Friday, December 31, 2010

Last River Trip for 2010

What a weird way to end the year. This morning we had heavy rain along with a line of thunderstorms and by afternoon, I was out with jeans and a t-shirt as the temperature got up to around 50 degrees… May you all have a nice New Year Eve celebration and a wonderful 2011. The photo to the left is a self-portrait taken on the river.

Yesterday, I decided that I needed to get outdoors and since there wasn’t enough snow to cross country ski, I decided to head out in the canoe. I put in right below a dam (there are a couple small dams on this river, but the backwater behind the dams are frozen, making it impossible to canoe). It felt good to be back in the boat for the first time since October and hear the water ripple underneath the hull and from the springs along the bank that feeds the river. I got to see squirrels play along the banks and in the trees, a muskrat that looked at first like a long in the water, to disturb ducks that take to the air at my approach, and to look at the hardwood swamps, the bark about as gray as the sky. It rained a little, but that was okay. It was only an off and on drizzle, no soaker, and I was prepared. Unfortunately, in winter, there are no leaves to muffle the sound and I could hear the highway, less than half mile to the west, all the way. But I also got to see lots of ducks, some geese and several swans who have decided to winter it out up here, along with a downy woodpeckers and a kingfisher. I snapped photos with a new lightweight waterproof camera that I got for Christmas and hope to take on my trip next year… Unfortunately, its battery gave out and I didn’t get any photos of the swans. Also, the point-and-shot isn’t nearly as quick as the SLR. But it was a good trip; I floated leisurely, taking breaks to drink hot tea and to do some thinking. There’s nothing like water to clear one’s head.

By the way, in case the photo above has you wondering, I wasn't planning on playing a game of hoops along the river. The basketball was found floating in a log jam (and it's a pretty good ball)!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The CK&S (and new railcar under my tree)

For the first time in years, I made an acquisition to my HO gauge railroad that has long operated under my Christmas tree. It wasn’t a large acquisition, just a new boxcar from the CK&S line (Chicago, Kalamazoo and Saginaw). The CK&S ran through this part of the country from the 1880s until the late 1930s. It was nicknamed the Cuss, Kick and Swear (or spit), a more appropriate name as the line that never made it to Chicago or to Saginaw. They started laying track in Kalamazoo and it ran northeast, stopping at places like Richland Station, Gull Lake, Delton, Wall Lake, Cloverdale Lake and Long Lake, before steaming into the town of Hastings. In Hastings, the line’s northeastward movement was delayed as the CK&S management fought with the Michigan Central’s management for the right to cross its track. The Michigan Central line was the only one serving this part of the county and the railroad didn’t want any more competition. Finally making it across the lines, they continued building a line toward Saginaw, crossing the Thornapple River and running by a number of other lakes. But the line only made it to Woodland, where it linked up to the Pere Marquette Railroad, with its line that linked Lansing to Grand Rapids. Later, the line was extended eight miles south of Kalamazoo, where it linked up with the Grand Trunk Railroad’s mainline: a Canadian railroad that entered the country at Port Huron and ran to Chicago.
At first, there were two passenger trains a day on the CK&S, that is every day but Sunday (like God, the railroad took a day off). The first train left Kalamazoo a little after 6 AM, travelling north then returning late in the morning. The second left in the afternoon and returned in the evening. I’ve talked to a few older timers from around here who’d gone to one room country elementary schools, but then took the train into Hastings for high school. This was back before 1937, when the train stopped running. In addition to passenger trains, a freight train headed north from Kalamazoo at mid-morning, dropping off and picking up box cars from various businesses and industries along the way, as well as shuttling cars onto other railroads for their transport across the continent.
Of course, the Cuss, Kick and Swear wasn’t the official name given to the line. The railroad’s management labeled it the “Great Inland Lake Route,” as the railroad skirted numerous lakes. With the coming of the train, folks living in Kalamazoo and other cities to the south began to build cottages around the lakes, where they’d spend their weekends and summer vacations. The railroad promoted hunting and fishing along its tracks and began running a summer Sunday Fishing Excursion that left Kalamazoo at 7 AM and arriving back at 10 PM (it was now a seven day a week railroad—at least during the summer season). Anyone along the line could wave a fishing rod to flag down the train. Another big draw to passengers was the annual Hastings Fair. So many people would be getting on the train in the towns and farms north and south of Hastings that the engineer would have to purposely slow the train down in order to allow the conductor enough time to collect the fare.
In the early 20th Century, it cost 93 cent to ride from Kalamazoo to Hastings. The story was told about a traveling salesman who regularly traveled this route. He’d get onboard in Kalamazoo and hand the conductor a fifty dollar bill. Unable to make change, the conductor would allow him to ride for free. He pulled this stunt many times until the station started to look out for him. Seeing him on the platform waiting for the train, they gave the conductor enough cash to make change. It was said the “shocked salesman” never took the train again.
The railroad had one notorious wreck. On the afternoon of July 15, 1909, the northbound passenger train crashed into the southbound freight just north of the hamlet of Shultz. The engineer and fireman on the passenger train were killed as they stayed in the cab applying the brakes. The crew of the freight train jumped before the crash, saving themselves. The two trains crashed and one of the locomotive boilers was thrown over 150 feet. Miraculously, most of the injuries suffered by passengers were minor. I hope my new CK&S boxcar doesn’t experience such carnage, but you never know as sometimes the throttle is in the hands of a twelve year old.
I better get back to shuttling cars... My railroad only as a few more days of operation before it is abandoned until another Christmas Season. May you enjoy this restful time of the year and have a wonderful New Year! Go here for more history on the CK&S and for one of my sources for this post.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Blessing

