Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My Voice—Your Voice

My Church History professor rejected my paper.  He wrote on the title page, “I don’t want to know what you think.  This is a research paper and  should reflect not your thoughts and opinions, but what others have thought and said about this subject.”  I re-wrote the paper.  Every sentence, every paragraph, contained the words of others, properly footnoted.  There was nothing of “me” or of “my truth” in any of it.

I’ve always been intrigued by Jesus’ conversation with Pilate recorded in the Gospel According to John.  In the 18th chapter, Jesus and Pilate are in the governor’s headquarters and Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus responds, “Is this your own idea, or have others suggested it to you?”  What Jesus seems to be saying is, “Is this something out of you?  Is it born out of your own thinking and experience?  Is it your idea, your truth?”

Is this your idea, your own thinking, your considered opinion, or is it something FOX, CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, Saturday Night Live, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Bible, or some TV evangelist has told you?   Is it somebody else’s interpretation?  Is it somebody else’s opinion?  Is it just something you’ve heard?  If it is not yours—it is hearsay!  It is not your truth.  “What is truth?” Pilate asked.  “My task,” Jesus replies, “is to bear witness to the truth.  For this I was born; for this I came into the world [and all who are not deaf to truth listen to my voice].”  “My voice,” Jesus seems to say, is my truth.  For this,  we, too,  were born, for this we, too, came into the world—to speak our truth, to be a voice for truth—a thinking, pondering, rational human being trying to sort out of fact, hearsay, and mystery (and as my professor rightly scolded, what other minds have thought and what history has revealed) and to discover in that process what he/she believes, thinks, and has determined to be truth.

In another instance, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?”  He is asking for hearsay—a Gallop poll.  He’s asking for the interpretations and opinions held by others (just as my professor insisted upon).  What do others say about this, or “Who do men say that I am?”  And then, Jesus asked, “And you, who do you say I am?”  What’s your truth?  What do you say?

I am fully aware of how murky this idea that my voice, your voice, the human voice speaks its own truth.  I have read Nietzsche who says, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and Huxley, who contradicted Nietzsche, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”  Marcus Aurelius said, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact” and “everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,” and Maya Angelou who wrote, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.  Facts can obscure the truth.”  Still, for this morning at least, I think that we came into this world to speak our truth (based not on hearsay, but on what we think after careful study and what we experience in our living).  I respect the voice of truth in others, though I may disagree, but my task is to speak, to voice, my truth, and to love the other without fitting him or her into my image.

Sunset in Athens, Greece--2017

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Meals on Wheels

They came on wheels (cars) every day to my mother-in-law’s home, bringing her lunch and dinner with a smile and a pleasant greeting.  She knew each one of the volunteers by name and a little something about each one.  How she appreciated their brief visits (perhaps even more than the meals).  Meals on Wheels is a great service to our mature citizens no longer able to prepare their own.

Father Jerry Fuller tells the story of three mice who died and went to heaven.  After a couple of days, St. Peter stopped by and asked how they liked being in heaven.  The mice said that it was okay, but because they had such short legs, it was hard for them to get around because heaven was so vast.  Peter said he would help them.  And he did.  After a while an angel came by and gave each of the mice a new pair of shoes with those wheels in the heels.  Right away, the mice put on their new shoes and now they could zip all around heaven and enjoy themselves.  They could literally sing that old spiritual:  “When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, I’m gonna skate all over God’s heaven.

Several weeks later, a certain cat died and went to heaven.  After a few days, St. Peter stopped by and asked how the cat like being in heaven.  The cat answered, “Oh, boy, do I like being in heaven!  I’m having a great time and I’m really enjoying myself.  And most of all, I love those meals on wheels.”

Meals on Wheels operates in virtually every community in America with a network of more than 5,000 independently-run local programs.  The organization receives local community funding and supplemental government funding from the Older Americans Act.  It is a worthy program and we must not let the cat devour it!  Tell your representative that cats are not permitted to decimate  “Meals on Wheels” heaven.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Decoration Day

My mother always used the term “Decoration Day.”  She remembered, I suppose, her childhood days when Memorial Day was primarily a time to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers, wreaths and flags. Whatever name we use, Decoration Day or Memorial Day, it is a day for remembering those who have died in service to our country.  

