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My little church, Saint Raphael, owns a building in a four-plex.  We face south along with a building attached to our side.  Behind us, separated by about 12 feet are two other units, facing north on Ramon Road.  Our building is two-story with worship space, classrooms and restrooms on the bottom floor, and an elevator and stairs lead up to a social hall and kitchen.

In the building behind us you find IVTHC, or Inter Valley Therapeutic Health Center.  They sell “medical” marijuana, which can be done in California.  We have worked out some issues with them, like with any other business, usually regarding parking.   They have added a lot of security lighting on their building, which is also beneficial for us.

After our Parish Council meeting this morning I went over to tell Bill, their manager, that our Council agreed that if they install extra lighting onto our building, they can connect it to our electric and we will pay the monthly charges, which they had proposed to us earlier.  Bill told me that the vacant building next to us has now been sold and some kind of construction office is moving in, and the people are really nasty.  So this is interesting: that the church is Christian enough toward them that they know me by name!  But the construction office is nasty!

During our Easter week when something came up, I had Bill come over to see inside our building, where preparations with flowers and food was taking place.  It didn’t take much insight to see that Bill was a bit amazed at the quiet and reverent space that existed next door to their business.  Our friendliness paid off once already when their night security patrol found one of our outside doors inadvertently left unlocked and took care of it!

As we observe Mother’s Day tomorrow, it is a good time to reflect on how the mother of Jesus quietly fulfilled her role in history.  Mary is a perfect example of how one person can have a great influence on those around them, not by being pushy, angry, picketing a business that we don’t like, or being “holier than thou” but by just treating others like we would like to be treated.  Mary was Mary and accepted her role.  Churches can do the same, even when you find yourself next to a marijuana store.  Like you don’t need to be a theologian to figure that out!

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IPods and Life

Today is a beautiful spring day that I enjoyed by driving back across the desert from my brother’s in Phoenix to home in Palm Springs, about a four hour journey.  Some parts of the desert are a little green from winter rain and the air was clear enough that I could see the snow on our mountain from 75 miles out!  The desert has a certain beauty but my favorite desert plants are the saguaro cactus, which are unique to this desert.  Some live to be 100 years old and can reach 15 feet or more.  Small desert birds drill holes between the needles and make them into homes, where their eggs are safe from snakes or larger birds.

I had cancelled my satellite radio as an unnecessary luxury, since I only do long distance driving a couple times a year, and I listened to my IPod which plugs into my system media which I don’t usually use around town.  I have about 300 pieces on the old thing.  About half way home I realized that I was feeling this great peace about life and the world.  Maybe that was because I skipped the morning news!  Then I started to think about what my music collection was telling me!  It was kind of like, “This is your life!”

I smiled as the magnificent variety poured out.  Vera Lynn that I don’t actually remember because she sang during World War II and I was just born then!  Ah, Patsy Cline and John Denver from Army days in Germany.  Abba and Elton John from the crazy years in the 70’s.  Barbara Cook, Etta James and Muddy Waters, cause my tastes were “growing up.”  James Dupree and Harry Connick, Jr. because I was mellowing out. Capella Romana doing Russian Orthodox and then the Gaithers, lifting eyes heavenward.   Westlife because I like to hear the words to a song!  So there it is: one’s life history on their IPod!

I’m not exactly sure who to add next.  At 72 years old, perhaps “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” from the Orthodox liturgy, or “Nearer My God to Thee” from the movie Titanic? 🙂  Its nice to be mellow about one’s life, even though it was kind of like living 10 lives in different places.  And I don’t feel like this one is my theme song, “Is That All There Is?” by Frank Sinatra.  There’s always something to be grateful for!

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Sunsets and Cemeteries

It may seem odd to the reader that a blog entry is about the end of life.  However, if one deals with their end, it is easier to get a grasp on the speed with which life moves and to make the best of it while it is speeding along.