I like this card although the guy doesn't exactly look "joyful." It's another of those old cards giving to me when I was a kid, collecting stamps. This card was postmarked on December 23rd 1910 at the South Side Station in Oil City, PA. It was addressed to a Mrs. Roberts and signed simply, "Marvin" and took only a one cent stamp. I wonder if it arrived by Christmas?

In this season of darkness and long shadows, when night maintains its hold on the sky well into the new day, I graze toward the horizon for a glimpse of light, a sign that morning will dawn. It never fails. The skies go from black to gray as the day approaches. If blessed, I'll see a strip of light appear in the east, along the horizon and watch it slowly overtake the heavens. In these northern climates, where the ground is blanketed with snow, the reflection of dawn's light seems to warm the landscape and joy fills my heart. It's time for a cup of coffee and for giving thanks...

May you have a wonderful Christmas morn!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Indochina Chronicles (A Book Review)

I’m going to take a break from the Christmas blogs and post a book review. I suppose, if you are looking for a last minute Christmas gift for an uncle that was in the war, this could also be a Christmas post. Barring that, it’s a book that I read that deals about a place I hope to spend some time this summer…
Phil Karber, The Indochina Chronicles: Travels in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2005), 336 pages, 15 pages of photographs
I picked up this book as a way to learn more about travel on the Mekong River as I hope to travel on it for a ways this summer. Most of the book is about a trip the author and Simon (both Vietnam Vets who now live in Hanoi) around Southeast Asia. The two head north into the Yunnan Providence of China and begin a float trip down the Mekong at Jinghorg. Renting “fast boats,” they travel downriver as it leaves China and flows between Burma and Laos. In the upper stretches of river, which still has active drug armies, they see a dead man floating in the river and are surprised that their boat driver doesn’t want anything to do with it. They continue on down the river, through the Golden Triangle and then between Thailand and Laos before the river turn inland into Laos. They stop to observe the temples at Luang Prabang and then to the Laos capital of Vientiane. There, they take a jeep into Laos, heading to the Plains of Jars and on to Sam Neua (near the Vietnamese border). This part of the country was still unsettled at the time of the trip, with recent Hmong attacks. The Hmong, who supported the Americans during the war, are often supported by their relatives who are in the United States, causing Karber to raise the question if their American cousins are essentially supporting a form of terrorism. (45) They travel safely, but witness the damage of by the American B-52s that dropped tons of bombs onto this part of Laos in a part of the “hidden war” in Southeast Asia, as well as the ancient pots that give the area its name. There’s lots of unexploded ordnance in this area (from an estimated 500,000 bomber runs) and casualties are an on-going problem. This is also an area where the United States have been active in the search for soldiers and airmen who are missing in action from the 60s and 70s. Karber notes that the locals are not overly happy with these expeditions, as they see Americans spend millions to recover a MIA body and little to help locate and destroy the unexploded ordnance that continues to bring bloodshed on the new generation. (55)
After returning to Vientiane, they continue down the Mekong, but this time in a jeep, stopping in villages along the way. Although much of the northern Mekong, from China though Laos, is open to navigation, the falls near the Cambodian border keeps shipping from the ocean from traveling inland. During the time of the French, a narrow gauge railroad portaged freight around the falls. Still, it took longer to travel up river, from Saigon to Luang Prabang than it did from Marseille to Saigon. (78) They continue following the river, stopping in Phnom Penh and then traveling by boat on to Angkor Wat. In Cambodia, he finds the poverty appalling, and notes how the Cambodian people who’d been such a gentle Buddhist country, now lives with violence just under the surface, having dealt with the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Coming back to the Cambodian capital, the two adventurers take a boat through the Mekong Delta and into the South China Sea and up to Saigon. In Saigon, they meet sisters who became members of the Vietcong at an early age and who were both imprisoned in the infamous “tiger cages” on Con Son Island. After traveling around the southern part of Vietnam, between Saigon and Nha Trang, they travel to Con Son Island and are given a tour by Dany, one of the former prisoners.
