Tag: #friends

The little things

750x450 mountains

And when they loom large

Decades ago-back in the ’60’s and ’70’s-I was quite the outdoorsman.  Technical rock climbing.  Big game hunter.  Fly fishing.  Winter camping.  Fourteeners.  Backpacking and mountain biking.  The Colorado Trail, which I regret to say, I never completed.

For a host of reasons, primarily age and normal wear and tear, that’s all come to an end:  this getting old stuff isn’t for sissies.  But it was fun while it lasted.  And, looking back on it, I was fortunate to get out in one piece.

One of the guys I did a lot of those adventures with was Henry Gibb.  Always upbeat, a dark bushy beard, a Vermont backwoods transplant, Henry was indefatigable.  Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with him.

One winter, we decided to ski into 14,421 foot Mount Harvard, spend a night at the base, and climb the peak the next day.  Hardly anything about the trip was short of crazy.  A night in a ramshackled mining cabin that did nothing to keep out either the snow or bitter cold.  Henry breaking trail up the steep side of the valley at the crack of dawn, trying our best to warm up after a long night shivering in our sleeping bags.  Despite the lodge pole pines that grew thick as grass, at one point the snow slumped, giving off a resounding “whoomp,” making us uncomfortably aware that an avalanche was not beyond the realm of possibility.  And which, if it had run, would have ground us up and spit us out.  Not to be found ’til spring-if then.

Nonetheless, we made the summit before noon on what turned out to be a blue bird day.  Need I add that we had the place to ourselves on back in those days?

To save the planet

Henry had, on occasion, what I considered eccentric views.

“You know,” Henry began as we drove south along the frigid waters of the Arkansas River in my used, ’65 VW Bug, “I’ve been thinking how much better it would be if we were all a lot smaller.  Say, six inches tall.”

“Interesting idea,” I replied, eye brows raised, looking over briefly while still trying to keep us from plunging into the river. “But, how would that make things better?”  Knowing Henry, I expected it had something to do with the environment.  But this one was a puzzler.

“Well,” he answered, “think of how much less we would need in terms of natural resources.  The water.  The air.  The steel and copper.  Everything.”

“True,” I said, “but it’s pretty hard to see how that’s going to happen.”

A prophet without honor

But wouldn’t you know, Henry pretty much nailed it.  At least in Hollywood.

During one of the apparently interminable legs of my flight to Greece last spring I was desperate for any sort of diversion.  I managed to stumble on the movie Downsizing with Matt Damon.  And what to my wondering eyes did I see but that Henry’s wild idea has been translated onto the silver screen.  Not that the film made any money.  Or that it got great reviews.  But nonetheless, the film’s premise was exactly what Henry suggested: shrink humans to clean up the environment.

And, who knows, perhaps Henry will someday nail it in the real world. Stranger things, I suppose, have happened.

750x450 trail sign

The ties that no longer bind

It’s been years-no, decades-since I’ve been in touch with Henry.  I miss those hair brained adventures.  And not just for the adrenaline jolt.  But for the camaraderie that those experiences engendered.

I feel largely at fault for the rupture.  It was, I’m sure, politics.  And probably, to some extent, it was my bipolar illness talking.  At times we had angry disagreements.  About what specific issues?  Who knows?  And who cares?  But I leaned right.  And Henry leaned left.  And the ties that bound us first frayed.  And then broke.

And so, Henry, where ever you are, here’s My Grown Up Christmas List for you:

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

(With, of course, a tip ‘o the hat to Amy Grant.)

The Feast Of John The Baptist.

John the Baptist Head on a Platter

A Very Merry Unbirthday To You!

There are two requirements, I’ve learned, to successful blogging: quality and quantity.

So, how is yours truly doing about a year and a half into this blogging thing?  I hope you believe that the quality of what I put out is generally acceptable.  Usually understandable.  Mostly interesting.  Sometimes even provocative or entertaining .

