Sunday, April 20, 2008

Book Review: Through the Outhouse Floor

Here's a thought experiment for you.

What if Garrison Keillor and Erma Bombeck had a daughter, married her off to a former Navy Submariner, and sent them both to Africa to translate the Bible into a language that until recently had no written tradition?

You might wind up with a book as honest, compelling, and moving as Through the Outhouse Floor by Barbara Thomas.

In the preface of her charming memoir of a missionary family's life among the Komo people of Zaire, Thomas relates a conversation that informs the tone of all that follows. Soon after her arrival in Africa, she commiserated with a more experienced missionary about the inadequate preparation she had received for the difficulties of her new life. "Why didn't they tell us what it's really like?" The answer was that writing about the daily difficulties and anxieties of life in the mission field had always been considered an unseemly sign of weakness - an admission of human failings among people whose ministry can at times seem something more than human to those of us who choose to stay home in the land of iPods and liposuction. It has not been considered "fashionable" to talk about such mundane details.

Ms. Thomas' writing fills the void with rigorous honesty. She and her husband Paul both discerned a call to mission work early in their lives - before they had even met they wanted to carry the Gospel overseas. Once they were wed, they began the long preparation for work as linguists in Africa - translating the Bible into Komo.

This is a self-portrait without pretense. In their home, a case of Malaria is as common as a head-cold. She and her family are tormented by insects, bullies, international conflicts and local bureaucrats. Privacy seems non-existent. Surprise visitors appear in the windows, stroll through the front door, and invite themselves along on bone-jarring journeys over (usually) impassable roads. Komo hospitality is far less reserved than the kind practiced in the American Midwest of her youth, and Thomas is candid about resenting the imposition. At times she can appear to be peevish or even downright selfish.

Much of this modest author's power comes from her willingness to share her own flaws. That candor about the flesh's weakness helps us to trust her when she turns her attention to the spirit's strength.

But don't let the hardships fool you - this is a very funny book (its title comes from an anecdote about a decaying privy, after all.) In one scene after many years in the forest, she explains to her queasy visiting mother-in-law that the fat caterpillars her son has carried into the house taste just like lobster if you cook them right. In another, she and her husband, Paul share a romantic stroll under the setting African sun. In their hands they carry pails to collect dung for their garden. After a chilling night when Paul awakens to discover a burglar reaching through their bedroom window to steal their short-wave radio, the family acquires a fiercely protective German Shepherd and quite publicly names him Nkoki Bakukuba - "Biter of Thieves".

Through all these events, Thomas trusts in God's plan for her family and for the village of Lubutu that comes to be their home. She sees herself as a sort of a pioneer housewife quietly going about the business of raising a family while her husband does the important work of translating and preaching the gospel.

She says that she is writing to give people a realistic picture of the difficulties missionaries face and she succeeds, but her book shows us much more than that. Through the Outhouse Floor is a love story. Barbara Thomas loves her family. She loves the African people, and she loves God. She writes about love without sentiment and without lyricism, and in so doing takes us on an open-eyed journey of personal sacrifice and transformation that opens the mind, softens the heart, and gives the laugh muscles a good long workout.

As a 21st century liberal Christian, I am philosophically uncomfortable about missionaries. In a way, the entire enterprise smacks of paternal colonialism. Is is appropriate for the western church - so plagued by it's own deep flaws - to set about exporting our religion to other parts of the world? What makes our culture so superior to the ones we seek to transform?

Thomas leaves such theoretical meanderings to folks like me with nothing better to do. She is busy being a mother, wife, friend, neighbor, and citizen in a community where she is the only white woman for miles. She tends her garden, teaches her children, and comes to love and admire the Komo people whom God has called her to serve.

She sets out to be a missionary to the people of Zaire, and winds up being their sister in Christ. Now that's a mission even this left wing nut can get behind.


Monday, February 11, 2008

That There Should Be No Divisions

Part of the epistle reading for today from the Daily Office:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
(I Corinthians 1:4-10)
Paul was writing about factions in the church at Corinth, but he could just as easily been writing about himself, or about me, for that matter.