Afterwards, the two travel north on the Unification Express, stopping in Danang and Hue, touring battle sites and tunnels under the DMZ. John Lancaster, another former veteran living in Hanoi and bound to a wheelchair joined them. In a site near the DMZ, he revisits the place he last walked. Next, they returned to Hanoi, providing Karber an opportunity to tell about the ex-pat community there. I found this part of the book the least interesting, as it sounded almost like the author wanted to introduce all his friends, bragging about some. There was one amusing story in this section, an attempt by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to establish a post in Hanoi. Several of Kramer’s friend’s were interested but they were not in step with the political intentions of the VFW. Kramer ends his book telling about a trip he makes to the China border, an area in which Ho Chi Minh hide out when fighting the Japanese and later the French and America. It’s also an area destroyed in the late 70s by China in retaliation of Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia. Vietnam stepped in to end Pol Pot’s reign of terror, an action that was disliked by both China and the United States.
As Kramer tells of his journey, he provides good background. Indochina is an interesting and blended world. Early on, Hindu type religion was the norm. Later, Buddhism was introduced and still remains strong, but there are pockets of Muslims in the Mekong Delta as well as Catholics in the area that was once colonies of France. He tells how the king of Siam (Thailand) saved his neck by bargaining with the French and giving them control of Cambodia and Laos. He also gives a number of short biographies. One was James McGovern (Earthquake Magoon), an American who’d been one of the Flying Tigers who was killed when his plane was shot down as he attempted to bring supplies to the French forces bogged down at Dien Bien Phu. Others include Mado and Dany (two sisters who became Vietcong) along with Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh.
Kramer gives both the good and the bad of Vietnam, from current “Banana Split War” to telling how the war against the South and the Americans is now being interpreted. One example is a museum at Khe Sanh, where the impression is given that it was a great victory for the North. The nine week battle began with the North sending 20,000 soldiers against 6000 American Marines. Both sides threw in all they had into the battle (the United States dropped over 75,000 tons of ordnance alone). By the time the battle was over, less than 500 Americans died and another 1000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed, a steep lost but nothing compared to 15,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. However, the battle did help turn the tide against the war in the United States. Kramer also tells about the problem of corruption today and how some of the older “communist fighters” are still finding themselves threatened and imprisoned as they attempt to speak out against such practices. Two examples are Mado and Dany. He also tells about problems with prostitution, mentioning a particular German he met who was in the region because of the availability of young victims. That said, he also tells about how the country has rebuilt itself (including the railway that ties Saigon and Hanoi) and about the optimistic outlook its youthful population has for the future.
Overall, this was an easy book to read and gives great insight into a section of the world our country was heavily involved in when I was growing up. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about this part of the world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas cards, lunar eclipse, skiing, carols and other stuff

Here is another old Christmas card, from 1908. This card also has one of the first Christmas Seal (supporting the Red Cross) on it, next to the postage stamp. I don’t see too many Christmas seals today, but a few decades ago, they were pretty popular. I have one more card to show, but I’ll save it for Christmas day. As for myself, I stopped sending out Christmas cards a few years ago and instead send out a long letter with a collage of photographs from the past year. I screen the photos; you never see one with me in a suit or any such thing. The photo of me writing while sitting on the canoe by the edge of the Au Sable River is one such photo for this year’s collage.

The lunar eclipse was eclipsed by clouds. This is the season of gray here in the Great Lakes regions. Mornings have come into being without a single hint of color, just a lightning gray that starts in the east and gradually covers the sky. We see not the sun or the moon, but last night I could tell that the moon was full and bright somewhere beyond the clouds. The best description for this world is in Comac McCarthy’s The Road. Although I love winter, I like it with more sunlight than we get here (I spent too much time out west).

