Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eyedroppers And Waterfalls

When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt. I hope and get discouraged. I love and I hate. I feel bad about feeling good. I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. ~ Brennan Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel

You have probably heard someone give a book its highest compliment by saying, "It was a real page-turner," or "It so captivated me, I just couldn't put it down." For me now, the bar of an ultimate book review has been raised even higher. While reading Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, I have had to put the book down and let the weight of what I just read sink in. To put it another way, I pick it up and read some more and have to stop, yet again, to give my soul time to digest what it has just been fed.

For instance, when describing the mortified response of the self-righteous to Jesus' scandalous association with--and grace toward--the marginal, despised, and outcast of religious and social culture of his day, Manning said . . .

It remains a startling story to those who never understand that the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence.

Going on two years now, I have gazed deeply into the darkness of my imperfect existence. I am a bundle of paradoxes. More and more, I am finding less and less comfort by comparing myself with the paradoxical lives of others. Mine are not the words of a man feeling sorry for himself or doing penance by beating himself down. Instead, so to speak, they are the confessions of an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. . . I am much better than I ever dreamed. I am much worse than my most ghoulish nightmares.

Like no other time I remember, it has become painfully apparent to me that I have lived much of my life sipping from a thimble full of grace. I have availed myself of it, but in carefully measured doses, and there have been instances when I have even less graciously dispensed it with an eyedropper.

What I have needed all along is to stay under the drenching and cleansing cascade of a waterfall of God's Grace, drink from its pure streams, and invite everyone I know to join me.

This hit me profoundly when I realized I had read Ragamuffin Gospel less than three years ago. How had I missed its message? Sadly, at the time, the bright glare from my halo blinded me from seeing the dark clouds just above it.

A gospel hymn comes to mind . . .

There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Posted the unedited version of my last post . . . it had far more grammatical errors than usual!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Altitude Adjustments

"Jesus led them to a high mountain to pray . . . "
"Coming down from the mountain, they were met by a demon. . ."
~ The New Testament Gospels

Mountaineers deal with a condition called, Acute Mountain Sickness. Upon leaving sea level to pursue lofty heights they are affected by the altitude change. Usually, its debilitating affects won't manifest until after the descent. Headaches, fatigue, restlessness, and sleepless nights are common symptoms. Tolerance varies from person-to-person. Some fall victim at only six thousand feet. Others experience little more than shortness of breath at fourteen thousand feet. Sherpas live in the Andes Mountains and their bodies have adapted to high altitudes. Climbers from all over the world depend on Sherpas as porters and guides to the apex of the earth -- the monstrous Mt. Everest.

One thing is for sure, no matter the climber, each has an invisible threshold. There is a physiological tipping point that scrambles the body and mind. Predicting when it will manifest itself is an inexact science, but all who press upward will discover that they can only go so high and stay for so long.

I love mountaintops and I have been blessed to stand on the summit of a few. . .

Mt. Katahdin, in my home State of Maine, was my first climb. At its peak is a man-made pyramid of stones stacked 12' high to make it an even mile. In its shadowed crevices I saw snow in the middle of the summer, and never before had I stood above the clouds. Katahdin was the top of my world. As adrenalin spiked, I wanted a bigger mountain to climb.

In Montana, I hiked on the Bear Tooth, and Crazy Woman Mountains. Both ranges are ragged, rugged, serrated, and spectacular. Their terrain is impossible to quantify in words -- you feel them in your soul. I wanted to skin a grizzly and become a mountain man.

In Washington State, I climbed Mt. Saint Helen on the 20th anniversary of her volcanic eruption. To put the magnitude of the explosion in perspective, think back to your history lessons about the bomb dropped on Japan to bring WWII to an end. Helen's eruption equaled 20,000 nukes the size of the one that evaporated Hiroshima. From where I stood on St. Helens, it was less than a mile from ground-zero. Glowing red lava gurgled up and spilled over the rim of the massive crater that was once a mountaintop. I wanted to trek around the steaming caldron and get a once-in-a-life-time pictures of the seismic wonder.

Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, is the second highest peak in the lower 48 states. As far as scaling physical mountains go, it was by far the most challenging for this flat lander. Putting feet to my upward gaze, I labored to its peak, 14, 440 feet above sea level. At times, I could go no more than 50', or see more than 50', due to blowing snow and sleet. What thin oxygen there was available felt like it was being sucked out of my lungs by the high winds. I could trudge no more than 50' at a time. Freezing rain stung my face and filled in my traversing back-trail in minutes. When my mission to the get to the top was accomplished I was exhilarated, but soon reality set in and to stay longer would mean risking a lonely dangerous descent in frigid darkness.