On May 30, 1868, the first national celebration of Memorial Day, former General and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield (eventually POTUS) made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery:  “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”  After the speech, the 5000 participants helped decorate the graves of some 20,000 Union and Confederate  soldiers buried there.  

Approximately 1,265,000 American military men and women have died in America’s wars—620,000 in the Civil War (some say as many as 750,000) and 645,000 in all other conflicts and the number grows as the longest-war-ever in our nation's history continues. “How can you have a war on terrorism,” writes Howard Zinn, “when war itself is terrorism.” 

How I wish we  as a nation (and world) could live into that African-American spiritual, Down By the Riverside, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside….I ain’t gonna study war no more.”  I would think we would all consider that option (I ain’t gonna study war no more) as we observe Decoration/Memorial Day and remember the horrendous cost.  War is costly—and I don’t mean in terms of dollars—but in terms of human life.  War must never be glorified or romanticized, for war is not a Memorial Day picnic or a computer game.   War may reveal noble deeds, courage, valor, patriotism, and the unspeakable sacrifices we remember and honor today, but war also reveals hideous brutality, stupidity, destruction, and killing, not only of those in the military, but the innocents who happen to be in harm’s way.

My "Weeping Rose" on Memorial Day

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Something Is Wrong

I’ve just read Chris Hayes’ new book,  A Colony In A Nation, an “analysis of America’s arbitrary and erratic criminal justice system.”  I think Hayes accurately interprets the America we live in—where one group is treated as citizens and another group as the colonized.

Statistics alone tell the story.  “The United States is the most violent developed country in the world.”  Our homicide rate (while having fallen in recent years) is higher than that of any other developed democracy in the world!  One out of every four prisoners in the world is an American—incarcerated in our state and federal penal system—“even though the United States has just 5 percent of the world’s population.” Having spent nearly twenty years in the Yokefellow Prison Ministry, visiting prisons around the nation, I am quite familiar with this terrible dilemma. Something is wrong!

But it gets even worse.  Black men are six times as likely as all white men to be incarcerated in federal, state and local jails (2013 Pew Research Center study) and Blacks only make up 13 percent of the nation’s population!  One out of every four black males born this year (if the trend continues) can expect to go to prison/jail at least once in his lifetime.  Something is wrong!

We, as a nation and society, want to see ourselves as living in a post racial world, but Hayes suggests that by nearly every empirical measure—wealth, unemployment, neighborhoods, incarceration, school segregation—racial inequality hasn’t changed much since 1968.  Hayes’ analysis disturbs me. I thought there had been movement toward equality.  I thought things had gotten better. Hayes has convinced me that my thinking has been wrong.  But something else is wrong, too—and it isn’t just my “thinking!” We have A Colony within our nation—where one group is treated as citizens and another group as the colonized.  I commend Chris Hayes’ book to you—and, by the way, it isn’t “fake news,” though I wish it were.

"Never forget that every thing Hitler did in Germany was legal"

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Thirteenth Apostle

Everybody knows of Judas Iscariot.  Few know of Matthias.  There is only one mention of his selection to be the thirteenth apostle and that is found in the Acts of the Apostles (1:22-26). We know nothing else about him for history has consigned him to anonymity and obscurity.  Judas gets all the attention and Matthias gets none at all.  Why?

Why are Matthias’ ignored and Judas” given all the attention?  Or, as the scripture puts it, “Why do the wicked prosper?”  Why do some people receive fame and others get ignored?  Why do some succeed and others fail?  The question “why” takes many forms and echoes throughout history.  Jeremiah says, “Lord…I question you about matters of justice.  Why are the wicked so prosperous?” (Jer. 12:1).  Why do some get recognition and others do not?  

Two candidates were nominated to be the thirteenth apostle, “they proposed two men”…Joseph called Barsabbas”  and Matthias.  The eleven apostles resorted to “dumb luck” to determine which person God desired.  They rolled dice, that is, they wrote the names of the candidates on stones; the stones were placed into a jar and the jar was shaken until one stone fell out; and he whose name was on the first stone to fall out would become the chosen one.  Is this the way of life—just a roll of the dice?  Is it all summed up by just dumb luck?  