My real problem is quantity.  I’ve put out about 45 posts over a span of over 75 weeks.  You gotta’ be kidding!  That’s not even one a week.  I hope the only way from here is up.

The Mad Hatter And Me.

My intent was to put out a post about John the Baptist in time for his “birthday”-which many Christians celebrate on June 24.  Which, to my chagrin, is now rapidly fading in the rear view mirror.

So, John, as they sang at the Mad Hatter’s party: a very merry UNbirthday to you!

John The Enigma.

There’s no question that John is a man to be reckoned with.  Jesus says of him, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” (Lk 7:28).

For the longest time, however, John was an enigma to me.  But it wasn’t the strange stories of a wild man in the Judean desert, eating locusts and honey, clad in camel hair, that puzzled me.  Odd?  Yes.  But straight forward enough.

Nor, during his early ministry, did I have any trouble seeing John fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way-
a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.'”
(Mk 1:2-3)

During those few, shining moments John’s out front where he’s supposed to be.  Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to SRO crowds.  Telling of the One to come, “more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”  Even baptizing Christ, seeing the heavens torn open, the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. And listening in as the voice of the Father tells Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:7;11)

Yes, it’s easy to see John making those straight paths.

But thereafter, aside from some brief, apparently random glimpses, John is almost entirely eclipsed by the brilliance that is the eternal Word Himself.  How can John be the pathfinder, if the trail he leaves is so faint and uncertain?

Making Sense Of The Forerunner.

So what do we make of John’s other appearances?  His birth?  His brutal death?  Even the troubling scene where, from prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:2)  Do we treat these events as mere surplus?

Definitely not.  The key is understanding John is just like what it says:  “I will send my messenger ahead of you . . .”  Wherever you see John, look for Christ to show up.  But later.  True, John’s story, by comparison with Christ’s, is writ small.  In some cases, barely a wisp.  But it’s there.

Count on it:  where John leads, Jesus follows.

Two Miraculous Births.  And In The Right Order.

The “Christmas Story” only shows up in two Gospels:  Matthew and Luke; Mark and John say nothing.  Matthew is silent with regards to how the Baptist’s birth interacted with Christ’s.

Luke, in contrast, more than makes up for what the others fail to say.

In Luke, it’s clear that John goes “ahead”-he was born before Jesus.  (Lk 1:57-66)

And, like that of Jesus’ birth, John’s nativity was replete with “signs and wonders.”  His parents, “well along in years,” were past the age of child bearing (Lk 1:7).  Elizabeth gets pregnant anyway (Lk 1:24).  Angels run wild (Lk 1:11).  His skeptical father is struck dumb (Lk 1:20).  And then speaks again (Lk 1:64).

No, John wasn’t born to a virgin.  But it’s also clear this was far from your run of the mill L&D.  And that what we see through a glass darkly in John’s birth, we see face to face in Christ’s.

Two Public Ministries.  And In The Right Order.

Saint John the Baptist preaching to crowd

I’ve already talked about John’s public ministry:  huge crowds, preaching repentance, baptism.  Very explicitly pointing to the One who is to soon come.  What else can be said?

Probably no more than this pithy summary in the Gospel of John at the close of the Pathfinder’s public ministry: “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease.”  (Jn 3:30).

Two Gethsemanes.  And In The Right Order.

As those paragons of Christian theology, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, put it, “I was ’round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.”  But, to our everlasting gain, Christ’s response to Lucifer in the garden was, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Lk 22:42)

But Christ’s moment of doubt and pain was, again, foreshadowed by John.  His public ministry came crashing down when he told King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mk 6:18).  Herod was no doubt upset, but his wife, Herodias, was furious.  So she persuaded her husband to have John thrown in the slammer.  (BTW, if you’d like to get a sense of what prison conditions in the ancient Mideast may have been like for The Baptist, watch the gut wrenching movie, Midnight Express.)

