours after completing the trip indicates that my cooking, while a failure on nearly all counts, was not immediately fatal.

During the first night on the island, the wind picked up. The problem with wind on this island is that it makes the eastern side of the island a boiling cauldron of tumbled and confused water. After a burned but raw breakfast we began paddling, unsure of whether or not we could continue with our circumnavigation or if we would  be strong-armed by a power bigger than us and forced to retrace the previous day’s journey in the shelter of the island. We rounded the northern tip of the island and headed out into the exposed Sea of Cortez. The wind was strong, the waves high, around six feet, but there were no whitecaps. I assumed that the absence of whitecaps indicated that the waves were residual waves, having blown in from the north during the night–and that as the day progressed and warmed they would slowly die away. Wrong. All day long the waves followed us, causing the kayaks to pitch and yaw.  Like an unruly herd of sheep, whitecaps, called borreguitos (“little lambs”), began to appear and frolic around us. Sometimes the following seas would push us to the right, sometimes to the left. At times when a boat was on the crest of a wave, a gust of wind would spin the boat around nearly perpendicular to the wind. We were condemned to five hours of relentless, grueling, intense paddling. The wind never got any stronger, nor did it let up. It remained strong enough to keep the waves big and steep. The earlier lack of whitecaps had deceived me into thinking that the rough conditions were about to end.

I nervously watched Joel. This was his first ever big water paddling experience. I don’t think I have ever been prouder of him. He handled his boat well, stroking, counter stroking, high bracing, low bracing and braking against the waves for hours on end. Not once did he complain. His face showed quiet determination and resolve. No fear. We had two options: turn around and battle headwinds and advancing waves and then retreat back down the western side of the island, or keep going. A third option would have been to give up and let ourselves be dashed to bits against rocky cliffs; but since this trip was billed as a father/son outing to build our relationship and talk about things that dads are supposed to talk to their sons about, being dashed against the rocks didn’t seem an appropriate finale to the trip.

Every so often on the eastern side of the island, rocky headlands protrude.  At each rocky headland, none of which was large enough to offer protection from the wind and waves, the seas grew even more confused. Some waves would refract around the headland, coming at us from other directions. Other waves would reflect off the cliffs, hitting us from the opposite direction of the prevailing waves. Other waves would strike submerged rocky reefs and seem to leap up out of nowhere. Still other waves formed klapotis or jump waves caused by the face-to-face collision  of two waves traveling in opposite directions. Waves could and did come at us from all points of the compass. It was five hours of intense concentration without a pause for rest.

Playa Bonanza at dawn

Playa Bonanza at dawn

After a long, hard, and relentless paddle, we rounded the last rocky headland and entered the shelter of Playa Bonanza, a two-mile-long stretch of picture-perfect beach. Protected by a large headland at the northern end, the water inside the bay was calm, with only gentle wavelets lapping at the shore. Rest, peace, food: a great way to end a long struggle. The tension of the previous five hours melted into oblivion, leaving nothing but a wild memory, a healthy boost of self confidence for Joel, and a feeling of accomplishment for both of us. We made camp, once again  by simply throwing our sleeping bags onto the sand. Dinner was boxed macaroni and cheese. My blow torch stove,  my Hell in a handbag, did a remarkable job of boiling the water for the noodles.

After darkness had fallen, Joel and I lay on our sleeping bags gazing up at a moonless but incredibly star-crowded night sky. Only those who have been far from civilization in a desert or out at sea can truly appreciate the majestic beauty of the horizon to horizon clutter of uncountable stars.  There were so many stars it got me wondering if God is not some kind of hoarder.

Staring upward, we talked about a lot of things.  We talked about what it means to be a good man, based on the New Testament book of Titus, written by the Apostle Paul. Words of wisdom 2,000 years old still packing  a punch of truth, giving guidance for today, which if followed will help in marriage, work, relationships, enabling  the simple joy of good living.   My hope and prayer for Joel is that these words will guide his life, as in just a few short years he will be entering his own manhood. The words of the  Apostle Paul and my example: will they be enough?

Gazing up at the sky, I told Joel that I would not go to sleep until I had seen a shooting star and a satellite making its way across the night sky. Within two minutes I was free to go to sleep and within three, I was.