A few years ago, I walked through a cemetery in England where thousands of American soldiers are buried.  Some  of the crosses marking the graves had names and some did not.  It was a very traumatic experience—reading the names, noting the ages of those men who gave their all—especially when I read my own name on one of the crosses:  “Harold Owens, 1919-1943.”  Why are some soldiers unknown and others known?  Why does Patton, Eisenhower and McArthur  receive fame, while thousands upon thousands who gave their lives remain unknown and unrecognized?

John Milton was born in 1608 and died at the age of 66.  He was perhaps the greatest poet of the English language. Milton was struck blind at the age of forty-four.  In his poem, When I Consider How My Light is Spent, Milton ponders why God would gift him with remarkable talents, only to take them back.  “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”  Plunged into a world of darkness, Milton wondered about the injustices of life.  In the last line of his poem he wrote:  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  Those crosses in England echo Milton’s words.  Those soldiers were on the front line, standing, waiting, serving, and in the end, gave their lives.  History  has consigned them to anonymity and obscurity. Tom Brokaw’s attempt to give them recognition as a part of “the greatest generation” is commendable, but not sufficient.  Memorial Day is a good time to utter Milton’s words:  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Life is fragile.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Only Yesterday--New York, New York

My granddaughter has lived in New Jersey for about a year now, commuting to her work place in the “Big Apple” every day. Katie’s description of “New York, New York” is not in tune with the romantic song Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others sang and which I often sing to myself when no one else is around. Her reports are a bit less romantic and much more graphic as she tells me of the crowds, the smells, the trash, and the sounds of this urban center of nearly eight and a half million people.  

Only yesterday—in the mid-1800’s—New York City had a population of about a million and a half people, plus 200,000 or more horses.  Yes, horses—and flies (more flies than horses)!  Each horse dropped twenty-five pounds of manure and several quarts of urine every day. There were 427 blacksmith shops, 249 carriage and wagon establishments and on a typical day over “8000 horse-drawn vehicles with two or more horses, passed by the corner of Broadway and Pine Street.”  New York City in that day had no sewage system, no street cleaning, and no flush toilets.  Garbage, both human and animal waste—was thrown out windows and onto city streets creating serious health issues.  “Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure” (Joel Tarr, Carnegie-Mellon University).  Salvation (so-called and proclaimed) from such a hell, however, was only 25 or so years away, saving London and other cities from such an impending manure disaster. 

Only yesterday—a mere hundred years ago—a new kind of horse came on the scene.  By 1910 the “horseless carriage,” along with other innovations like street cleaning, flush toilets and sewer systems, gave promise to a new day in New York City and elsewhere.  The “horseless carriage” was touted as a positive solution.  “It is all a question of dollars and cents,” someone wrote about the transition from horse to horseless, “this gasoline or oats proposition.”  

Today the horses are gone from the city streets, but their successors, the new horseless carriage, has created new problems ranging from wars to “preserve the oil” to climate change.  The new problems may be more difficult to solve than “The Great Horse Manure Crises of 1894,” when “it seemed that The End of Civilization As We Know It would be brought about, not by a meteor strike, global sickness or warfare, but by an excess of manure, by the urban equine.”  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

“Job-like” Questions and Anguish

I have questions this morning (and every morning and all day long)—like Job’s questions in the Old Testament—questions without answers.  These questions overwhelm me when I read or hear of incidents like that in Manchester, England,  or  the senseless murder of 23-year-old Richard W. Collins III (an about-to-graduate Bowie State University student) on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland just a few days ago.  Like Job of old, I ask, “Where is God in all of this? Why do the innocent suffer?”  