I spent six hours Sunday afternoon and evening skiing with my daughter. She got herself some new racing skis (a great deal at a ski-swap) and I can tell I’m going to be in trouble. She’s fast and I am going to have to tune-up my skis (if not buy new ones) so I can keep up with her. When I got home last night, I could tell my legs aren’t as young as they used to be. My left knee hurt and my right calf had what could only be described as contractions! I’m better and even though I didn’t work out last night, I did play pickle ball.

A few posts ago I told you about my favorite Advent hymns. My favorite Christmas carol is “What Child is This?” The tune, Greensleeves, to which it is set, has been around for centuries (even mentioned by Shakespeare), although the words to the carol wasn’t pinned till the 19th Century. Originally it was an lost-love ballad sung in English pubs.

It looks like we’ll have a white Christmas, not because we’ve had so much snow but because it’s very cold what little we’ve had hasn’t gone anywhere. Christmas Eve will be for church, Christmas day will be for laying around and opening presents and taking naps by the fireplace.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vagabonding (A Travel Tip Thursday post)

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt where we get to write about places we visit and give tips for others. Today, instead of writing about a place, I’m writing about a book, a guide to travel that I recently read in planning for next summer. There are a lot of tips in this book! And I also realized that the clock just stuck midnight and it's no longer Thursday!

Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (New York: Villard, 2003), 203 pages, a few photos
When I came across this book, I was reluctant to buy it. I was afraid it was a how-to book on traveling. Thankfully, I was wrong. This was both an enjoyable book to read, with lots of tips, but it certainly isn’t a how-to book. Potts is well-read and is as much of a philosopher as a travel guru. This book is also more about philosophy than travel. Potts points out at the beginning of the book that if you feel the wanderlust to travel, one needs to have a different attitude on life and on money. He notes how people often think they need lots of money to travel, but points out that’s not the case with vagabonding. Instead of spending lots of money, the vagabond travels slowly, meeting and interacting with people and cultures along the way. Time is as important as money. Many vagabonds work while they travel (Potts started out teaching English in Korea). Others work a few years, living simply and saving, so they can have a period of time to travel. But, as Potts points out, such travel has rewards. If we can handle money differently and utilize what time we all have, we can learn what other people think and how they feel and get to see the world in a fresh way, not through the biases of the news media (who is more interested in getting our attention than accurately reporting the news according to Potts). To travel in such a manner is to gain an education.
Potts writing is sprinkled with quotes of vagabonds: John Muir, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Jesus, Bernard Russell, among many others. He also features and quotes many modern day vagabonds, mostly unknown travelers. Although this is not a “how-to” book, there is much practical advice. When writing about what to carry, he begins by saying (seriously), “as little as possible.” He discusses the good and the bad of guide books (noting that in Vietnam, he’s found the places mentioned in various guides often give the poorest service because they are guaranteed clients just from having been recommended in the guidebooks. He writes about receiving and showing hospitality, about how our preconceived ideas about a place may be wrong or taint our experience, and how we need to take ourselves less seriously. Potts gives insights and tips on how to deal with unfamiliar cultures. He talks about a need for such travel not to be too structured and practical tips about packing (take old and discard along the way) and washing while on the journey. I recommend this book.

A few quotes:

“Travel by its various nature demands simplicity.” (32)

Only a few centuries ago, humility was not een an option for travelers; it was a survival necessity. (112)

“if you can find joy in insults—if you can learn to laugh at what would otherwise have made you angry—the world is indeed ‘all yours’ as a cross-cultural traveler.” (114)

“Cling too fiercely to your ideologies and you’ll miss the subtle realities that politics can’t address. You’ll also miss the chance to learn from people who don’t share your worldview.” (161-162)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Waiting for Christmas

The photo is of a Christmas Card from the early 20th Century... I found the card recently as I went through my old stamp collection. Even a century ago, Christmas was about getting stuff...

Although Christmas still seemed that it was a long ways away, I knew it was coming Christmas when the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived. The mailman delivered it around the time of the World Series. The “Wish Book” as it was known was filled with wondrous toys. My brother, sister and I would spend hours looking and thinking about how we might utilize these toys to bring playing to a new level. Although wonderful, over time I learned that the toys never quite lived up to the promises they made in the glossy colored pages of the catalog.

The next marker that reminded us that Christmas was coming was Thanksgiving. The two days off from school was a like a foretaste of the long Christmas holiday. We stuffed ourselves with good food, like at Christmas, but there were no toys. We’d have to wait another month.