Our town had a population of only 2,000 but its cemetery has five thousand of its former citizens resting within its black iron fences.  The cemetery dominates Church Street, halfway between the hundred-year old brick Presbyterian Church and the Nickel Plate Railroad.  The main funeral home is just north of the cemetery, so funeral processions are short and don’t obstruct the traffic up on Main Street.

Back when we were children we used the cemetery as if it were a unique park.  We were always respectful while playing there, avoiding stepping on the mounds that marked final resting places.  We knew where all the unusual monuments were located.  One huge, white monument was made of marble and was hollow.  The young and the brave would shout through the small grate on the end and feign terror as they heard Satan echo back from Hades.  Near the main gate was a cast memorial of a beagle.  The hound sat in a captain’s chair, his head worn smooth from the pats of children’s hands.

The old folks in town still say Decoration Day when referring to Memorial Day.  And decorate they do!  Small flags are placed on the veterans’ graves, while cut flowers and geraniums are used as remembrances for family or friend.  The town’s holiday parades always terminated at the pointed monolith erected by the wealthy Culbertson family.  Here some politician would deliver a short, but rousing, speech.  Ten old vets from the American Legion would fire a salute with their M-1 rifles.  The roar of the rifles and the pungent odor of gun smoke sent visions through our heads of John Wayne charging up Iwo Jima beach.  Respectfully we would listen to the haunting bugler, sounding taps for those resting beneath the flags.  Then we would scramble for the empty cartridges.

The cemetery was landscaped with a variety of ancient trees, but was dominated by tall, old hemlocks.  Some of those erect and proud trees reminded me of the guards at Arlington.  These green soldiers performed their guard duty well during the Halloween season.  The wind moaned when it passed through their branches, and the moon cast ominous and eerie shadows on the ground beneath their limbs.  This kept vandalism at a minimum.

Autumn was the kid’s favorite season.  Back in the older section were a number of horse chestnut trees.  Their inedible brown nuts were fashioned into long necklaces to be worn on Halloween.  Early winter would soon roll around and the cemetery would be abandoned to the squirrels for a short time.  When snow fell, however, the gang was back because the best hill in town for sledding rose in back of the cemetery.  We whooshed bright eyed and bushytailed close to those icy white marble monuments in our winter playground.  We were usually silent when passing through in winter.  The ominous silence of a forest of stone markers and the snowy whiteness of death overcame our exuberance as we headed for an afternoon of merriment.

So I will be satisfied with a nice pine box here, since it will be empty on That Day anyhow. But on returning to this earlier playground, I received a new message from those trees and monuments.  They now seemed to whisper, “We watched you laugh and play here; we’ve observed you grieve beneath our ancient arms.  We’ll guard you someday when you rest here.”  Then the pines and maples arched their backs as though having a good laugh.  The granite and marble teeth grinned at me like a Chesire cat, mocking and hissing, “Mortal, mortal, mortal.”  The old cemetery was teaching another lesson.

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About 1989 our church in Covina received a call from a local couple about their son who of necessity was moving back with them from Seattle.  Brent had contracted HIV and was in a mid-stage of AIDS, at the time incurable.  Brent was about 29 years old and had grown up in a conservative church family.  From the short story we got from the mother, he had become involved with another man in Seattle who had recently died from the same plague.  Much of Brent’s health problem, for example his devastated liver, was caused by a long indulgence in crystal meth.

Brent’s family was rightly concerned that their alienated son would be living in this rather tight community without friends nor other relatives, unable to work, lacking transportation and purpose.  Our church had been his family’s when he was very young and they hoped that we could take him under our wing, providing friendships and perhaps some spiritual guidance.  The assistant pastor and I agreed to meet with Brent and his parents when he arrived.

Brent was a bit emaciated and obviously in a fragile health situation.  His gums showed signs of being severely irritated.  Being a bit flighty and excitable, he was a portrait of someone that would tire you out just listening to him!  But he was also likeable.  He laughed at everything and always had a line of baloney to hand out in conversation.  Brent began to attend church and participate just as though he had only left weeks instead of years ago.  Singing was something he loved and in casual Sunday evening services he would do some special singing with some of the other church talent.