On January 2, 2006, two carts of miners entered the Sago Mine in West Virginia to begin the first shift after the holiday weekend.  A few minutes later an explosion trapped thirteen miners in the first cart two miles into the mine and 300 feet underground.  The entire country held its breath.  The little Appalachian community prayed.  Late Tuesday night, January 3, the national news services reported that twelve of the thirteen miners had been found alive.  Euphoria erupted, horns blared, sirens screamed, and church bells pierced the night at Sago Baptist Church where Governor Joe Manchin proclaimed a “miracle.”  But in a cruel twist of fate and miscommunication, three hours later the media reversed its report—twelve miners were dead and one alive, not twelve alive and one dead as earlier reported.  Pandemonium followed this announcement.  When the pastor of Sago Baptist Church urged families to look to God for help, a man shouted, “What the hell do you mean?  What can God do for us now?”  A distraught woman, her faced contorted with agony, cried out, “Where is God when we need him?  Is he really there?”

A renowned naturalist, Sir David Attenborough wrote:  “I frequently receive letters from people saying, in effect, ‘You’ve traveled around the world, you’ve seen all the marvels of nature, how could you not believe in a loving God who created the world.’  I reply to these letters by asking their authors to picture an eight-year-old child sitting by a river in Africa.  That child is guilty of nothing more than the usual childhood foolishness.  And yet there is a worm burrowing under that child’s eyelid, a worm that can only exist by burrowing under the eyelids of children, and it will cause that child to go blind and live out their life in disfigurement and pain.  How can you tell me that a loving God created that worm to do that to a child?”

Those who read this rant this morning may say, why don’t you give answers and not raise questions?  Why don’t you write about warm fuzzy things and not issues?  Why don’t you write about faith and not doubt?  Tell us about God (Love) being at the heart of all things.  But, I ask, in return, then what the hell do we do with REALITY?  What do we do with these Job-like questions and this Job-like anguish we feel in the midst of this REALITY?  Like Rilke, I live these questions awaiting  the answers that do not readily come.

Light?  Where is the Light?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Carriers and The Carried

In Mark’s gospel we read the story of four friends carrying their paralytic comrade to Jesus.  They encounter a crowd blocking the way, but this does not deter them.  They climb up on the roof, cut a hole, and lower their friend down into the presence of Jesus.  Jesus was impressed with the carriers, especially with their bold engineering feat of cutting through the roof.  Jesus admires their determination and implies that these four friends are made of the kind of stuff that makes things happen.  Jesus also dealt kindly with the one who was carried.

Carriers do make things happen and fortunately we have all been carried.  We were carried in our mother’s womb totally dependent on our mother carrying us safely.  When we could do nothing on our own, we were nurtured and carried by those who fed us, dressed us, and watched over us.  When we could not walk, we were carried in loving arms.  When we went off to school, unable to read or write, we were carried by a teacher who taught us and inspirited us with a sense of self-worth.  Through the years of our growing up, many carried us.  A thousand impersonal forces about which we could do little—carried us.  We have been carried by many friends, circumstances, and events all through our years—a friend who prayed for us (who carried us and we did not know it), a stranger who helped us, a friend who stood by us, an event that lifted us—we have all been carried.  The idea that somehow we have carried ourselves to where we are and to what we have achieved is sheer nonsense.  All of us have been carried.

That we have been carried, are carried  and will be carried, becomes crystal clear as we become older and are no longer able to drive on our own, or walk on our own, or go to the doctor’s office, or to the grocery store.  No one wants to be dependent on somebody else, but the truth is that we are, have been, and will always be.  We are Aeneas who carried his aged father on his back from the ruins of Troy, and we are his father and we ought to be both at the same time.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Listening To Another

Douglas V. Steere wrote a book On Listening To Another, and in the introduction he penned the following:  “In the Journal of John Woolman, there is a well-known scene which took place in an Indian village along the upper Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  John Woolman rose to pray in a religious meeting held among the Indians and an interpreter who stood up to render Woolman’s words into the Indian language was asked to sit down and let the prayer go untranslated.  After the meeting, the Indian chief, Papunehang approached Woolman and through an interpreter said of the prayer whose English words he had not understood, ‘I love to feel where words come from.’”

I first read Steere’s book in 1969 and have read it many times since.  Yet, I still find it a difficult task to listen.  It is a gift to “feel where words come from.” I think we all have this gift within us—the gift to listen—but we seldom exercise it.  We are so caught up in our own words, our own story, our own feelings, that we can scarcely hear the words, the story, and the feelings of another.  Someone has written that we cannot listen well because we have never had anyone listen to us.  