After Thanksgiving, it was as if we were in a prison keeping marks on the wall accounting for the number of days till released. But we didn’t have to literally keep the marks; we just had to look at the newspaper each morning. The Wilmington Star News, the newspaper from my hometown, would start right after Thanksgiving with a little box on the top of the front page showing Santa with a sign indicating how many shopping days we had till Christmas. It was exciting as a child to watch the numbers dwindle down. This was in the age when nothing was open on Sundays, so they excluded that day. You only had six days of shopping a week back then and there weren’t nearly the options as we have today. There was a strip mall with Sears on one end and J. C. Fields on the other, and I think a Roses (a five and dime store) in the middle. There were more options downtown, but that was a big trip. Once, during the holidays, we’d go to Belk Berry’s, generally at night so we could see their lighted Christmas displays in the window, with mannequins that moved. We’d drive through town, looking at the lights on the streets and then out to the Waterworks north of town where the “world’s largest Christmas Tree,” a live oak, was decked out with lights. By this point, the holiday seemed imminent.

Of course, all this was preparation for getting stuff. Then, on Christmas Eve, as the stores closed, we’d go to candlelight service at church and be reminded once again of the reason for the Season.

According to the Christian Calendar, we’re now in Advent. It’s a season of waiting and preparing, of recalling Jesus’ birth and being reminded of his return. It’s a season with some of my favorite hymns. For some weird reason, I find myself drawn to music in minor keys. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel reminds me that change is in the work. But my favorite Advent hymn is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” To hear the tune “Picardy” played on a pipe organ is a blessing, yet haunting as I find myself acknowledging that in the face of such grace, silence may be the best response.

May you have a blessed Advent and a joyous Christmas.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Open Veins of Latin American (A Book Review)

Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Cedric Belfrage, translator (1973, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997) 317 pages.
I read Open Veins of Latin America while traveling to and in Costa Rica. Although Costa Rica is barely mentioned in the book, I ran into Costa Rican pastor who’d read the book and we had an interesting conversation. This book has been on my to-be-read stack for a number of years, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It seemed appropriate to read it now, considering where I was traveling and also because of the book’s newfound fame. At a meeting of American Heads-of-States, Hugo Chavez, the rouge leader of Venezuela, gave a copy to President Obama. When I picked up the book, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the comments on the cover of the book was from Chavez.
Current politics aside, this is an interesting book and a pleasure to read. Galeano is a poet and although this is a translated work, his use of language comes across. This scope of this work is broad, as the author gives us half a millennium economic and political history of a continent. He often tends to view all of Latin America as a whole, which allows him to jump around from one country to another as he lays out his understanding of history and economics. This expanded worldview that crosses borders sometimes created confusion, but his topic is so broad that I’m not sure how else he could have written it without doubling or tripling the number of pages.
The veins of Latin America are the ways the continent has been bleed. Mostly these veins are raw materials (first gold and silver, later agriculture products and labor). He traces the way the continent was robbed of its riches by Spain and Portugal (and how these European powers squander their wealth). He provides an interesting analogy to the United States development, noting that the original colonies were blessed not to have significant wealth and therefore had to struggle to become a viable economy. However, he does note that the antebellum South, with its dependence on slaves, was an economic system closely related to their Southern neighbors. In Latin America, there were many rich places in the 16th and 17th centuries, but when the ore ran out, there was nothing left but a few glorious churches and barren tailing piles. As agriculture became more important, large landowners and foreign powers controlled the land and focused on exporting. Over time, the profit for this labor was transferred to Europe and later to the United States.
In reading this book, I was surprised to learn about wars I’d never heard of. Although he doesn’t mention the Monroe Doctrine when discussing these wars, it’s easy to see how ineffective the doctrine was as European powers (especially Britain) was involved in our southern neighbor’s politics. One war, which reduced Paraguay into an improvised state, was financed by the British who felt threatened by Paraguay’s attempts to compete industrially with Britain in areas like iron and railroads. I’d never heard of this war, which started as the United States’ Civil War was ending. In another war, which is called the War of the Pacific (I think it should be called the Bird-shit War), was over seagull centuries of seagull waste that Britain wanted for fertilizer. Of course, a few decades later, when a scientist learned how to harvest nitrogen from the air, the need for the commodity dried up. Much of Latin American economic history is sadly comic (my term, not Galeano’s). In discussing rubber production, he bemoans how the plants were stolen from Brazil by the British and introduced into Southeast Asia, creating a second market for the product and causing the price to fall. Over and over again, the region saw their competitive advantage slip to other shores.
In the second half of the book, the United States becomes a major player in the economic markets of Latin America. Land laws that would never have been allowed in the United States are forced upon the countries south of the border, giving foreign companies a competitive edge over local enterprises. Galeano notes the close connections between the CIA and the United Fruit Board (113) and points out how much of what Latin America receives as aid is tied to trade deals that keep the region in a subsistence economy. (229) Writing in 1970, he sees free trade and international markets as a dictatorship of the developed world over the undeveloped. (237) He’s also very critical of Latin American leaders and note that the promise of land reform, raised by most politicians, has only led to more concentration of land into the hands of a few. (128)
Galeano gives insight into the brutal revolutions of Latin America, but his book is now 40 years old. Certainly, much of what he writes about is still true (there is probably more poverty today), but there has also been a rise in Latin American companies competing in international markets. Yet, I wouldn’t say the book is out-of-date. He certainly provides a historical and economic overview of Latin America up through the last third of the 20th Century (as well as a primer on trade and capital markets). He writes from a Marxist slant, but the idea that economics plays a role in history should not be so quickly dispatched for its association with Marx. As we learned from Watergate, “follow the money.” Or, as the Bible teaches, “the love of money is root of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). I recommend this book; it provides an insight into our southern neighbors and on how international markets function.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Radical and New Way to Be Human (2 book reviews)