Dawn came with a beautiful sunrise over the Sea of Cortez.  I enjoyed  a pot of fresh coffee, brewed on Brimstone Bonnie, the stove from Hell.   My 14-year-old son  lay a few feet away still tucked inside his sleeping bag, his long uncombed hair a tangled, windblown, sea-salt-snarled mess above a still innocent face. Watching him sleep, I could see remnants of  a young child, a little boy, not yet needing to shave or behave like an adult, but no longer addicted to Legos or Pokemon. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we took him out of the hospital wrapped in a tiny blue bunny suit with ears? Fifteen hours earlier, battling the wind and waves, I had seen in his face the early evidence of manhood: determination, vision, survival, goals. Boy or man? He is in that intermediate stage right now, no longer a little boy, not yet a man. It is my job as his dad to help him make that transition successfully. God help me.

After an Oreo cookie-style  breakfast of scrambled eggs and a quick loading of the kayaks, we were on our way back home. A calm, four-hour paddle across the Canal San Lorenzo lay before us, with a gentle breeze to cool our way and only tiny waves. In only five hours we would be home in La Paz, and we would have a shower and a meal cooked slowly and properly on a stove, not blowtorched into charcoal by the rebellious camp stove from the underworld. And there would be a strengthened friendship between a dad and his son after an adventure well done.

Waiting for my wife to come and retrieve us and our kayaks, I noticed four young teenage girls walking past us, not once, not  twice, but at least eight times. It wasn’t me or the kayaks that had caught their eye. “Joel, did I ever tell you that girls are like potato chips?”

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SHOULD I KEEP THIS OLD SHIRT?

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SHOULD I KEEP THIS OLD SHIRT?

Steve Dresselhaus

My wife and I have been given a very special privilege.  We have the opportunity to go through every last thing we own, be it our Subaru Forester, an old coffeemaker, or a half-used note pad,  to determine if we are going to keep and transport it to our new home in Mexico,  donate it to a worthy cause,  or do our small part to take an Illinois landfill to its holding capacity.

In the process we are learning a lot about the middle-class American lifestyle, of which we have become active members.  Since I am a fairly pious Christian I have chosen not to use the words that immediately come to mind which describe what we are discovering about our middle-class life.    My second string of descriptors includes words like cluttered, overly busy, materialistic, paper polluted,  enslaving, junk filled, influenced by others, keeping up with the Joneses, dependent, peer pressured,  deceptive and non-trusting.   We are discovering that we have become possessed by our possessions to the point that they  guide and direct our lives and actions.  That which truly provides happiness–relationships and human interaction–has been shoved aside by acquiring and maintaining our stuff.  The more stuff we own the lonelier we become.  The more stuff we own the more we are owned by it.  Caring for what we own crowds people out of our lives.  Any culture necessitating scheduled play dates for children is on its death bed.  A culture which requires a couple weeks of lead time to schedule a night out with friends because people are so busy working to accumulate stuff and then investing time to maintain their stuff is a culture destined to disappear.  Culture and civilization are the cumulative organic results of ongoing human interaction.  When interaction ceases, there is no longer any common bond nor shared experiences; and everyone ends up “doing what is right in his or her own eyes,” which is an absolute guarantee of societal dysfunction and eventual cessation.

The bottom line is that our dependence on stuff is really evidence of not trusting God, in spite of our Bible readings, prayer, and worship songs.  In the perfect world created by God in the beginning and to which we will return at the reconciliation of all things, Adam and Eve had nothing but God, each other, nature and the shared  experience of living off of  what God abundantly provided through a clean and healthy environment.  A friend of mine, Peter Illyn, founder and president of Restoring Eden put out my all-time favorite  bumper sticker which humorously but not incorrectly states, “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with a couple of naked vegetarians.”   Relationship and trust were all the first couple had and all they needed.   This was God’s design.   It wasn’t until Eve took the first thing not needed that greed and the need to possess and accumulate took over and became one of the strongest human forces known.  From that day to this, our desire to possess has ruined the environment, isolated us from each other, and eroded our trust that God will care for us.  Ever since Eve launched the world on its march to destruction through the evil  act  of unnecessary consumption,  the only things we really own are the things we can control by getting rid of  them without grief.  If we grieve over their loss, we have to wonder who or what the real owner is.