Years ago, I went to my bishop with a concern.  I was awed by his position and his authority.  When I walked into his office, I was nervous  and apprehensive.  I wondered if I would ever be able to speak to him.  He moved from his desk to an easy chair and asked me what was on my mind.  I began to tell him why I had come, and as I began, he bent forward and listened to my feeble attempt to express myself with patient attentiveness and concern.  He never uttered a single word, never asked a question, never interrupted, giving me space to say what I needed to say, and within  minutes I suddenly stopped talking.  I no longer needed to talk.  I knew he heard me.  He had already felt my words, understood my concern, and the meeting turned into something much deeper and significant than the small concern with which it began.  We touched holy ground.  This is what happens when someone really listens to us—we suddenly find ourselves on holy ground.

It is no easy task to listen.  It requires conscious thought and discipline and for that reason it is a rare thing in our world today.  If I cannot listen to my friend, how can I possibly listen and hear the “still small voice” addressing me from within?
My Mother's Iris in bloom

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pictures of God

J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled, “Your God Is Too Small.”  He wrote about the many ways we see God and the pictures we form in our minds of who and what God is.  Whenever we try to define God with our images, Phillips wrote, we make God too small.

Human beings have always depicted their “gods” in many and strange ways. The Egyptian god, Sobek, for example, was pictured as a man with the head of a crocodile.  The Hindu Fire god, Agni, was depicted as having two faces smeared with butter, seven tongues, gold teeth, seven arms, and three legs.  Such is the creativity of the human imagination.  Christians are not immune to this creative art of drawing pictures of God. Through the centuries, religions have tried to picture their gods in statues, paintings, and mental images.  We cannot help but do so.  Yet, in these attempts to picture God we often create a god in our own pathetic image.  It’s one thing for humans to be created in the image of God, but quite another for God to be created in the image of human beings.

Two of the world’s major religions have avoided this tendency, Judaism and Islam.  The prohibition of images in Judaism is one of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus.  Islam has the same prohibition—Allah is not to be depicted in any form—neither statue, painting, or mental imagery.

If we are honest, we have to admit that we have pictures of God in our minds and quite naturally so.  The question is whether or not these images graven in our minds are adequate, and of course, they are not.  We may not give God the head of a crocodile, or think of God as having two faces smeared with butter, but our images are sometimes just as silly.  Perhaps it is our way of making God manageable, which is, of course, a contradiction.  

My Mother's Iris are in bloom

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Noticing the Person Next to Us

I don’t know where this story comes from but it is a good story.  A man died and found himself in a new realm.  He thinks perhaps he has made the grade and is in heaven.  An angel leads him into a great banquet hall in which an immense table is laid out with unimaginable delicacies.  He is seated at the table with many others and a choice selection of food is served to him.  As he picks up his fork and prepares to eat, the angel approaches him from behind and straps a thin board to the back of his arms so that he cannot bend his elbows.  He continues to try to pick up the food, but he can’t get the food to his mouth.  He cannot maneuver his arms in order to feed himself.

Looking around, he notes that all the other people around the table have their arms similarly strapped to boards so that they cannot bend their arms either.  They are grunting and groaning as they attempt to eat.  But they cannot, and there is great wailing and moaning at their predicament.

The man turns to the angel standing nearby and says, “This must be hell?”  “Uh, huh,” says the angel.  “What is heaven like then?” the man asked.

So the angel leads him into another huge banquet hall in which there is another great table filled with an equally delectable array of food.  “Ah,” says the man, “this is more like it!”  And, sitting down, he is about to help himself once again when the angel comes and ties a board to the back of his arms, so that, once again, he cannot bend his elbows to feed himself.  Lamenting that this is the same maddening situation as hell, he looks about in his dismay and notices that, at this table, there is something different happening.

Instead of people trying desperately to help themselves, straining against the rigidity of their arms, each person is holding his or her arm straight and feeding the person sitting next to them.  Each person is feeding the person next to him and everyone in the room is completely satisfied.  