From the inky depths of Herod’s prison, John is likewise in Satan’s icy grip.  Wondering how something that had begun so well could have gone so badly so quickly, he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  (Lk 7:19).  How ironic, but understandable, that The Pathfinder would have his own moment of doubt and pain right after his disciples had reported that Jesus had pulled back the centurion’s servant from the jaws of death.   And raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead (Lk 7:1-15).  John’s anguished prayer can almost be heard: “Lord, you healed the centurion’s servant.  You raised the widow’s son from the dead.  Why don’t you get me out of Herod’s prison?”  

Two “Trials.”  And In The Right Order.

But Herodias wasn’t satisfied with John merely being held in a wretched dungeon.  She wanted his head.  But Herod resisted; for some reason he took a perverse pleasure in listening to John (Mk 6:20).

But that resistance melted away in the face of incestuous lust.  At a drunken birthday party, Herodias’ daughter’s dancing so pleased Herod that he promised her anything, even “up to half my kingdom.”  After consulting her mother, the daughter demanded “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  Unwilling to back down in the presence of his guests, Herod ordered it done.  He, in turn, “presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.” (Mk 6:21-28)  Talk about a grizzly party favor.  And one that still lives in infamy.

Does this travesty rise to the level of a “trial?”  Obviously not.  But neither did Christ’s.  And, again, Jesus followed where John led.

A Coincidence?  You Decide.

To me, the most poignant account of John’s disciples telling Jesus of the beheading in Herod’s dungeon comes in Matthew:  “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.”  (Mt 14:13).  What was Jesus doing in that solitary place?  Praying?  No doubt.  Mourning?  Sure.

But let me suggest one more thing:  pondering his own fate.

It is only after John is murdered that Jesus begins predicting his own death.  (Mt 16:21; but also true in the other synoptic gospels).  A coincidence?  I doubt it.  Surely, by now, Jesus saw the pattern himself, as certain as night follows day:  where John leads, I must follow.

Two “Resurrections.”  And In The Right Order.

What more can possibly be said of Christ’s death and resurrection?  These events are the cornerstones of Christianity.  They’re the culmination of all four gospel accounts.  Who could miss them?

The same, most certainly, can’t be said of John’s “resurrection.”  By contrast with Christ’s, it’s the barest wisp.

Why?  Consider the source:  Herod.  That’s right, John’s murderer.  But it’s there:

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead!  That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'” (Mt 14:1-2).

Is Herod a reliable source?  No.  He was more likely suffering from a guilty conscience.  Had John come back to life in Jesus and was he performing the miracles Herod heard about?  Again, no.

But it’s only after Herod’s delusional “prophesies” that Jesus begins predicting his own resurrection.  (Mt 16:21).  And if Herod’s ravings about John are good enough for Jesus, they’re plenty good enough to demonstrate to me that Christ was paying attention. And following where John was leading.

But that’s not really the point.  John wasn’t meant to be the highway, plain for all to see.  Jesus was.  John was the path.  For Jesus to see.  John’s “resurrection” is just the next paving stone in the path.

It’s Not If.  It’s Who.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to  sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.”  (Heb 4:15).

This is an interesting, two edged passage of Scripture.  Sure, it means that Christ is just like us-except without sin.  But it also means that we are just like Christ-except with sin.  Granted, that’s a huge difference.  But, as I take it, there are also huge similarities.

In relation to The Baptist, consider what the author of Hebrews meant.  Did Jesus really need a leader?  Unless we are to conclude that the carefully woven skein between the lives of John and Jesus was just play acting, how can it be otherwise? And isn’t this just like the Lamb of God?  To humbly submit to the Pathfinder’s leadership. Even after John’s reckless enthusiasm was reduced to bitter ashes in the furnace of Herod’s prison.

And if Jesus needed a leader, how much more us?  But the difference?  While Jesus chose just the right leader and played the game flawlessly, we’re free to err in both regards.  And how often we do.