Over the next few months Brent was in and out of the hospital fairly regularly.  Often he would receive a blood transfusion as there was little else that medicine could provide for his health in 1989.  Somehow he always maintained a determination to fight off this virus that had overwhelmed his system.  The toll also began to show on his fairly elderly parents as they dealt with one emergency after another, Brent’s many physical and emotional needs and the disturbing knowledge that soon this would all crash down around them.  Brent raised the congregation’s knowledge about the AIDS crisis and the struggles encountered by those who were being faced with the cemetery long before they could enjoy an average lifespan.  During this time we found a few others who were living with the same challenge and actually had a rather informal support group for them.  Dealing with such a misunderstood and politically charged disease, accompanied by a few funerals, was a bit more than many of us were able to handle emotionally or spiritually.  We weren’t monks or saints, we just tried to react in a decent and humane manner with what we hoped would soon be a thing of the past.

Making a Difficult Decision

During this time I had sold a condo that had been owned by a friend and I when he moved away.  I was meanwhile renting an apartment.  The economy wasn’t the best and the condo I owned and rented in the desert was rented too seldom to be financially viable.  Instead of giving it up, I decided I would move there and commute up to my work a couple times a week, and use motels on some evenings, which was still better than paying the mortgage on an empty condo.

Simultaneously, Brent’s mother was told by her doctors that she could no longer handle the stress of having her ill son in the same house and that he would need to move out.  I was about to move and couldn’t think of anyone I would less want to have living with me than Brent.  After a long discussion about alternatives with our pastor, and against my better judgment, we didn’t see any alternatives other than having Brent move to the desert with me, at least for right now.  With all his health problems, it was a major concern about how he would handle being there by himself when I was away working.  It was truly one of those times when you just figure that in spite of the feeling of an impending disaster, it was in God’s hands and the mess had been dumped on my plate.

I put my stuff in storage, as the desert condo was furnished at the time.  Brent and I visited a friend who  had us over for some greasy pizza, and we headed out on the 80 mile drive into our murky future.  We got our clothes into the place, watched a little TV and hit the sack.  Someplace in the middle of the night I was awakened by a pounding on the wall and heard Brent calling.  I jumped up and went to his room in time to find him throwing up into a waste basket.  Remember that at this time it was still a bit of a mystery about how one would contract the HIV virus, so everyone was just extra careful around infected persons.  Brent got cleaned up a bit and we sat in the living room for a while.  He enjoyed watching this ridiculous woman with the big hair on the 24 hour Christian television channel, so we watched her carry on for awhile.  When he felt better we went back to bed.

In the morning we started to figure out what we needed in the way of groceries, Tums, etc.  Brent had also called his doctor to get a prescription for some stomach medication.  While I was pulling things together and he sat on the sofa watching TV, at one point I came out of my room and saw Brent in some kind of seizure.  I called 911, realized that he was in major trauma, ran to the neighbor’s to have him meet the ambulance and within minutes help had arrived.  I of course warned them about his HIV status.  He was loaded on a gurney, wheeled down the sidewalk and away.  Medics advised me they were going to Desert Hospital and where that was located.

I phoned Brent’s parents and our church.  The church told me that our pastor and assistant pastor were actually also down in the desert at the same hospital, where one of our members had been admitted overnight with chest pains while at a conference.  On arrival at Desert Hospital the emergency room staff told me that Brent had arrived already deceased.  They asked if I wanted to see him and I declined.  I wanted to remember him as he was.  I went upstairs to where my church leadership was doing their contact, advised them of what had transpired and we all stood there a bit dumfounded about how quickly this journey had come to a conclusion.

I had learned that sometimes when one thinks they are about to step off a cliff, it is useless to consider whether flying lessons are needed, the good Lord will either pick you up when you crash or teach you how to fly without wings.  You either trust yourself to Providence or you run away.  Brent was one in a million and will be long remembered.