Paul knew what it was like to be enriched by God - blessed with spiritual gifts. Only a man of faithful righteousness, blessed with gifts of leadership and administration would have been entrusted with the mission that sent Paul to Damascus. When Jesus confronted him on the road, Paul must have felt like he had been split in two. His encounter with the risen Christ challenged everything he believed to be true about God. It took years for him to restore the unity of his own spiritual mind and purpose.

Paul's experience is not unlike my own. I often find myself divided - of two minds. On the one hand / on the other hand. It is important to consider carefully, I believe that is the reason God gives us choices and the free intellect and will to make them. And having considered, it is also important to choose. God does not desire that we should live life divided, but rather that we seek unity within ourselves, among our neighbors, and with our Creator.

Paul's preamble to the great letter to the Church at Corinth has at last brought me to the focus of my Lenten devotion: Stewardship.

I have been blessed with many gifts from God. I have a mind. I have a home. I have a body, a family, clothes to wear, animals to care for. My employer has entrusted me with responsibilities that affect many of the people with whom I work. I have a community and relationships that offer me opportunities to grow and to love.

I am a steward of all of these things, and I confess that my stewardship has been lacking. I have chosen to neglect those things of which I ought to be mindful. I have been faithful to my favorite television programs, and left the the gifts God has given me uncared for.

My Lenten discipline will be to seek out and nourish the gifts I have been entrusted with. I will continue the work of restoring my body. I will reach out to the people I love whose lives I have ignored. I will restore order to my property and my house to make them a testimony to my gratitude and a sanctuary of peace for the people God sends to visit here.

And I will seek guidance and insight as I pursue this discipline in the Holy Scriptures, the word of God.

I'm not sure if that constitutes giving anything up for Lent. Maybe I'm s giving up my unconsidered life. My lent will be a time of stewardship - of caring for and intentionally restoring unity.

Here on Pennsyltuckian I will hold myself accountable to you and to God. And we will walk the road toward Easter together.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Holy Lent

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
(Book of Common Prayer, Liturgy for Ash Wednesday)

My dear friend Deb, who is a Jew once observed, "I never know what to say to someone on Ash Wednesday. 'Happy Lent' just seems wrong." Many Christians find the season just as baffling.

The forty day fast first appears very early in the Biblical narrative, in the story of Noah.
Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.
(Genesis 7:4)
Moses was on Sinai for forty days. Goliath's torment of Israel. Goliath tormented Israel forty days. Elijah's journey to Horeb, and Jonah's prophecy to Nineveh both took forty days. So Jesus had plenty of precedent when he went into the wilderness to do battle with the devil.

Our Lenten journey commemorates Jesus time in the wilderness, but liturgically, it also calls us to remember the long road to Jerusalem, Golgatha, and the empty tomb of Easter morning. The Lenten prayer commands us to turn our hearts toward three things, Repentance, Fasting, and God's holy word.

To repent means to change direction. We confess that the direction we are headed is not where we want to go, and we turn and to walk another way.

To fast is to say "no" to our own desires - to deny ourselves that which stands between us and God.

To read and meditate on God's holy word is a double discipline. First we take the time to open the Bible and stick our noses inside. Then we take the time to digest the words God gives us.

So giving up beer and chocolate for a few weeks really doesn't cut it.

A friend of mine has pointed out that the Lenten discipline is nothing more than the rule of life for a Christian. Ideally, we would spend every day of our lives in repentance, self-denial, and meditation of the word, but there are no ideal Christians. So we have this special season designed to remind us who we ought to be and how we ought to live. Each of us is on the road to Calvary and the empty tomb. In making a Holy Lent, we remember that every step of the journey is important. We are not only walking toward celophane grass and colored eggs - we are walking beside Jesus who choses to accompany us on our trip from life to death and resurrection.

Pennsy therefore invites you, beloved reader, to a Holy Lent. May you consider your life's direction, turn from the false idol of self-gratification, and seek your God and yourself in the Holy scriptures.