Still, no matter the conditions, soaking in the vistas from the peaks is always preferred to shrunken views at a mountain's roots. Splendid is the view from the top -- the grandeur and glory of God can be seen for miles!

At the top of this post are two quotes from the Gospels. In the pages of the New Testament there are a couple dozen references to mountains, and in the Old Testament Scriptures there are many, many more. Taken together, both Testaments use mountains as physical land marks, but also spiritual markers.

My spiritual mountaintops dwarf any physical adventure to high places. I have written thousands of words atop those summits, and in doing so I found there is such a thing as Spiritual Altitude Sickness. Without a doubt, some people can go higher and stay higher longer than others, but every single person has a spiritual threshold. No one gets to put down stakes, pitch their tent, and stay on a spiritual mountaintop. We must come down from the mountain and meet our demons. To do so, an Altitude Adjustment must be made.

Uncommon spiritual mountaintop experiences are needed and should be expected. Such sublime journeys energize our spirit, balance our perspective, give respite from civilization, and leave markers for hard fought victories. While aloft all is good -- God is easily seen and experienced. But just as Jesus led his Disciples straight into an epic mountaintop experience, he also led them straight downhill and into the valley where all hell broke loose.

We cannot maintain spiritual highs. It is Jesus who arranges those blessed moments, and it is Jesus who leads us down the back slopes and into the foray to advance the Kingdom. We enjoy the adventure, but not so much.

We can decide we won't make Altitude Adjustments, and instead seek suppliers for our addiction to the dramatic.

Or . . .

We can come to terms with the truth that mountaintops can obscure God, and that it is in the valley we learn to first to -- believe God. Then -- we see God as never before.

Friday, May 6, 2011

And Then You Became A Mother

I am from Maine, the most eastern state of the United States of America. Bone-chilling winters are diametrically opposed by Eden-like summers. Autumn is breathtaking, as woodlands magically transform into a stunning palette of blazing and vivid colors. No matter what the season, state-wide, for the most part, the weather is relatively the same. Apart from its twenty-five thousand miles of rocky coastline, its topography remains generally the same, too: stunted mountains, millions of acres of wild woodlands, and lakes so crystal clear you can read a newspaper twenty-feet below the surface. Start walking due east from anywhere within the Pine Tree State, and you will run out of land, and step straight into the Atlantic Ocean.

When a Mainer speaks, we drops the R's off words that end with R, and put R's in words that have no R's. "Ayuh," is a word unique to Mainers. When we say "Ayuh," it means yes, I agree, or I understand. We have another word uniquely used: "wicked." Something can be wicked good, wicked bad, wicked hot, wicked cold, and wicked wicked!

Sandy, my wife, is the beautiful woman in all of these photographs. Pictures from the cradle to our daughter's college graduation. She is a long, tall Texan from the southwest. Roam her Lone Star State, and you can experience nearly every kind of topography and weather known to man: soft coastlines, bald mountains, arid deserts, lush prairies, piney forests, biting snowstorms, and sandstorms that are like snowstorms.

Texans are known to turn monosyllabic words into two syllables words. My name, Bill, is quite often pronounced Be-ull.

Texas is the only State that maintains the right to secede from the Union, and unabashedly declares, 'Ya'll, the most beautiful women in the world, not just the U.S.A, are Texas gals!"

You can always tell a Texan. You just can't tell em' much.

Sandra, married me, William, on September 10. Sandy was nineteen, and I was twenty-one. At twenty-two, her Mom's baby girl, became mother to a baby boy. Our union blessed us with two more children. Our kids absolutely adore their Mom.

Sandy is as brilliant as she is beautiful. Honestly, she is the most intelligent person I have ever met. From high school in Texas -- to college in Georgia -- to Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the academic bar has never been raised high enough to keep her from being a 4.0 student.

Sandy is elegant, but she also kayaks, backpacks, and has a Concealed Weapons Permit to carry a 9mm Sig Sauer.

Sandy's faith in God far exceeds mine, though I was the one who, for thirty years, spoke to mostly church-goers about walking by faith.

Sandy always chose to stay in the background, but she never failed to rise to the occasion --whatever the challenge might be.

Sandy loves me, and anyone who knows the two of us also knows she could have done much better. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, as they say in the south, "I married up!"