Right now I am moving to another country.  The greatest stress related to the move? Our stuff.  Packing to protect it, budgeting to ship it, getting the legal documents to cross international borders with it, arranging for the transporters  to relocate it– it is a never-ending, sleep-depriving nightmare.   What do we really need?  What will be helpful?  What is actually harming us and our future ministry in Mexico?  Is “we might need that” sufficient grounds for keeping something, or is the proper declaration “I am using that” the way we should determine what to take and what to get rid of?  What about things that serve no purpose other than to generate warm fuzzy feelings?  Do we keep them?  Do we take a 20-year-old plaster-of-Paris hand print from our son’s  preschool vacation Bible school,  or do we make room for an extension cord which we will use but which has no sentimental value?  Does utilitarian take precedence over warm fuzzy?  Where do we draw the line?  When do we go overboard one way or the other?  We Christians justify our greed by saying “I am holding my stuff in an open hand.”  That is very easy to say when no one is trying to take anything from us.

I don’t have the answers yet and probably won’t in this lifetime.  But I am asking  myself the question.  At least I now know what I own and I am learning  what owns me because I have handled it all in the past three weeks and made a conscious decision about each thing, be it a 19-foot-long sea kayak or a misshapen paper clip.  I may sometimes  be wrong in my decisions; but at least I’m trying to show I trust God to provide by not hoarding a bunch of stuff.   We wealthy Americans are good at asking the WWJD question, which is usually a painless choice to do what is ultimately beneficial to us, but we may not even be asking the  question WWJK?  (What Would Jesus Keep?)  This is the real question, because it strikes to the heart of who our prime deity really is.

ANCIENT GREEKS AND MODERN MEMORIES

Brother and sister building memories    Brother and sister out for a kayaking trip.  Building memories which will never fade.

ANCIENT GREEKS AND MODERN MEMORIES

Steve Dresselhaus

The ancient Greeks believed in four natural elements from which everything else was made: earth, water, fire and air.  I’m thinking they may have been on to something.  Last week my family had the opportunity to spend three nights camping on Grand Island, an undeveloped island in Lake Superior and a part of the Hiawatha National Forest.  We camped with my sister and her family.  While we did take along a few man-made items such as tents, kayaks and headlamps, we only took in what we could carry on our backs or propel with our paddles.  The packing list was not predicated on seeing  what else can I carry in but rather, what else can I leave at home?   Less was more. Doing without was freeing.  Having less made it possible to do more.   For three days we were not controlled or manipulated by a cruel slave master named Stuff.

On the island we experienced the four Grecian elements.  We had earth, the island itself.  We had water, the massive Lake Superior.  We had clean air.  We had fires, both morning and evening.  We had no computers, TV, or smart phones.  Entertainment was provided by the creativity of our minds.  Jokes and stories filled our times around the campfire.  On the long hikes on the island  or on the long kayaking trips around the island,  deep conversations about life, science, faith, and health occupied our time while our minds were filled with the natural beauty around us.

The five cousins, now in their late teens and early twenties, did not spend their time with blankly staring  glazed-over eyes  and spittle dripping out the corners of their half opened mouths listening to music or watching mindless videos on their phones.  They talked.  They laughed.  They exercised. Brother and sister explored the island on their own by kayak, building experiences and relationships that can never happen with a phone in hand or by commercial entertainment marketed by others.  Without realizing it they were experiencing God’s first declaration in the Bible about people that “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Electricity will never replace the spark of presence.

In the evenings the two families sat around a campfire.  Many a marshmallow was roasted and squished between chocolate and graham crackers.  Around the crackling fire, family history was kept alive by telling stories of grandparents and of experiences which would have been forgotten during this generation had they not been retold around the fire.  As teasing and joking filled the evenings with laughter,  family unity was built and relationships strengthened.  Talks about college, career and job changes sprinkled the times around the fire.  Conversations ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the raucous to the holy, from the dorky to the divine,  but they were all good; and they will impact our lives far more than a thousand hours of mindless media entertainment created by others for our purchase.

As I write this on my computer, sitting in my recliner, with central air conditioning  creating comfort,  I am in the process of packing up my household.  My wife and I are moving back to Mexico to resume our missionary career overseas (www.steveandlois.com).   By far, the biggest stress we face is what to do with our stuff.  Furniture, house,  dishes, appliances, clothes, toys (kayaks, SCUBA, cameras), memorabilia:  what should we do with all this stuff?  How do we know what to take with us or what to give away?  At what point does our stuff cease aiding our life and ministry and become a burden that hinders?  When does our stuff serve us and when do we cross over and become the possession of our stuff?