Don't be afraid. We will walk the road together.

And Jesus will walk with us both.


Thursday, January 31, 2008

A father's blessing

Twelve years ago this weekend, we buried my father.

He was unlike any man I have ever known. My father poured himself out like a sacrifice for his family, his church, his community. He worked two jobs, three jobs for years. All the while he was a scoutmaster, a church elder, a devoted father, a faithful son, a committed husband. I can say now, though I could not have said it then, that my father was not perfect. He had secrets and flaws - private blemishes. I have learned a lot about blemishes in my own life. I don't hold them against him.

Dad loved Pennsylvania. He would pack us into our Dodge van and pack off to pitch a tent in the woods to hear the sound of the forest at night -not a sound we heard alot in Pittsburgh. He taught us to fish, we would motor out on the foggy face of a lake as the sun rose and the herons preened in the shallows. We caught some fish, but the time we spent on the water with my father was worth more than any treasure we could have pulled out of that lake.

We were Steeler fans. He was not insane over the Steelers, but he was a patriotic Pittsburgher and loved the team out of a sense of honor. He was alive when our city really was, as a nineteenth century wag once quipped, "Hell with the lid off." We grew up watching comedians on our little black and white television using our home as a punchline. There was plenty to be proud of in our smoky town, but the world didn't know it - not until Franco Harris plucked that deflected pass out of the air on that chilly winter afternoon. Suddenly there was something about Pittsburgh that wasn't funny at all. We had always been proud, now the world could see some of the reasons. A team of black men and white men, Italians, Poles, Irish, Rednecks, Scholars - as diverse and tough as the city whose name they claimed spent a decade claiming a piece of history, even as the steel industry collapsed around us. Those of us who lived through that time know what a football team can mean to a community.

Once the 'Seventies were over, we waited a long time for the Steelers to make it back to the big game. The 1996 team was a powerhouse, but in order to claim that "one for the thumb" they would have to beat the great dynasty of that decade. We wanted to believe that the Cowboys could be had, but in our hearts, we had our doubts.

The afternoon of the game, I talked with my Dad on the phone. He had survived a heart attack the year before. Years of too many jobs, too many midnight bowls of ice cream and too many cigarettes had taken their toll. He was scheduled to go into the hospital the next morning for a procedure whose name I don't remember. We talked about how things were going. I asked how he was feeling. "Frankly, I feel like Hell." It wasn't the kind of thing he would say. The year of living with his own mortality had worn him down in a lot of ways. Projects went unfinished. He grew increasingly quiet and sad. The burdens of a lifetime - burdens he had heroically carried for years - were breaking his weak heart.

We talked about the game. Both of us had concerns, but we were confident that Our Team could beat the odds. As game time approached, we wrapped things up. Saying goodbye was always a little clumsy for us. Dad was not an "I love you" kind of guy. For years I had tried to wheedle one out of him. We would hug goodbye and I would whisper "I love you, Dad." Sometimes he would say "I love you, too." but it always felt as if I had cornered him. After a while, I stopped playing the game. I knew he loved me. I could hear it in his voice when we spent time together on my rare trips back home. I said goodbye and was about to hang up, when he said it...

"God bless you."

My father had never, ever said that to me. He was not being casual. He was giving me his blessing.

The Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX, obscenely. I don't remember much about the game. I remember my Dad's blessing. And I remember the nest night when I cam home from work. My sister had called. Dad's procedure had not gone well. By nine o'clock my father was dead.

We buried him under the snowy Pennsylvania mountains that he loved. It is a beautiful spot with a view of the valley and the smell of pine trees and hardwood all around. The last time I was up there, I saw deer tracks in the snow around his grave. He would love it. I go there every once in a while to catch him up with my life. I have carried his blessing through some rough times, but it stays with me intact. And when we say goodbye, I always tell him I love him. It's ok. He doesn't feel any pressure to respond. And somehow I think saying it doesn't bother him so much any more.

God bless you, Dad.

I love you.



The icon of St Joseph and Jesus is from Bridge Building Images.