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Throughout American history the interplay of religion and politics has been quite interesting.  President Jefferson had a Bible in which he carefully cut out any references to the miracles of Jesus.  President Carter was a Baptist Sunday school teacher but turned out to be one of the worst presidents we ever had.  Bill Clinton was not exactly Mother Teresa in his personal life but was able to govern and work with the other party with some success, especially when compared to the chaos of the Obama regime.  So how should we consider the importance of religious belief in a candidate?

In a nation of religious freedom and with no religous qualifications when one runs for office, what are the interesting issues that arise?  Religious issues can cause some confusion and concern, as we saw when John F. Kennedy became our first Catholic president.  Some non-Catholics wondered if he would be influenced by the Vatican!  As it turned out in his short time in office there were few or no religious issues raised.  But some were almost relieved when a good Baptist like Lyndon Johnson took over, though his language resembled Navy seamen and their cussing rather than a good Southern church boy.  But it always seemed that in spite of one’s personal faith walk, as long as the office holder fell within the general description of Christianity, their church of choice was ignored.

This became a bit more complicated when a candidate is outside mainstream Christian circles.  In the last part of the 19th Century new religious groups were born, including Latter Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.  Right at the turn of the 20th Century the new phenomena of Pentecostalism was also rising.  When it comes to looking at the long range history of faith groups, these are relatively young and thus must deal with some misunderstanding and mistrust.  So when an adherent of one of the above decides to run for office, how should we judge their abilities and how their faith and beliefs would influence their decisions and manner of governing?

Jehovah Witnesses would not be trusted with keeping a strong military, and there would be some questions with Seventh Day Adventists on that issue.  Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists might give extra attention to the general health of the citizenry. I realize that there are probably pages of thoughts that could be written about how these groups or even Pentecostals in office would handle the reins of government.  Remember when Pat Robertson wanted to run, folks really didn’t trust his tendency to prophesy.

These are important issues as we now obviously have a Mormon candidate in Mitt Romney.  Most Americans have limited knowledge of these folks, other than “they are hard workers, well educated, have a great choir in Salt Lake City, and they don’t smoke or drink alcohol.”  A couple of their basic tenets might indicate how one would govern:  first that the United States of America was founded by the grace of God for the well being of the world, and also, that human intelligence is the glory of God.  Most of we outsiders recognize that they are hard working, revere strong families and personal morality, desire being contributing members of society, and working with integrity in whatever one does.  To those goals, education, training and self improvement are held in high esteem.  They practice what they preach when it comes to helping others and being Christ-like in that they have an enormous program of serving the poorer among them rather than depending on government for welfare.

Perhaps we should examine Utah before making a judgment on how a Mormon might govern, since 60% of the citizens that state are affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Utah granted full voting rights to women 27 years before becoming a state, thus well ahead of the nation as a whole.  Utah lately has been the fastest growing state in the country, friendly to business, having low crime rates and clean air and water.  Non-Mormons that live there reportedly can feel intimidated and a bit isolated in a neighborhood or town where they are a religious minority, but it is also obvious that non-Mormons are elected to office as well.  Notable Mormons recently have been founders of Jet Blue airlines, Marriott Hotels, Dell Computers, and in education: Dean of the Harvard School of Business.

Undoubtedly in a nasty election upcoming, there will be subtle issues put forward that will engender mistrust in a Mormon candidate.  This has already begun with assertions that Republicans are somehow anti-women, which arose after discussions of birth control during primaries.  And of course with the birth rate 25% higher in Utah than in the country as a whole, some will label Romney and his church as being “just old-fashioned” period.  So here we have five and a half million Americans who participate fully in American life.  Should they have a shot for one of their own at the Presidency?  I would think the rest of us Americans should at least investigate enough to make a fair and intelligent decision on that question.