“YOU CHRISTIANS ARE BETTER THAN WE MUSLIMS.”

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“You Christians Are Better Than We Muslims.”

 Steve Dresselhaus

You Christians are better than we Muslims.”  This unexpected declaration came an hour into a conversation with  a Muslim man and his wife.   We were sharing a looooong layover between flights at an airport in the Middle East. They were returning home to Tehran and I back  home to Chicago.

The conversation began when the man sitting next to me looked at my computer screen and saw the photo of my family SCUBA diving. Curiosity compelled  the friendly man to ask me who was in the photo.  “That’s my family diving in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez off the Baja Peninsula,” I answered him.  “Oh, were you there on vacation?”  “No,” I replied, “we lived there for many years.”    “Looks beautiful.  Why were you in Mexico?”   Hmm.  How to answer? The man and his wife were clearly Muslim, and we were in a country with strict anti-conversion laws; but since he spoke English, was traveling, looked scholarly and intelligent,  and was dressed in Western clothing, I sensed no danger in telling him who and what I was.  Since I was already through immigration and in transit, there was not a whole lot to risk.  “I am a Christian pastor and my work in Mexico was to start Christian churches.”

No visible reaction, either negative or positive.  I brought up a PowerPoint presentation that showed my family and our work in Mexico.    I went through the whole presentation, the husband asking questions the whole time, the wife listening in silence.  The Muslim couple saw the history of my family in Mexico.  They saw the photos of the start of the work,  the early baptisms, the growing church, the ranch/camp, the home Bible studies, the medical clinics,  the prison ministry, the kayaking ministry, and a series of photos describing the safe house (now closed)  for abused women and children that we had run for five years in our city in Mexico.

At seeing the photos of the safe house, the wife started to cry. Why did she cry?  Personal experience as a victim of abuse?  Knowledge of the chronic mistreatment of women by some of the harsher elements of her faith?  A religious law that makes it virtually impossible for a woman in her culture to obtain justice for wrongs against her?  Was she moved to tears at seeing people putting themselves at risk in order to rescue women and help them rebuild their lives? Did she see the work of people who highly value women for who they are, not just what they are? Was she being tempted to adopt a more Western understanding of violence against women?  Once again I’ll never know.

My new friends’ flight was called.  As we stood to say goodbye, the husband said, “You Christians are better than we Muslims.”  It was a declaration, not a question, but it demanded a response.  “No,” I said. “We are not better – just forgiven by Jesus.   That is all.  We are no better.”  I extended my hand.  The man took and shook it.  I extended my hand towards the woman, who was still crying silently.  “She is not allowed to touch you,” her husband said, not  in anger or threat, but certainly with conviction.    Oh crud!  I knew that.  I was in a Muslim country.  Major “duh” moment.   I was embarrassed at my social faux pas. But I also felt a bit angry at what we westerners would consider to be discrimination and oppression against women.  I fought the temptation to stereotype. I lost.  Maybe next time I’ll be successful.   At least I’ll try.

I have no way of knowing the future of this couple.  We are getting reports of hundreds of thousands of Iranians who are making their way to Jesus and being forgiven by him.  Reports are that many Muslims are becoming  weary of the nonstop horrors  perpetrated by some of their co-religionists.* They are embarrassed at the generalized silence from their religious leaders which gives the appearance of tacit approval to the atrocities being carried out on the world stage.  They are growing tired of the chants of “death to this group or that group” being preached by their leaders. The good news is that people all over the Middle East are discovering Jesus and what “the truth shall set you free” really means.   I hope the couple I met at the airport become part of this growing movement.

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*We must acknowledge that there are extremists in virtually all religions who engage in activities which embarrass, if not horrify, the other members of their faith.   I am very embarrassed by the shenanigans of some of the more conservative elements of the Christian faith.   While we acknowledge that there are extremists in all religions, it would be foolish to compare Jesus followers with Islam and think they are anywhere near close to each other in the levels of the violence  and extreme behavior they incite.  While there may be a few incidents here and there of “Christians” inciting violence in the name of religion, I know of no case of a real Jesus follower being involved in any terrorist activity.