Charlie Peacock, New Way to Be Human: A Provocative Look at What It Means to Follow Jesus (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2004), 237 pages
David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010), 231 pages

I read these two books this fall, back to back. I generally try not to read the same genre back-to-back, but both books were recommended and I was quickly drawn into into their pages.

The first book is by Charlie Peacock, a Christian musician who has written a primer on the Christian faith. What I like about Peacock’s approach is how he lays out “God story” as found in scripture and then encourages us to incorporate our own stories into God’s. He reminds us that like it or not, we all create a story! Peacock criticizes Christians for claiming too much knowledge about God. Instead, we take what we know and use it to frame how we share God’s story and to see how God is active in our lives. Then, out of gratitude, we act. Peacock also talks about how God’s story should help us in our own relationships with others. He’s honest about sin, admitting that there is always something wrong with God’s people on this earth (but that we should get too cozy with the idea). We have to be honest about our short-comings and failures if we want God to help us improve.

My favorite chapter in the book is on imagination and creativity. As an artist, it’s a topic close to Peacock’s heart and he writes about how as creatures, created in God’s image, we’re given the ability to imagine. But, we have to be careful, for though our imaginations can be used for godly work, it can also be misused for sinful desires.

Although he doesn’t call it such, David Platt’s book is a primer against the prosperity gospel. (No, God doesn’t give us riches so we can enjoy and ignore others; such blessings are to be used to help others.) Platt invites his readers to examine their cultural values (that often get mixed up in our own theologies) and to ask the hard questions about what Jesus would really do. At the end of his book, he invites his readers to commit to a one year radical discipleship experiment.

Platt is a Baptist pastor, currently serving a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2005, he was living in New Orleans, where his life was turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina. After losing everything, he and his family had to rebuild. This experience gave them a different outlook on life. Platt also challenges many of the contemporary evangelical tactics (even suggesting the “sinner’s prayer” is superstitious on page 37). His point is that American Christians spend way too much time worrying about individual salvation and never getting around to God’s concerns. Although he doesn’t deny the need of telling others about Christ, he is motivated by the crippling poverty he’s sees around the world and how Christians are so comfortable and affluent in the West and don’t make any serious efforts at helping those in need.

There is much in this book for American Christians to consider and I do recommend it. However, I did take one exception to his motivation. In Chapter 7, he encouraged Christians to get serious with God’s work because if they don’t many are doomed to hell. Jesus never used hell as a motivator for anyone to accept him, but Pratt makes the case that hell should be a motivator for Jesus’ people to evangelize. I can’t buy this big guilt trip. Yes, we’re to do our part to share God’s love, but we’re also to trust that God has others working and that we’re not alone in the struggle. I like how Peacock points to our misguided attempts at evangelism, where we try to save people from hell instead of focusing on life with God. (20)

Both books provide valuable insight into being a follower of Jesus in the 21st Century.