Our favorite lake, Pymatuning.

Smoke over Three Rivers is from the web site of GASP, the Group Against Smog & Pollution. They've been fighting to clean up the 'Burgh since Joe Greene was a rookie.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

We need your best, not just the best you can do

This is a post I've had rattling around my imagination for a while. If you're following Fat Man Running , then you know that I have made some changes in my life -- changes that I hope will become permanent. The idea in my title is one of the things that I hope will keep my commitment alive.
Mrs P and I were sniping back and forth a few days ago - (yes, sniping can strike even the best of families) - and I was griping about the way she will complain about a thing like a pain or an old glasses prescription for months without doing anything about it. This makes me nuts.

Before I go on, I should tell you that there are two important parts of this argument. First, I was absolutely right. She does do that and it does make me crazy. Second, I do the same d@mn thing which makes me pretty vulnerable when I try to call her on it.

I resolved this conflict in classic American Male style by making it as forcefully and as loudly as I could. The advantage here is that my Bride can't get a word in edgewise - the disadvantage is that I will invariably say something so incredibly stupid that it dwarfs the original offense. Here's how I think it went...

"Why didn't you take care of X last summer when it started bothering you?"

"There were other things to worry about."

"Like what? What could be more important that X?"

"The cats needed meds, Molly needed tests, I was looking for a job, we were trying to sell that old car, your depression was getting worse..."

"But don't you see how dealing with this back then would have made all those things easier? You act like everyone else is more important that you are."

"Well, they are."

"Well, we need you. We need you with X. You're no good to us without X. We need you at your best, not the best you have at the time."

OK, if you have lived with someone for any length of time, you know that the only part of that last line that anyone hears is the part about "you're no good to us without X". That was a really stupid thing for me to say because a) it is not true, and b) it obscured the actual insight that I managed to squeeze out at the end.

Doing your best is just not good enough. Not when the best you have is a sliver of what it could be if you were a better steward of your own life.

I know that your house was decimated by last night's storm and you need help cleaning up, but years of cynicism and personal neglect have made me a lazy, unpleasant person who would do more complaining than working, so I'll stay home and pray for you. I wish I could do more, but that's the best I can do.

That might be honest, but it is worthless to your neighbor and to God.

I would love to tithe to support the church or the poor or the Children's Museum or whatever, but I have piled up so much credit card debt that nearly every penny is accounted for. I wish I could give more, but this is the best I can do.

Yeah, right. Look - if Mrs P needs me and I'm confined to my room because I stopped taking my meds or I've drunk myself into such a state that I can't stand up - rolling over and moaning, "I'm sorry Baby, I love you." isn't giving her my best. She isn't getting anything. I will have wasted the strength and health and intelligence that God gave me so I could be her partner. Those parts of me that should have belonged to her, I have chosen to spend elsewhere.

When she needs my best, I won't have it. All I'll have is what's left -- the remnant I call "the best I can do".

Well I don't want her to have to settle for the best of what's left of me. When my wife needs a husband, I want her to have my best. When the people I manage need a leader, I want them to have the best leader I can be. I want my employer to have my best, not just the best parts that I didn't trade for a few bottles of Rolling Rock the night before. I want the animals who rely on me to have my best. My neighbors, my community, my family - if I really value these people, I will make sure that when they need me, they will get the best God gave me -- not just the best of the parts that I haven't used myself.

So that's why I'm going to the gym. Not so I can "treat myself better", but so that when someone needs the best from me, I will be able to give it.

The life God gave me was a gift. The way I've treated that life has been a sin in many ways. I live today under judgment as a consequence of that sin -- but sin always hurts more than just the sinner. People need me to be better than I am today. My loss is their loss too.

When I eat something stupid or don't drink my water or skip stretches or stay up too late, then I can't walk as far or as fast on the treadmill as I need to. When I hit the red "stop" button while gasping for air, my lungs burning and my chest pounding after half a workout - I haven't "given it my best." I gave my best to David Letterman or Krispy Kreme. The gym just got what was left over.