PLANES, PANIC, PRAYER

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PLANES, PANIC, PRAYER

Steve Dressselhaus

In some contexts,  the difference between 7:45 and 9:45 is no big deal.   If it is on the departure board at London’s Heathrow airport, however,  the difference is a very big deal.   I was at the end of a long and tiring trip to Africa with only one more flight to go.  I was on my way home to the Chicago suburbs  and was tired, very tired.  I was not just tired from the unending  hours of the travel itself  but also from  feeling the alien-like  tentacles of jet lag reaching into  every cell in my body to sap energy from them  and then extending their slimy tips deep  into my mind to suck out any remaining clarity of thought.

Since I had two hours to wait till my next flight, I ordered a large coffee and pulled out my laptop to get some emails done.  Call it the embedded influence of the Teutonic  genes that make me who I am, but I walked over to the departure board for one last confirmation that all was well.   There it was,  Chicago,  departure 9:45. Good.   But up near the top of the board was a line that said Chicago AA 99, 7:45  Gate 32,  now boarding.  It was 7:10.  I pulled out my boarding pass.  It said AA 99 boarding time 6:55.  Seeing Chicago 9:45 had somehow blinded my eyes to the rest of the  board’s reality  and also kept me from  seeing  what was clearly printed on the boarding pass in my hand.  How had I not seen that?  I am an experienced  world traveler and am always very much aware of my surroundings.   Like the Navy SEAL that I coulda/shoulda/woulda  been,  I often pride myself on my situational awareness.  Yet somehow because of fatigue? exhaustion? overconfidence? I had not seen what was clearly meant to be seen.

Sudden-onset panic, blood pressure spike, instant nausea, disgust and anger at self all made themselves an overwhelming presence in my mind and body,  each of them vying for supremacy.  I didn’t even know where Gate 32 was.  I asked a young woman in uniform (a sales clerk at a jewelry store)  where the boarding gates were located.  She pointed in a general direction and I immediately followed the direction indicated by her finger. The laws of physics infallibly  dictate that the shorter the length of remaining time the greater the distance to the boarding gate.   My situation confirmed this truth.    I began to run, the tiny wheels of my roll-away suitcase spinning to the point of overheating and seeming to reverse direction as their spin matched that of the terminal’s fluorescent lights’ frequency.     I hate running through airports.  I hate the feeling of desperation  that comes from rushing to the gate, not knowing if you’ll make it or not.   I hate knowing that ten thousand people are watching  me and thinking I was  a careless moron for having put myself into this position in the first place:  they were right.

The prayers began.  “Father, help me make it.”  “God, help me make the flight.”  I was tired.  I had been traveling for two weeks already.  I was jet lagged.  I just wanted to get home.  I ran, each step taking me closer but each step, like the sweep hand of stop watch,  indicating vanishing time – step, step  a second gone, step step, there goes another. The American Airlines employees  had already been boarding the plane for 900 seconds when I discovered my mistake.  I didn’t know how many, if any, seconds were left.    “Please God, let me make this flight.”  My prayers were desperate. As desperate as they were, there was no point trying to negotiate a deal with God.  I couldn’t say, God, if you help me make the flight, I’ll become a missionary.  I had prayed  that prayer decades ago and I already am a missionary.   I had nothing left with which to bargain.  God’s mercy alone was my only hope; and over that I have no influence.

Gate 32 is, honestly and literally,  the last and most distant gate from where I  asked the sales clerk for help.  Kind of like a dream where one is falling and falling, the distant black numbers on the  yellow background signs  at the end of a long, long hallway  never got any closer. Like trying to push the two north poles of magnets together my running only seemed to push the gate farther away.  Gate niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiineteeeeeeeen, gate tweaaaaaaaanty, the passing gates went by slower than a Texas drawl.  Decision time: is it faster to run alongside the moving walkway if there are people standing on it,  or to ride it, hoping the folks will get out of your way as they see your wild, panicked eyes approaching.   Moving walkway – the relaxed riders scattered as they saw the charging Cape buffalo rushing their way.