A few quotes:
Peacock on Conversion: “When the ‘personal Savior’ story gets mixed together with individualism and consumerism, a nasty liaison is born. The combination has shaped the lives of men and women into something quite different than what Jesus had in mind when he called the disciples to follow him.” (19)

Platt on Sacrifice: “The challenge is not just to give away excess stuff that you really don’t need anyway. That’s not sacrifice. Sacrifice is giving away what it hurts to give. Sacrifice is not giving according to your ability; it’s giving beyond your ability.” (195)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Pipe Dream (that may come true)

A couple of posts ago I mentioned being given a real gift—a sabbatical to travel and to take a break. After the past couple of years, I am feeling tired, but I get excited when I think about my travel plans… Here they are. They may change and there’s plenty of flexibility in what I hope to do. Although I have 4 months, I’m learning that you can't do everything, even with that much free time!

Starting at the first of June, I take off for a round-the-world trip. Unless there are unforeseen circumstances, I will fulfill this trip without getting in an airplane. My rough itinerary is to take the train to Oakland, California, board a container ship for Japan and then Hong Kong. The photo is of the actual ship that I’m booked on. I’ll get off in Hong Kong and travel inland into China. There are a few things I’d like to see in the South China, the Li River with its funky looking hills along with Tiger Leaping Gorge (which I hope to hike). In July, I will jog down to Haoni (jog metaphorically, on a train) where I hope to meet up with a friend from Utah who has 16 days to travel with me. We’ll take off on a bus for Vientiane, Laos and then find transportation on a long boat upsteam on the Mekong, stopping at nights to sleep in villages. We’ll end the boat trip at Chiang Khong, Thailand. From there, we’ll bum a ride to Chiang Mai, where we’ll board a train to Bangkok. From Bangkok, we’ll go to Ankor Wat, Cambodia, then by boat to Phnom Phen, the bus to Saigon. Somewhere along the way, he’ll have to be getting back to the states, but I’ll continue on north, with a planned stopped in Hue, before going on to Haoni, then on to China, ending in Beijing. After seeing the sights, my plan is to catch the Trans-Siberian for Moscow, taking it through Mongolia. Having never been to Europe, I plan to come in through the back door! From Moscow, I’ll make my way through Europe, meeting my family somewhere along the way. We’ll come back at the end of August on a cruise ship leaving London for Amsterdam, Brussels and Dublin, before heading north for Iceland, then Greenland, then Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and finally New York. From there, I will continue on home via train (having traveled untold number of miles in four months). There will be many things to see along the way, as well as lots of folks to meet, but as cliquish as it sounds, the journey is the destination.


By the way, the photo at the bottom is not the ship I will sail on from Europe. But it’s the same company! When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector and a friend of my mother’s mother gave me a whole bunch of post cards. This one was from 1924. There is still a ship named “Rotterdam,” but it’s a little newer than the one here (but not nearly as graceful as those old steamers).

Monday, December 06, 2010

New Christmas Paradigms (or, No One Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen)

The tree is up, finally. As always, it’s beautiful and there is a railroad running under its branches, but this year, the branches are not real. The tree is fake, a consequence of my daughter having flunked an allergy test. She should have studied harder! On Thanksgiving weekend, we headed to the big city and shopped for trees that won’t make her sick for the holidays. We found a nice 7 ½ foot one at Hobby Lobby, already decked out with white lights. I felt my stars were aligned as it was on sale, two hundred bucks instead of four hundred, but then all the trees seemed to be on sale (but not as much as they are after the holidays, probably because they retail price is double what they think they can get for each tree. So we brought it home and got down to decorating.

This year I planned to start a new railroad. I got out my new train—a 1948 S-Gauge American Flier. It’d belonged to my step-grandfather. My grandmother gave it to me several years ago and I finally got around to getting the replacement pieces and was overjoyed to find that the train still worked. It’s heavy, made of steel, and features a Pennsylvania steam locomotive and a few cars. It also has a working pump car with two Gandy dancers who seemingly carry out the backbreaking work of propelling the vehicle. I was looking forward to having the locomotive pulling a load of cars and chasing the Gandy dancers around my tree. Besides, few people have an antique electric train running around their tree (perhaps because they’re a fire hazard?) and it’d give people something to talk about at holiday gatherings. But, for a reason I’ve yet to discover the locomotive would no longer run like it did when I checked it out. I think I need to rewire the engine as it draws in power from the wheels on the tender and the wires that bring the power to the engine are a bit frayed. Without having the time to take care of that, I got out my HO gauge train.