But our consolation?  If we, like Christ, humble ourselves and choose the right Leader, He has our backs.  Because, with even greater recklessness, the Lamb humbly stoops beneath even us, making

“. . . himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross! (Php 2-7,8).

To what end?  To rise to heights of unimagined glory.  And, bearing on His broad shoulders all those who also humble themselves, climb aboard, and go along for the ride.

Quo Vadis Greece? Part II.

spencer swalm and friends in Greece

With some fellow Road Scholars at the amphitheater of Epidaurus, the center of the Greek healing arts.

Still Jet Lagged After All These Days.

Finally.  This morning was better.  I didn’t wake up until 4 a.m.  Rather than-boing!-bolt upright, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to be “up and at ’em” at 2:30.  Yuck.

So, rather than lying futilely in bed, I got up at 4:30, watched some of Sense and Sensibility while I made the elliptical go ’round, showered, and had a bite of breakfast.  And then crawled back in bed for an 8:30 nap.  This, needless to say, this is no way to run a railroad.

I don’t, for the life of me, see how my sister and her husband do it.  World travelers par excellence. I almost never know, literally, where in the world they’re at.  Home an extended layover; jet lag as a life style.

And, when we talked about my Greece trip the other day, she told me it’s only gotten worse for her with the passing years.  Since I don’t believe I’m getting any younger, it makes me sorta wonder if my travelin’ days are over.  Is the pain worth the gain?  Brilliant suggestions welcome.

Anyhoo.  Enough of my aberrant sleep cycles.

Looking Back.

One of the ancient sites we “Road Scholars” visited as we bussed around mainland Greece was The Oracle of Delphi.  For those of you who’ve driven I-70 west of Denver, picture Glenwood Canyon-except with the ruins of a medium size town clinging to its rocky heights.  A good good size “church” (the unusual circular temple and where the priestess received ambiguous text messages from the gods), open air amphitheater (á la Red Rocks), a full service-including pool-gymnasium, a stadium/chariot racing track.  And so on and so forth.  A marvel of engineering and testament to the genius of the ancient Greeks.  Not to mention their dogged determination-it’s built entirely of stones, countless of which weigh tons.  Which had to be, somehow, quarried, bullied, and dragged to the site from miles around.

Serpent column delphi in Greece

The Serpent Column at Delphi

For my money, one of the more significant monuments at the site was the bronze Serpent Column.  Made by twisting together a large tripod that was used by the Greeks in their sacrificial rites to the gods, the column commemorates the united front the 31 fractious Greek city states presented to the invading Persian hordes in 479-480 BC to finally put an end to their predations.  First, at the land battles of Plataea and Mycale.  And then the decisive Greek naval victory in the Straits of Salamis.   Thus were the Persians prevented from strangling the nascent idea of democracy in it’s Greek cradle.

Looking Ahead.

But why is this ancient, bronze column, even in it’s less than perfectly preserved state, still significant? Because Greece, and the priceless heritage of Western Civilization that it represents, is under assault again.

Consider Lesbos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just off the coast of Turkey-the same land where the ancient Persian hordes came from.  Although the demographics of the latest wave of invaders may be in dispute, (Are they predominantly young males?  Or more diverse?), there’s no question that Greece is being invaded again.  And Lesbos is bearing the brunt of the invasion.

But the swarms of immigrants inevitably spill over into mainland Greece.  My friend, Dean, who arrived in Athens a week before me, spoke to a resentful young bus driver as he explored the city.  “I can’t,” he confided to Dean, “afford to get married or have children because the European Union forces us to take better care of foreigners than it does of our own citizens.”

Just the calumny of a bitter loser?  I doubt it.  Eleni, our very knowledgeable guide,  described the youthful brain drain from her county.  Greece has a dismal 24% unemployment rate; of those, 60% are young.  The country is only slowly healing from the 2007-2008 financial crisis; abandoned, graffiti scarred buildings pockmark the face of Athens.