So this is heaven!” the man finally realizes.  And the angel standing beside him says, “Uh, huh.”  The difference between heaven and hell is that hell is where one is wholly focused on feeding oneself, paying no attention to anyone else.  Heaven, on the other hand, is all about noticing, helping, lifting, feeding, and caring about the other persons around us.

Notice the lilies, to be sure, but notice also
the person next to you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Journey Has No End

From Hydra we sailed to Athens completing our sea journey in the Aegean Archipelago.  The next morning after breakfast we disembarked from our yacht and traveled by bus to the Benaki Museum of  Greek Civilization.  This museum was established and endowed by Antonis Benakis  and is housed in the family mansion in downtown Athens.  The museum provided the perfect ending to our sojourn in Greece, exhibiting many artifacts from the islands and archaeological sites we had visited.  I was most impressed by the vast collection of icons.

We spent our last afternoon in Athens in the Plaka area, walking among the shops and taking time to sit one last time at a taverna for an afternoon libation to celebrate our sojourn in Greece.  In the evening, we gathered at the rooftop restaurant in our hotel with a fine view of the Acropolis, to say farewell to our traveling companions (now friends) from Connecticut, New York, Colorado, Texas, California, Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Maryland, and to our tour director, Zanna Mouzaki.  The next morning, very early, we were off to the airport and arrived safely in the USA that same day (Greece is 7 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time).

“There is a kind of flame in Crete,” wrote Kazantzakis, (and I would add the whole of Greece) “—let us call it soul—something more powerful than either life or death.  There is pride, obstinacy, valor, and together with these something else inexpressible and imponderable, something which makes you rejoice that you are a human being, and at the same time tremble.”

What is it that comes over me, and enters into me, in Greece (or any where else I may be in the world)?  What is the “something else inexpressible and imponderable, something which makes you rejoice that you are a human being, and at the same time tremble?”  

Sunset over Athens

The Acropolis at dusk

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cruising the Greek Islands: Nafplion, Mycenae & Hydra

We sailed from Monemvassia to Nafplion (once upon a time an important seaport town in the Peloponnese).  From Nafplion we traveled by bus to Mycenae.  Since my first sojourn in Crete, I have longed to see Mycenae, a major center of civilization in the second millennium BC, and probably related to the Minoan civilization that arose in Crete.

In 1874, Heinrich Schliemann excavated all over the acropolis (hill) of Mycenae.  He believed the stories of Homer in the Illiad contained historical truth and interpreted the site from that perspective (just as he had done with the excavation of Troy).  Schliemann found ancient graves with royal skeletons and spectacular treasures.  In one grave, he found a human skull with a gold death mask, and incorrectly declared:  “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” (Agamemnon was a king of Mycenae during the legendary Trojan War). 

To sit quietly among the rubble of stone and the huge walls of ancient Mycenae still standing, to look upon the Lion’s Gate, and the Treasury of Atreus, after years of reading about it, was a long-awaited dream come true.  I could not grasp the wonder of the place, or visualize what it must have been like those many years ago, nor could I believe that I was at last at Mycenae.  

Returning to Nafplion, we boarded our yacht and sailed that afternoon to our last island stop: Hydra.  The only motor vehicles permitted on this island are trash trucks.  Horses, mules and donkeys, along with water taxis provide public transportation.  Here we enjoyed an evening stroll, and yet another taverna dinner, and a spectacular sunset over the Aegean Sea.  Afterward, we set sail for Athens.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cruising the Greek Isles: Monemvassia

Monemvassia is a medieval fortified town remarkably preserved and built on a rock. The town is nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East,” or as simply “the Rock.” The rock may have been the site of a Minoan trading post long ago, however, the town and fortress of Monemvassia were founded fairly recently when compared to other Greek  islands—583 A.D.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, and yet, in a sense, each of us is an island. We are separate from each other as islands are, and often times we live at great distances from one another. Seeing the “Rock” of Monemvassia reminded me of other such rocks protruding from the sea and the mountains of the earth, so isolated, so alone. Yet every such rock and every island is an extrusion of the same earth.  In other words, at bottom we are connected!