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The accumulation of Life Drama over one’s years sometimes directs us to look for the big dramatic news.  So events like President Kennedy being shot, men landing on the moon, Princess Diana’s accidental death or 9-11, drive us to look at CNN.COM in the morning, wondering if we bombed Iran overnight and started a big mess.  However, often the drama in the human community is played out in places like a Starbuck’s patio at 9 AM.

Today at Starbucks, I first observed a 50ish black lady with her grocery cart saunter up to the curb and start to rummage through some trash cans, looking for discarded bottles and aluminum.  She was not like the scroungy homeless folks we often see but rather had on a very clean outfit that looked like the things that lab techs wear.  A floppy sun hat shaded her wrinkled and smiling face.  Even her cart indicated that she wasn’t down and out, she was ready to survive and enjoy doing it.  The cart had plastic flowers stuck on top of her accumulation and a bright yellow plastic pinwheel spinning in the morning desert breeze.

She energetically stomped flat some plastic bottles and began to bag them up, oblivious to the customers observing her efforts.  I like survivor types who don’t sit around waiting for a handout.  I trotted over and asked if she would like a morning coffee and muffin.  Graciously she declined, noting that she already had breakfast.  Soon she rolled on down the street to find another treasure trove.

After I worked some more on my morning crossword puzzle I noticed another customer sitting there in the warm sun.  This white lady was super-sized-chunky for lack of a nicer term.  Instead of a latte, she was slurping down a regular can of Coke!  Over the next twenty minutes I think she sucked on a least three cigarets, in spite of signs that ask folks not to smoke on the patio.  Coke and cigarets for breakfast!  Isn’t that kind of like suicide?  I had to wonder what drove the one woman to survival and the other to a slow suicide.  Since I had stuck my nose into the survivor’s world by offering a little AM java, why didn’t I offer the second lady some advice, like “give it up” or something.  But we want to be polite instead of confrontational don’t we.  So is being “nice” better when the second lady maybe needed a jolt of reality that isn’t the jolt sold in a can of Coke? Tough questions for 9 AM but I might have missed all that if we had bombed Iran overnight.

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Nickel and Dime ya

When I began working for an airline in 1959, we only had First Class, Coach and then cocktails for sale on board!  Traveling today from Erie, PA to Cleveland, to Los Angeles and ending up in Palm Springs I got to see the new “Nickel and Dime service” in action.  First, you get to pay $25 to check your bag.  Us folks that take too much baggage or are too lazy or old to drag a bag to the gate cough it up.  It’s painless, just stick your credit card in the slot and when you get an agent in front of you, your bag tag pops out and they just send your old suitcase down to security.

When you board if you find that your legs cannot squeeze into the leg room you have, not to worry.  If there are seats open further up in coach that have more leg room, you can upgrade for $15!  Do NOT try to sneak up there into open seats or you will feel the wrath of a fairly ancient flight attendant!  So your card gets into the slot again.

On board you can watch TV and movies.  Just stick your credit card in the slot (again) on the seat back in front of you.  $7.95 for flights over 3.5 hours.  No popcorn with that.  Ah, dinner time and you get a choice of snack boxes anywhere from $4 to $8.  The more expensive box gets you three cheeses you can’t pronounce and lots of crackers and a candy bar.  The cheaper one is cheese and crackers.  The flight attendant just sticks your card in a portable ATM slot that she carries down the aisle.  Don’t accept cash anymore!

But also there were boxed meals you could buy.  Turkey wrap for $7.95 and three other choices at $5.95.  Coke and coffee were free today, but if you wanted to drink something stronger to help you nap and forget the extra charges, you might like a Margarita for $7 or a Trader Vic Mai Tai for $9, or house wines for $7.  For the heavy drinkers there were ten choices of brand name liquors for $7.  You get those in cutsie little bottles that you can take home to remember your flight.  If you have two or three of those you might only remember being rolled off the plane in a wheelchair.  The wheelchairs are free but you need to tip the skycap.  Pretty soon we’re talking real money here.  Maybe Mr. Obama can do something about this.

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