The Real Crisis?

But, perhaps, money isn’t everything.   Nor are invasions.  Greece, and its culture, didn’t just endure 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks.  It thrived.  It stubbornly retained it’s distinctive identity, which was rooted in the Greek Orthodox Church and, even further back, the Classical Hellenic legacy that it had bequeathed to Western Civilization.

Calling on these moral reserves and against long odds, Greeks repelled Italian aggression at the outset of World War II.  It was a point of honor to Eleni, our guide, that Greece fended off the Facist thugs of Germany and Italy longer than France did.  Thus delaying the Nazi’s invasion of Russia.  And which Hitler himself blamed for the German army being turned back, catastrophically, at the gates of Moscow in December of 1941 by the Russian winter.

Greece, in other words, is no stranger to invasion and tough times.  I discussed this with Dean.  “Perhaps things aren’t as bad as they appear in Greece. And even Europe.  They’ve done it before.  Perhaps they can turn back the invading hordes from the Muslim world again this time.”

“But,” he replied, “things might be different this time.”

The Serpent Column Today.

To put a contemporary “twist” on the Serpent Column, let’s imagine that the column represents not unified Greek city states, but a tripod of faith, the economy, and the government.  So, how are the legs holding up some 2500 years later?

I’m no expert on the Orthodox church.  But I do know that early on, as a result of Paul’s missionary journeys, the Hellenic world of the eastern Mediterranean was where Christianity first took root-and spread like wild fire.  Greek was also the language of the New Testament.

interior of greek orthodox church

The ornate, beautiful interior of one of the many small Greek Orthodox chapels scattered throughout the country.

But when I asked our guide, Eleni, about the current spiritual health of her national church, her answer was telling.  “It played an important role in helping our nation survive the 400 year occupation by the Ottomans.  But now,” she continued, “not so much.  Most homes, like ours, have a shrine to a favorite saint that we light candles to on festival days.  But the churches are largely empty.”

The second leg of the economy?  I’ve talked about that.  And, as you have no doubt heard, the picture isn’t pretty.

But the economic picture is probably made even uglier since Greece joined the European Union in 2001.   By becoming a member, Greece surrendered its ability to control its own currency, the drachma.  Thus, when the financial crisis of 2007 clobbered the economy, Greece was incapable of devaluing its currency-a commonly used response to an economic depression that attempts to jump start the economy by making exports less expensive for customers in other countries.  But with EU bureaucrats in Brussels calling the shots in Athens, no such luck.

And the government?  Well, let’s leave it at this:  even if the government is rock solid, when you kick out two legs of a three legged stool, you’re not left with much.  And that’s not even counting the scars left by the savage civil war of 1946-1949 and the military coup of 1967-1974.

 A Resilience We Don’t Understand?

One of the books on our “required reading” list for us Roads Scholars was Modern Greece:    What Everyone Needs To Know by Yale historian and professor Stathis Kalyvas.  A Greek himself, Kalyvas admits to being, on occasion, puzzled by the resilience his nation has displayed time and again in the face of invasion, economic collapse, and civil strife.

So, what can you say?  Perhaps the Greeks are just too hard headed to know when they’re licked.  Can the same be said, more broadly, of Western Civilization?  One can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

I just returned from my trip to Greece.  As you may remember from a previous post, I went with Dean, an old friend.  A few, quick reflections.

Go If You Can.  And, For My Money, A Good Touring Company Is Worth It.

We went with Road Scholar, a pun that says a good deal about the sort of people who sign up for the trips this company leads around the world: retired college professors, libriarians, and such like.  But there wasn’t a final exam on the vast amount of information that our extremely knowledgeable and friendly Greek guide, Eleni Petroutsou, imparted to us during the course of the week we spent with her bussing around the mainland. And then continued aboard the smallish ship, Aegean Odyssey,  cruising from island to lovely island for the following week.