It is extremely foolish for us to think of ourselves as an island, separate and apart from all others, or to think of our nation as separate and apart from all other nations. We cannot long survive with such a mentality.  We are all part of the earth, we share common ancestors (from antiquity) and we must be connected to each other to enjoy the fulness of life.  

I noticed a van at the port of Athens, filled with fruits and vegetables, with a map of Crete painted on its side. I asked, “Is that van from Crete?”  “Of course,” was the reply, “the vans from Crete and the other islands come by ferry to Athens everyday, day and night, to deliver fresh produce.” This prompted the thought:  As the islands need one another, so the mainland also needs the islands in order to sustain life.  No person is an island…nor can any nation isolate itself from its people or other nations, because “at bottom” we are connected.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cruising the Greek Isles: Kythera & Monemvassia

We sailed 180 miles from Crete to the island of Kythera.  Kytheria lies opposite the south-eastern lip of the Peloponnese peninsula and is known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. (Cyprus also claims to be the birthplace of the goddess, but I’ll leave that religious debate alone). From ancient times until the mid-19th century, Kythera was a crossroads of sailors, merchants and conquerors.  Naturally, the island was influenced by those who have passed through it, which is readily seen in some of its architecture.

We went to Hora, the capital of Kythera, where we walked through the quiet streets and climbed up the hill to wander through a castle built from the late 12th century till the early 13th century during the Venetian occupation.  From the castle one can see the Ionian, Aegean and Cretan Sea.  This observation point is called “The Eye of Crete.”  

As you can see from the photos, everything in Kythera exudes the old Aegean charm, from the pure white houses, narrow pathways, to the many pots filled with flowers along the way. 

The big attraction before we sat down and enjoyed lunch,  was watching a shark being pulled out of the water.  Apparently a fisherman had caught it in his net—which the shark had destroyed.  With the use of ropes the shark was pulled to shore.

There was a beautiful beach right next to where our ship was docked and near the taverna where we enjoyed lunch.  A few brave souls went swimming, but all I could think of was that shark!  

Following lunch, we embarked and sailed for Monemvassia.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Dear Mom"

Dear Mom,

Forgive me for seeing you only as “Mom” and missing the essence of who you were apart from being a mother to me—to all seven of us.  You did an exceptional job in the “Mom” role.  You put up with all our shenanigans of those early years (and the later years, too) with a patience beyond belief.  I remember you “yelling” at us in frustration, and “taking up the switch cut from the lilac bush” to straighten us out when we disobeyed or went astray.   As I think of those moments, I also remember how you sang to lull me into sleep, even though you could not carry a tune.  Sometimes, I hear you singing still, and in that singing now, as then, I never hear a discordant note!

As the years went by, you (along with Dad) were there, always there for us in all our pursuits, our struggles, and our joys. As parents you allowed us to plow our own furrows in the garden of life—not judging, not advising, not trying to direct (well, maybe sometimes) but simply watching patiently to see how straight our furrows might be.  If they turned out to be crooked, you did not badger us with an “I told you so,” but rather supported us in whatever circumstance or situation we had created for ourselves.  We always knew we were loved “just as we were” at any given moment.

But, Mom, you were more than a mother and I was blind not see it.  You had a “life” apart from motherhood, apart from your seven children, and even apart from Dad.  You had dreams and aspirations and I did not and do not know, even now, what they were.  You experienced your own struggles, your own hopes, your own difficulties, and I never knew or paid much attention to what they were.  You had your circle of friends, a personal faith, a life of your own, that I did not know.  You were my Mom, our Mom, and we were blind to the beauty of the person you were outside of that role.  Forgive me for seeing you only as “Mom.”  I see now that you had value because you were a Person, not just “Mom!”

Cruising the Greek Isles: Rethymnon, Crete

As we were leaving Santorini, the ship’s captain called us together to make an announcement.  We held our breath, thinking that perhaps we would not be going to Crete, since the Knossos visit had already been cancelled.  Instead, he wanted to let us know that we would be facing a rough sea as we made our way to Crete overnight.  The waves could reach a height of 12-14 feet, he said.  Dramamine was passed out to all!  Most of us made it through the night, but a few, including my sister, suffered sea-sickness.  The captain brought us through the rough sea and by morning we were safely anchored in the old Venetian harbor of Rethymnon, Crete.