Gate 32, I made it.  The door was still open.  Yes, I was the last person to board the plane, but I WAS ON IT!   The PA system announced, “The doors are now closed.  Please turn off all electronic devices or make sure that your small handheld devices are switched to  airplane mode.”  Had I been a horse I would have been slathered in sweat foam.  I sat in my seat, chest pounding like the army’s artillery practice, lungs sucking in air like the jet engines firing up  a few feet from my seat.  Sweat poured off me like I was the source of the Nile.  But I was there.   I was at Gate 32 on board flight AA 99,  in seat 23 G.  “Thank you God, Thank you, thank you, thank you. Ten thousand times, thank you.”

Had God answered my desperate prayers?  Was it God who had prompted me to look at the board and see my mistake before I ever prayed?  Did God answer my prayer by giving me the energy to run the entire distance?  Had the gate crew, observing some monitor, seen my lonely figure running their way and decided to cut me some slack?  Would I have made the flight had I not prayed?   Would God have held back the flight had I not run?  Since I had prayed, did  my running indicate a lack of faith?  Why had God, knowing the eventual outcome,  ever allowed me to get in the position of having to pray and ask for help in the first place?  Had I not made the flight  would I simply have accepted that as God’s will, in an Inshallah sort of way?  If my prayers were answered, what part of them was dependent on my hard work and what part was God’s?  In Spanish we say “A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando” (pleading to God but swinging the sledge hammer).

To my friends it is no secret that I struggle with understanding prayer; the how and why of it baffle me.  I am unlikely to believe anyone who says he or she understands prayer.   I grow weary of the pat answers and flippant spiritual platitudes often given  regarding prayer.  Does God always answer prayer?  The all-too-frequent response is that he does answer all prayer with a “yes, no, later or different,” which are the exact same results had there been no prayer uttered at all;  I do an inward eye-roll every time I hear someone say this.  Did God answer my prayer or do I get the credit for catching my mistake and then running like a race horse to catch my flight?    Honestly,  I don’t know if God intervened because of my prayer or not; but I do know that in honest desperation I called on him for help, I made my flight  and  I am still saying, “Jesus, thank you.  Thank you that I made the flight.”

FISH FARMING WITH AN ATHEIST

DSCF7830FISH FARMING WITH AN ATHEIST

Steve Dresselhaus

“If I ever believe in a god it will  be because I am  awestruck by the beauty of a coral reef in the tropics.“   My response to the agnostic/atheist scientist who made this comment was, “When I am SCUBA diving or in some other magnificent wilderness area, I just gotta  say  ‘thank you’  to someone, and God is the only one to whom I can say thank you for masterminding such indescribable  beauty.”   I should have added that I  also have to thank God for having created the uniquely human trait of perceiving  and appreciating beauty, an attribute that serves no biological function, confers no  selective advantage, and therefore has no practical  or evolutionary  reason for existing.

The comment from my new friend came at the conclusion of a meeting at which I was an active participant.  The meeting took place in a major US city.    Participating in the meeting were medical doctors and architects from the staff of a  community health clinic run by a bunch of Jesus followers in an under-resourced and violent neighborhood.  A second  partnering agency was a well-known city botanic garden, which has no religious affiliations,  but which out of admirable civic duty and concern  is trying to create an urban agriculture and fish farm in a major urban area in the US.  The third partnering agency was TEAM, the non-denominational, international mission agency of which I am a member.  These three groups are working together in an effort to  eradicate an urban food desert,  educate the residents and improve their eating habits, provide jobs for needy residents, beautify the neighborhood, and create a safe place for people to interact.

Prior to his comment about being awestruck by the beauty of a coral reef in the tropics, the scientist, a specialist in fish farming, had said that he had not been aware that Christians cared about the environment.   He thought the main thing Christians cared about was getting “removed from Earth”  (what some Christians call the rapture)  and that Christians in some kind of Vietnam War-style belief feel  that in order to save the world it must first  be destroyed.* My new friend clearly expressed his incomprehension of the non-caring attitude of those Christians who assume  that their belief in the inevitability of the  just-around-the-corner total destruction of the universe  absolves them from any form of social or environmental responsibility.