Greece sunset view

No, the real exam came months earlier:  our bank accounts.  And it was a tough one.  On more than one occasion I heard the old gag, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” But, since I estimate that at least 60% of our 30 some Road Scholar participants were retired government workers (Dean estimated more like 90%), they might just as well have said, “We’re spending the inheritance of the children of the taxpayers who are so generously supporting us.”  But who would snicker at that?

Your Required Reading.

Well in advance of the trip, the company sent us a hefty list of suggested books on Greece.  I ordered most of them.  And read most of those. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi left me cold.  So did Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which surprised me given its exalted reputation.  Of these two books, I followed the sage advice that I heard somewhere not long ago, “There are too many good books to spend time on ones you don’t like.”

By now, you know I’m a sucker for history.  A couple of the books I’d recommend would be Modern Greece, What Everyone Needs to Know and Introducing the Ancient Greeks, From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.  

Modern Greece was particularly interesting.  Like many others, I suppose, I’d imagined that Greek history ended pretty much ended 2400 years ago with the close of the classical Golden Age and didn’t start again until the financial crisis of 2008.  Wrong.  Before winning its War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821, Greece endured 400 years of Ottoman/Turk occupation.  While our guide Elani did her best to play things down the middle, there was little question as to where she stood in regards to Greece’s long and glorious, but at times, tormented history.

For those really interested in cramming, here are some of the others:  The Parthenon, Athens, The Greeks, An Illustrated History, Greek Mythology, A Traveler’s Guide.  (I gave this one a pass also; seemed like a bunch of implausible fairy tales.  Although our expert guide made a good case that these apparently anarchic stories often go a long way toward explaining the more obscure aspects of the prehistoric Greek world.)

On my own, I also took the new Kindle my wife gave me for Christmas for a spin, rereading Zorba the Greek (the first time was decades ago).  I should have listened to my own better angels and quit long before I reached the bitter end; talk about unbridled nihilism.   Why this book is so widely praised is a mystery to me.  Well, not really.  It must be for many of the same reasons that Hollywood cranks out so many profitable stinkers.

And the worst of it?  It didn’t even have the courtesy to lull me to sleep on the excruciatingly painful and interminable flights to and from Zorba land.  Airlines!  Where they keep making the seats smaller.  And the people bigger.

Cruisin’

On the last day of the trip, I was savoring breakfast on the sun drenched fantail of the Odyssey in the port of Piraeus.  You know, my usual morning fare: an unlimited selection of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, cheeses, grilled vegetables, juices, desserts, etc., etc.

Now, does that goofy headline make sense?  “The kind of cruise where you get on as a passenger.  And get off as cargo.”  Remarkably, however, when I fearfully stepped on the scale on my return home, I actually seemed to have lost a bit of weight.  Guess that airline food is good for something.

That morning was also a last chance to visit with some of my fellow Scholars. Among them was a woman, Kristen, from Telluride, Colorado.  She and I had a tenuous connection through my cousin’s daughter, Denver chef Carrie Baird.  Carrie was a near finalist in this year’s Top Chef Colorado show.  At least one episode had been filmed in Telluride.  Kristen had seen some of the shoot.  You heard it here: six degrees must be a reality.

As we lingered over breakfast, a cruise ship about the size of a small-correction, medium-sized city shoe horned it’s way into port and pulled into a slip to our right.  The monster towered above our heads and took at least five minutes to lumber past us.  Lilliputian by comparison, I don’t doubt that our vessel would have been able to cut neat figure eights in the leviathon’s swimming pool.

And that was the beauty of the Aegean Odyssey.  Plenty big enough for all the creature comforts.  But small enough that our relatively modest passenger manifest didn’t completely overwhelm the equally smallish, quaint island villages where we made landfall.

And Eleni wasn’t just a smart cookie.  She also had sharp enough elbows to make sure that we got into town, saw the antiquities, and did our scholarly thing ahead of the leviathons’ mobs that usually followed so closely on our heels.