Captured in each frame is her beautiful smile. I know there were also untold stories of heartbreak through each passage from childhood into adulthood. Knowing that, each of these pix have reduced me to tears. Through the thick and the thin, and through the best and the worst, she has given me her best years, and Sandy always gives her best to everything she puts her hand to. Remarkable woman.

I am grateful.

I am humbled.

I am a lucky man.

I love you . . .

Happy Mother's Day

Not Just Another Mother's Day

My Mom is mother to six children: first, Brenda, then came Barbara, Glendon, Billy, Burleigh, and last, but by no mean least, Kevin. Glendon, her first son, lived just 42 months before cancer broke him down, then took his life (I wrote about Glennie in a post titled, Big Brother). This afternoon I talked to Brenda; she told me mom had been to Glennie's grave today.

This Mother's Day will be sadly different from sixty-two of the previous sixty-four. Just as death whisked her baby boy away only days before Christmas, another special day will be over-shadowed by an even greater loss -- Dad is gone. On 25 May, at 10 a.m., he will be interred in the final resting place of hundreds of veterans.

Amid the loss of her infant son, within the young Laura an infant Faith was birthed. Amid the loss of her aged mate, a mature Faith abounds. Death took her loved ones, but has been powerless to uproot Faith. Laura Linnie continues to lovingly nurture my siblings and me, and demonstrate what it means to walk with God.

Mom, you amaze your children. We love you!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

24 . . . It's Not About Jack Bauer

Saturday morning at 10:30, I flung my backpack into my truck and headed West on Interstate 20 and then West on Interstate 26 and exited at Highway 64 West, in North Carolina. Finally, I passed between the stone columns, the entrance to Pisgah National Forest, and in ten minutes I was parked at the trailhead of Cat Gap loop. In one easy move I flipped my backpack over my head and onto my shoulders.

I had already made up my mind I was going to find the nearest campsite next to the Davidson River. There was only one non-negotiable stipulation--it must have some semblance of solitude. I hit the jackpot! The spot was absolutely beautiful. I pitched my tent in the partial shade of broken sunlight. Eight feet from my front door, turbulent crystal clear water rushed over rocks and around fallen trees. Its bass tonal notes blended into an original arrangement of soul music. Standing at the river's edge, I could look down into the riffle and see trout facing upstream waiting for Mother Nature to rustle up some grub. Close by, a fly fisherman whiplashed an artificial fly, skillfully and gently landing it on the surface.

Oh, I almost forgot! The temperature was 72 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky!

Earlier, as I came through town, I had stopped at a gas station, and for six dollars bought twenty good-sized pieces of split firewood. After unloading my backpack, I made three trips back-and-forth to the truck, filling the pack with the wood. By this time of year I knew any campsite would be picked clean of dead falls that would burn for more than ten minutes. Scattered around the forest floor there was plenty of kindling, so I started gathering and sorting kindling. A small pile with sticks not much bigger than toothpicks. Another pile of sticks about the size of a pencil. Another pile of sticks about the diameter of my thumb. I had a brick of magnesium and some dryer lint. At nightfall I would use it to start my fire without matches.

Tilting my head back and looking up at the towering trees, it brought me great joy to see a window into the heavens that would frame clusters of stars crossing its rectangular opening.

Later in the afternoon, I spread out my sleeping bag in dappled shadows, and fell into a deep sleep. It was 5:30 when I woke up. My guess is I slept a solid two hours. Immediately, I picked up my journal, and wrote down words that had come to me in dreamland.

The River . . .

Tumbling. Turning. Flowing. Foaming.
Reckless. Peaceful. Guided. Roaming.

Silent. Seeking. Calming. Crashing.
Rowdy. Timid. Brooding. Laughing.

We Are Like Rivers . . .

My phone said it was 11:45 p.m. when I crawled into my temporary home for the night. My last thought was how much I would enjoy a handful of gorp in the morning, along with piping hot coffee brewed on my campfire. Shortly after 5 a.m. I was awake, and my coffee pot was suspended above glowing embers. Caffeine! Over the next couple of hours I drank the entire pot as I sat whittling a knife from a stick of dried pine. I dropped the shavings in the fire and watched them ignite, incinerate, and then disappear into the belly of the fire.

The circle of rocks hissed and cast plumes of steam into the air as I doused it 5 times, using my coffee pot as a fire extinguisher. Tent was down and packed. Sleeping bag was in a compression bag. Bedroll was sheathed. It was time to leave.

Almost to the minute, 24 hours later I was back tracking the same route that had led me to a full day and a night of solitude and tranquility.