With Christmas music playing, we went to work on the tree. I can attest, it’s much easier to put up and artificial one and in matter of minutes, the tree was up and straight! Although I love real trees, I was thinking that I won’t have to worry about sap on my train tracks. I plugged it in. It was beautiful. All the lights were on… Well, almost all the lights were one, there was one section of strings in the bottom of the tree. Supposedly, if one light goes out, the whole string isn’t to go out and I was curious as to what had happened. There was a loose wire in the tree. That won’t do, I thought, so another trip was scheduled to the big city to return the tree. Meanwhile, a call was made and we discovered that the store was being overwhelmed with returns of this particular tree. Not a good sign.

Another trip to the big city was made. We returned the tree and began the shopping experience all over again. At Sears, my daughter found one she liked. I agreed, it was pretty even though I have always been a white light person and this tree had multi-colored lights. Also in its favor was the price. It was even cheaper than the Hobby Lobby tree (almost enough to cover the gas expenses for these two trips). I’ll take it,” I said, wanting to be out of the tree procurement business. The saleswoman went to the computer and put the information in and her face went long. According to her records they were out of that tree, but there was one ½ way across the state! That wouldn’t do! My daughter piped up and asked if we could buy the one on the floor (and idea I liked because I could see all the lights were working), and she agreed but said she had no boxes. “I’ll find a box,” I said. I brought the tree and hauled it home and by 9 PM on Thursday night, it was up and my train was running and all was well.

Everyone once in a while, one has to start new traditions. In 53 years of walking on this earth, this is my first artificial tree (I hope Baby Jesus and Santa don’t mind). Also, for the first time as an adult, I have a tree with multi-colored lights. But all is well and I bet I won’t still be vacuuming up needles this July!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Puntarenas, Costa Rica (a Travel Tip Thursday post)

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt by Winds of Change in which you tell about places you’ve traveled and offer tips to those who may find themselves traveling there (or traveling there via your posts). I haven’t made one of these posts in a while, but here is another of my Costa Rica posts…
After church on Sunday, a group of us decided to check out the beach at Puntarenas, about 15 miles west of Esparza. We were warned that the beach and the town wasn’t that nice, something we soon found out. At this point I was enthralled with Costa Rica (I didn’t go to La Caprio until my next to last day). My only complaint had been the clouds hiding the mountains. Perhaps I’d let myself be overwhelmed by the beauty of the country that I wasn’t in the mindset as to what we were getting ourselves into. A group of us got together to go down to the beach. Puntarenas is at the end of a peninsula, between a river and the Pacific Ocean. As we drove out on the narrow strip of land, I could see the remnant of the old San Jose to Puntarenas Railroad. Seeing the missing rails and paved over crossings wasn’t a good sign. Although there were a few old ships in the harbor (along with a new cruise ship that called on the port), the port seemed pretty empty. There was a huge warehouse that had been boarded up and the custom building as empty. The days of hauling trains of bananas and coffee to the port had long past. Much of the produce these days departs on airplanes.

The beach was a mess. It didn’t help that instead of the sand being white, it was nearly black (volcanic sand, I presume). There was a line of trash at the high tide mark. We didn’t feel like going into the water, so we walked around. There were plenty of merchants out and I brought a couple of cigars to try (I didn’t have much money with me, or I’d brought a box of them as the price was right. They were J&T’s, a locally made cigar with tobacco grown in Costa Rica’s highlands. The proprietor admitted that the leaf he used as a wrapper came from Nicaragua, which he thought produced a better quality leaf for wrapping. I also brought a few more gifts to give away. After shopping, we headed to a restaurant where we enjoyed a few beers. Then we went back out to the beach one more time and since there were folks swimming, I decided to try out the water. It felt good on a hot day, but there was a line of trash just beyond the breakers, so after riding a couple of waves, I called it quit.

But there is some good news in all this. On the day we left, after I got tired of watching the only English news channel (Fox or Faux News) as I was packing, which kept talking about the elections, I tuned in to a local station and there was a report from Puntarenas, a camera crew on the beach showing people picking up trash. There were fires burning sticks and lumber, a large front end loader collecting trash and dumping it into trucks and hauling it away. It seems that they have been waiting till the end of the rainy season to clean the beaches up. Since there are several rivers that come out into the sea around Puntarenas, most of the trash is washed out by the rivers and, until the rainy season is over, there is no need to clean it up. That said, they may have started a little too soon as it rained the last two days we were in Costa Rica and the rivers were boiling with muddy water as we drove back to San Jose.

As for my travel trip tip, if you’re in Costa Rica and want to go to the beaches, go to the Eastern Side! There, white sand is the norm! Also, go after the rainy season to make sure the beaches are clean.