Jesus' life requires more of me than the best that's left. If I want to be a Christ-like husband, neighbor, citizen, and friend, then I need to be ready to give the best just as Jesus always was.

Jesus went off by himself to pray. I go to the gym. I learn new computer programs. I listen to tapes and pick the brains of successful managers who have more experience and wisdom than I do. I put down the laptop and actually pay attention to my wife once in a while. The road to my redemption is paved by doing the work of restoring the best I can be.


Here's an intriguing post from Paul M. Jones on why "Do Your Best" is such a lousy way to manage people.

And Joe McCarthy out pennsy's Pennsy with this existential musing about doing your best vs. trying to do your best (among other things.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fat Man Running - the adventure begins

Today I am beginning a new blog project I'm calling Fat Man Running. I have avoided posts about myself because ... oh, I don't know. Maybe I just want to feel important and smart. It's easier to be cosmic than to be real.

Anyway, I've decided to break that policy in order to journal an adventure that I hope will last for the rest of my life. Mrs Pennsy and I joined a gym yesterday.

Let me put this into perspective - I am 47 years old, 6'-4" tall and weigh 374 lbs. That's a body mass index of 45.5. That number is not an accident. It is a consequence of a lifetime of choices - some good, mostly bad. A lot of destructive habits produced this body, and I sort of hope I can change the results by changing my behavior.

I will still bloviate about God, the Universe and All That in this space. My relationship with my Creator is one of the primary reasons I have started off on this adventure. I'd sort of like to be able to tell God that I did something with the healthy, strong body I was blessed with besides filling it with chocolate and potato chips.

Actually, there are several things I'd like to be able to do. I'd like to live long enough to retire, for example.

So off I go. Maybe my story will inspire someone else, as I have been inspired. I certainly hope that by putting myself "out there" I can develop a sense of accountability to someone - even if no one else reads. I really want to succeed this time.


1/13/08, Rainy & Cold
374 lbs
Treadmill walk
1.25 mi
0:25 min
180 Max HR

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What's in a Name? - The Holy Name of Jesus

On January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, we remember the day Joseph & Mary's child was circumcised and named.
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Luke 2:21)

They obeyed the command that both had received from holy messengers. In Luke's gospel, the angel tells Mary
Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most high.
(Luke:30 (b) - 32 (a))

In Matthew, Joseph is told not to abandon his pregnant finace with the promise
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
(Matthew 1:20 (b) - 21)

The name of the child was important enough that both evangelists tell us that it was given to his parents by angels. In English, we identify that name with the man Jesus of Nazareth, but to Jesus' own people, his name was filled with meaning.

The name that we translate into Jesus was Yeshua in Hebrew. It is actually a familiar version of the name Yehoshua. It means "Lord (or Jehovah) who is salvation)."

In English, we might call a child Faith or Godfrey or Regis if we wanted to give them a name that sounded particularly pious or royal. Any author chooses character names carefully because of what they say about the person who bears them. Oliver Twist or Billy Pilgrim are names that tell you something about the character before you even meet them.

So it is with the name of Jesus. It was not a rare name in Hebrew culture, but it was a special one.

If the life of Jesus is a story, then God is that story's author. God chose Jesus name deliberately so that "Jehovah" and "salvation" would be present in the mind of the listener whenever that name was mentioned.

In time, he came to be known as Jesus Christ, but Christ is not a name, rather it is a title, from the Greek christos which is the translation of the Hebrew messias meaning "anointed one." In the gospels, the evangelists refer to Jesus the Christ. After the resurrection, the early Christians transformed Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus into a single proper name, not unlike Julius Caesar.

So what's in Jesus' name? Not a magic spell that grants us wishes when we pray "in Jesus' name." Instead, his name honors both his heavenly father, and the world whose salvation he came to effect. Just as Jesus was both God and human, so also his name spans two dimensions - Jesus the man and Jesus the name are both links between the creator and creation. The name Jesus testifies to the radical love God has for the world.

Peace and Happy New Year!

The icon of the Circumcision is from the remarkable website Orthodoxy in China