What does it mean to be a Christian?

It is fashionable today in right-wing circles to cloak oneself in the mantle of Christianity, and to proclaim a lot of decidedly un-Christian things in his name. Selectively quoting the Bible will get you far.

Silly me, I thought (think) the cornerstone of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount, not telling others what they can and can’t do in their homes and doctor’s office.

I was raised as a Christian and liked some things I heard but was appalled at the hypocrisy I saw. I didn’t want to identify with people who proclaimed one thing on Sunday morning for an hour and did something else the rest of the week.

I found a couple of books by my bedside while cleaning. They are the work of Kent Haruf, who writes of life in a fictional small town in Eastern Colorado. The books were “Eventide” and “Plainsong”. Haruf writes in a simple, spare prose. The books sound like the windswept plain and hardscrabble lives of which he writes. After reading them I wanted more. I learned that he had written a third book and that they formed a sort of trilogy – each stands alone, but some of the characters (it being a small town) appear in more than one book and the books follow a chronology.

“Benediction”, the third in the series, concerns an old man dying of cancer. He owns the town hardware store. Other stories are interwoven, as are the lives in a small town. One such story is that of the pastor, Lyle, who has come to their town after leaving his prior post under unspecified (but apparently less than stellar) circumstances. I want to quote a long passage, as I can’t say this better than he did. Of note, the author does not use quotation marks to differentiate speakers. You’ll figure it out.

From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013

[At the Sunday service, the minister has just read the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Luke.]

“This passage, he said, is usually referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Augustine first called it that. It appears in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke but the texts differ somewhat… but the most important of these Bible texts say essentially the same thing. These are the ones I’ve read just now. The crux of the matter for us. The soul of our lesson and the very essence of the teaching of Jesus.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who harm you. Turn the other cheek. Give away money and don’t expect it back.

But what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. He must have been speaking of some utopian idea, a fantasy. He must be using a metaphor. Suggesting a sweet dream. Because all of us here today know better. We are awake to reality and know the world wouldn’t permit such a thing. It never has and never will. We can be clear about that right now.  

Because here we are at war again. And we know the inescapable images of war and violence so well. We’ve seen them all too often.

The naked young girl running in terror toward us, crying and screaming, away from fires behind her.

The boy in the hospital room with his little brother and their frightened mother. He’s been blinded, his face is scarred. Am I ugly now, Mother? he says.

We see the pictures of the headless body dumped out beside the road in a ditch.

We’ve seen the soldier, the black stiff grotesque thing that once was a man, burned now and hanged, dragged through the streets behind a truck.

We’ve watched in horror the human figures leaping out of the windows of the burning towers.

And so we know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels good to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can’t love people who do evil. It’s neither sensible nor practical. It’s not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. There is no way on earth we can love our enemies. They’ll only do wickedness and hatefulness again. And worse, they’ll think they can get away with this wickedness and evil, because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?

But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said 2000 years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate, knew it all so well from firsthand personal experience? And what if in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies? Turn your cheek. Pray for those who misuse you. What if he meant every word of what he said? What then would the world come to?

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. We have the power to take away your water and to scorch your earth, to rob you of the very fundamentals of life. We can change the actual day into actual night. We can do all of these things to you. And more.

But what if we say, listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the Great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: we are going to love you. We have set our hearts to it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters. We are going to turn our collective national cheek and present it to be stricken a second time, if need be, and offer it to you. Listen, we –

But then he was abruptly halted. Someone out in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?

He stood up, a tall man in a light summer suit, staring at Lyle. You must be about as crazy as hell! He turned fiercely and grabbed his wife’s hand, pulling her to her feet and gesturing angrily at their little boy. They came out of the pew and went hurrying back up the aisle through the doors and out of the church.  

The congregation all watched them leave. Then they began to look around at one another. They looked again at Lyle.  

What do the rest of you think? Lyle said. What do you say? He was standing next to the pulpit now.

I’m not afraid to say, a man said. You’re a damn terrorist sympathizer. He rose up in the middle of the sanctuary, holding on to the pew-back ahead of him. A big heavyset man. We never should of (sic) let you come out here. You’re an enemy to our country.

[Most of the congregation walks out. During the course of the next week, he walks the streets of the town at night. One evening, two men get out of a pickup truck and one slaps him hard across the face. He then reaches back and slaps him again across the other side of the face. The men make it clear that they don’t want him in their town anymore. The next week he goes back to the church, stands at the pulpit very briefly, and says goodbye to the congregation. He leaves the church and goes out driving aimlessly in the countryside, finally ending up at the home of two older women who had defended him in church. He asks what happened after he left church and they tell him his wife told the congregation she was leaving him.]

I think I’m done.

You don’t mean that, Willa said.

Yes. I’m finished as a minister. I haven’t done much good.

But people will get over this.

Probably they will. But I won’t. People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013

And that is why, as a teenager, I left the church.

Tundra swan; for no good reason except that I saw a flock while racing the snowstorm to pick up the car across town. My water bottle was frozen by this time, with 10 more miles to ride.