In spite of this one little snippet of  conversation,  it was a very pleasant experience.   The agnostic scientist in no way fit the evangelical stereotype of a non-believing scientist.  He was friendly, pleasant, respectful, and funny; he neither criticized nor ridiculed me for my belief in a loving, universe-creating,   knowable God.   He was grateful that I wanted to partner with him in doing good for the community.   I hope I did not fit the stereotype many people have of us Christians as anti-intellectual, judgmental simpletons.   Curiously,  I was able to discuss my theological differences with this agnostic scientist in a much more relaxed atmosphere than I can when discussing doctrinal differences with some fellow Christians with whom I am in  99% agreement.  In talking with my agnostic friend I did not feel I had to win an argument.  Why was I more comfortable hanging out with an agnostic/atheist than I am with some  Christians?  I gotta think about this one some more.

I can’t wait till my next meeting with my new friend.

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*There is no evidence that the phrase “in order to save the village we had to destroy it” was ever actually uttered.  Apparently, this manufactured quote was what launched the career of a well-known war correspondent.

HUGGING A NUN IN A CONVENT

SAMSUNGHUGGING A NUN IN A CONVENT                                                                                       Steve Dresselhaus

Two years ago I met a man,  a highly educated man, a PhD.,  the president of a conservative, evangelical institution in the United States.  Meeting him was an honor, or so I assumed.  He is an active member and leader in a respected and very well-known church.  The senior pastor of his church is famous–so famous, in fact,  that he is on the radio,  either preaching or being interviewed pretty much non-stop, or so it seems.  The pastor of the church has even one-upped the Holy Trinity  by doing something  that not even God himself has ever done:  get his personal name included in the title of a study Bible.*

As I was introduced to this seminary president, he heard my name; and before saying anything else he asked, “Are you related to so and so?”  I happily responded that so and so was indeed a close relative, thinking I had an easy head start on developing a friendship with this erudite professor.  Instead, responding to my affirmation, the professor said, “Godly man [my relative], but messed up in his theology.”  Whoa! That was an unexpected deflator.  Talk about a wet blanket.  “Hey Bucko, your mom reads supermarket tabloids, and I saw your dad  in the ‘Shoppers of Walmart’ video,”  is how I wanted to respond.   What I had expected to be a pleasant experience turned out to be an unpleasant reality that still bothers me two years later.  It bothers me not because of the event itself;  I can get over the judgmental arrogance of the man.  What bothers me is wondering if there are times when  I might not be as arrogant as the professor.  Claiming to be a follower of Jesus should mean that I am loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled.    Am I? Or am I like that ill-mannered seminary professor, assuming I have arrived at the pinnacle of evangelical enlightenment?  I am tempted in that direction but hope and pray that God will deliver me from that temptation.

Shortly after meeting Dr. Omniscient,  I met an  elderly, very elderly nun in a convent where I was doing a personal retreat.  In the pre-dawn hours, my favorite time of the day (yes, I’m serious), I was in the convent chapel praying and reading my Bible when the nuns came in for their early morning mass.  I am not Catholic and understand little of the rituals and rites performed during a Catholic mass.  Curiosity won out and I stayed; call it professional interest.

I was the only person under 80 in the chapel; and other than a post-retirement aged priest who officiated, I was the only man in the building – it was a convent after all.  Following the mass, one of the elderly nuns hobbled over to  me, took my right hand in both of hers and smiled warmly,  gently welcoming me to the convent.  She thanked me for being at mass with them and expressed her desire that I join them again in the future.  Her demeanor was so pleasant that I wanted to give her a big hug,  but hugging a nun in a convent chapel immediately  following mass felt to me like a lightning-bolt-from-heaven-worthy  offense, a violation of protocol,  and a non-stop,  one-way  ticket to Hell;  so my urge and desire to hug a nun remained unsatisfied.

Theologically I am not Catholic, and I am confident and comfortable with my faith in Jesus and with my  attempting-to-follow-Him life style.  But I couldn’t help but compare the kind and gentle nun with the arrogant professor.  In my beliefs I am much more in tune with Professor Bombastic than I am with Sister I-wanna-hug-her.  However, which of these two made me think of Jesus?    Of these two, who behaved the  way Jesus would have under similar circumstances?  Am I more often like the professor or more often like the nun?  I suspect the professor comes out in me far more often than my inner nun.    I never thought I’d say anything like this, but for the first time in my life I hope I can behave like a nun.

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*Fear of being struck with Old Testament-style leprosy or having the Earth open up and swallow me keeps me from  even touching  a Bible with a man’s name as part of the title, much less reading it.