My family and friends are aware that Crete has had a profound influence in my life since the age of 17, when the Air Force sent me there for a year and a half.  My adult life has been shaped by that experience.  What a thrill it was to have my brother and sister experience Crete with me on this visit after hearing me rave about it for the past 55 years!  “This is why I left you in Crete,” the Apostle Paul wrote young Titus, “that you might set in order the things that are wanting…” (Titus 1:5).  I have always felt that, like Titus, I was left on Crete for a purpose.

Crete has changed drastically over the past 55 years. Still, the island “holds a wondrous attraction for me, for it ’twas” on this island that I became aware of a wider world than that which I had ever known, a world where people lived thousands of years before me, a new world, that I beheld with new eyes and understanding.  On Crete, a vision of this world as it is meant to be filled my mind, a vision which I embraced and have sought ever since.  Crete provided me opportunity to experience people (in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Germany, Turkey, Libya, and Egypt) and to discover that in spite of our diversity we belong to one another and are meant to live in a global community as brothers and sisters.  My former Sunday school teacher, Beatrice Smith, wrote (to encourage me) during that first sojourn on Crete, “God is as close to you in Crete as he was in New Jersey.”  Yes, God was close to me in Crete, so close that I came to know how small my conception of God and God’s world had been in New Jersey!  I began to see “how big and wide God’s vast domain” and to know that Love is at the heart of all things. Perhaps that explains, above all else, the magnetic-like pull that Crete has had on my mind, my heart, and my soul through all these years.  Every congregation I have ever served has heard a sermon titled, “Left In Crete.”

In Rethymnon (as everywhere in Crete) there are traces of a history dating back 7000 years B.C., even preceding the Minoans of Knossos (the first civilization in Europe). It was  so special to be in Rethymnon (the third largest city on the island)  and it was sheer joy to be “left in Crete” again, even if only for a day!

Greetings from Crete:  1962
Rethymnon Taverna: 2017

We enjoyed a dancing troupe on
board ship at Rethymnon, but this is
a photo of Crete dancers from 1961

Crete Visit:  1997

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cruising the Greek Isles: Santorini

On our third day sailing the Aegean we arrived at Santorini, one of the most beautiful islands in the world.  Just prior to our departure from Athens we were informed that the scheduled visit  to Knossos on the island of Crete had been cancelled due to the May Day holiday.  The tour company offered a substitute:  a full island tour of Santorini (ancient Thera).  This was a real plus for me.  I first visited Santorini in 2001, and like most of the 1.5 million tourists annually, I only visited the much photographed capital of Fira high upon the cliffs overlooking the Caldera.  Now, I would be able to see the whole island, including Akrotiri, one the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean.  The first inhabitants of Akrotiri date from Neolithic times—4000-3000 B.C.

Santorini is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history (the Minoan eruption) which occurred some 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization.  The eruption left a large water-filled Caldera (a volcano crater formed when the mouth of the volcano collapses) and may have led indirectly to the destruction of the Minoan civilization (Knossos and other palace sites) on the island of Crete through a giant tsunami. 

A tender boat took us from our yacht to the island.  There are three ways to get to the top of the 980 foot cliff and Fira Town.  You can take the cable car, you can walk (climb) or you can ride up on a donkey.  We went up by cable car and then toured the island by bus.  (I wondered how the bus got up the 980 foot cliff—by cable car, driven, or on the back of a donkey!)  The cliff is not the only access to the island, though many tourists think so.

Excavation at Akrotiri (sometimes referred to as the Pompeii of the Aegean) began in 1967. A Minoan  town was uncovered.  Three-story buildings with stone staircases still intact, streets, workshops, a highly developed drainage system, pipes with running water (both hot, probably geothermic, and cold)  water closets (the oldest ever discovered) beds and bathtubs were found under the layers of volcanic ash.  An amazing discovery of a highly advanced and sophisticated people.  No human skeletal remains were found which suggest the citizens escaped the great Minoan eruption.  I wonder where they went?