The trip that changed my life (by request)

The Dihedral just ran a post about their dream van. One of their friends and frequent commenters, Martha, added a comment about her 1972 VW bus breaking down and spewing oil. I added a bit about our bus breakdown and said the trip changed my life. The Dihedral wants the deets. So here goes…

It was late summer 1973. I had spent 4-5 days camping alone in my friend’s back 40, engrossed in activities such as drying herbs with binoculars. I returned to town to find my roommates gathered in the living room, packed for a trip of their own. They asked if they could use my tent. I handed it over. They asked about the stove, the cook kit, etc. One by one I pulled things out of my pack and handed them over. Then I stopped and asked where they were headed. They said, “John got a temporary layoff from work, so we’re headed to the American Legion State Forest to camp for a week.” I said, “Sounds like fun. Maybe I’ll join you.” They said, “Don’t you have to work tonight?” I said, “Yeah, but…”. They all got silly grins and started swapping knowing looks. They finally confessed that they were off to Colorado.

[By the way, I was planning a major trip to South America the following spring. The Rockies seemed like a good warmup for the Andes.]

[Also by the way, when I eventually made it back to where I had then been working, to pick up my last paycheck, they offered me my job back. I turned them down – more on that below.]

I jumped in the bus with them and off we went. After the trip, we all agreed that it was too short and began scraping money together for a longer trip. As fall came, we had enough to head for the Canadian Rockies. We got about 100 miles. I was in the back, over the engine. I suddenly heard an unpleasant sound and yelled to John, “Shut it down and pull over!” We pulled over and the engine died. We had it towed to LaCrosse, where we got the bad news.

VW buses of that era had an Achilles’ heel. The third cylinder exhaust valve was tucked into a spot where it tended to overheat. When the valve burned, it broke up and scattered bits of itself through the engine. A rebuild was in order. When we were ready to hit the road again, we didn’t have enough money to satisfy Canadian border agents that we could support ourselves in their country. (They had a per person minimum at the time.)

It was time for a new plan. We continued west, but in a more southerly direction – to Estes Park, Colorado. While there, we headed into Denver so I could get my shots for South America. After getting my Yellow Fever, Cholera, and Typhoid immunizations, the Public Health Nurse asked if I had any aspirin. She advised that I get some and take two immediately, two more before bed, and two more as soon as I woke up. I said, “I’m gonna be sick, eh?” She said “Sicker than you’ve ever been.” The next morning I was able to crawl out of the tent and sprawl on a picnic table in the sun. I stayed there all day, too sick to move. Twenty four hours after the shots, I was fine again. If that’s the prevention, I’d hate to have the disease(s).

We stayed in the area until a sudden squall. We dove for the tents, leaving our dinner dishes on the table. When we awoke, we had to break ice out of the dishes before we could put them away. We decided it was time to head south.

We drove to New Mexico and made camp in the Sandia Range, just outside of Albuquerque. There we were hit with a hailstorm that dropped six inches in a few minutes. It melted as quickly as it came. My friends decided they needed some city and I stayed behind. We agreed on a day and time they would return to rejoin me with fresh provisions.

When the time arrived, I headed down the trail and posted welcome signs for them. Jumping across the stream to post a sign, I landed badly and heard a loud crack. I stuck my foot in the stream and iced it down. I made my way back to camp to pack up, figuring they’d take me to the hospital rather than rejoining me to camp longer.

At the appointed time, only one of them arrived. He told me he brought food for three days and they would return to pick us up at the trailhead. He brought some steaks, which had spoiled on the hike back. We spent the next three days crawling off to the woods with diarrhea, digging holes as fast as we could. [The idea of packing out excrement was unknown to us back then, not to mention it would have been a difficult cargo to pack.] In my spare time, I fashioned a crutch.

At the newly-appointed time, we made our way back to the trailhead. We got in the bus and made it to the ER, where I was swaddled in what I now know as a “bulky Jones splint” and fitted with store-bought crutches. It was time to head back to Wisconsin.

bulky Jones splint; from a YouTube training video by the Washington University School of Medicine.
Mine was longer, ending just below the knee.

As winter settled in, I realized there was something more wrong with my ankle than a bad sprain. My peroneal tendon had an unfortunate tendency to dislocate when I walked. It did not seem like a good thing to have happen on narrow Andean trails. It wasn’t altogether pleasant on sidewalks.

Image from CMMG via Pinterest. The purple line (added by me) is roughly where my peroneus longus would end up, instead of its usual spot tucked behind the now-shredded retinaculum. Imagine a rubber band stretched from your knee to the bottom of your foot, then twanging it at the ankle. That’s what it felt like. It would now go slack, which made it hard to stand up.

I paid a visit to my local community clinic. The doctor there had no clue what was going on, but referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who diagnosed the problem when I walked across his office. He said he could fix it Monday. I called Fred to tell him I couldn’t make it to the Andes and scheduled surgery.

While recuperating, I began volunteering at the clinic. I also heard about a new co-op trying to get off the ground. Having nothing better to do that winter, I began to go to organizing meetings. I worked at that co-op for the next ten years, which led to a continuing career in co-ops in California and Nicaragua, which led to where I am today (two careers removed from co-ops, but that’s another story for another time). P.S. Happy 45th birthday, Willy St Co-op; which opened 10/09/1974.

Also that winter, I had a roommate who went ice skating every day. Feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t go with him, I started plotting for spring. When spring arrived, I bought a new bike. (That story earned a paragraph in the January 20, 2018 entry.) That bike took me on my first tours, which led to the transcontinental tour of 2018.

So that, Dihedral, is my story. And I’m sticking to it. How an injury leads to a career path and a new bike, then a 4400 mile bike trip 45 years later. Way more than you bargained for, eh?