Alternative faces

I continue to struggle with what to say these days: with so many bad choices, hurtful orders, and childish displays coming from the White House, it seems irresponsible not to comment on them — but many others more qualified than I are providing cogent commentary. At the moment I have nothing to add other than a reminder that we who believe Christ calls us to welcome the stranger and care for the poor know who we are, and what we must do. stmarysfalls-sThere may be little we can do about what’s happening in Washington until the next election, but we can hold on to the virtue of truth, continue being the church, and reach out to our communities with compassion for all and prejudice toward none.
And, in the midst of our well-warranted anxieties, we can take time to appreciate the beauty of the world and the people around us, or to recall happier times. I’ve been doing both lately. Last summer, Susan and I were fortunate enough to spend a few days hiking in Glacier National Park, which overlaps the border between northern Montana and Canada. Global warming is melting the park’s namesake glaciers so quickly that they may be gone completely within three or four years, but the vistas remain stunning for now. Susan and I brought back cherished memories, along with a ton of photographs.

One of my favorite places was St. Mary Falls, a hefty hike off the main road and about halfway to Virginia Falls, higher up in the mountains. We stood to absorb the view, feel the spray, and smell the air on the way up as well as on the way back. We also took pictures, of course. When we repainted our bathroom a few months back, we had enlarged canvas prints made from several photos and used them to decorate the walls.

A 16″ X 20″ photo of St. Mary Falls hangs over the toilet, so for obvious reasons I end up looking at it more closely and more often than most pictures. A few weeks after we hung the picture, I realized that a man’s face was staring back. It’s a trick of angles, light, and cracks in the rock, I know, but there he is, just to the right of a triangular tuft of moss, admiring the view.

I call it an alternative face, and I contend that the rock must be sending a message that despite it all, the world is bigger than any man’s ego, and still an amazing place for those who have eyes to see.

It’s safe to talk Chinese

chineseboxFor now, at least, it seems safe to talk Chinese.

It’s certainly not safe to talk politics, at least in a mixed crowd that might include both fans and detractors of the current president. Folks like me can only shake our heads at how he continues to lie with abandon, claiming he would have won the popular vote if not for “millions of illegal immigrants who voted,” a charge that has no shred of supportive evidence. Or at the way he flares with childish pique and refuses to accept reality, accusing news agencies and the National Parks Agency of skewing numbers when anyone with eyes could see that attendance for his inauguration was far lower than either of Obama’s inaugurations — or the Women’s March on the following day. His spokespeople deride truth tellers and shill “alternative facts” as false as the fake news stories and Russian interference that helped to get him elected. And yet, he is the president. God help us.

As troublesome as such things are, most people dare not bring them up in public conversation or even on Facebook, for fear of alienating friends or family members who, for reasons beyond my imagination, think juvenile behavior is acceptable in the Oval Office. No doubt, there are folks in the alt-right who can’t imagine why I or anyone else would think such things or disagree with their version of reality.

chineseSo what do we talk about? Chinese food, it appears, is a safe subject. Folks in my neighborhood belong to a web-based community conversation board (through that includes 33 subdivisions in the area. It’s a good place to post a query asking if anyone knows a good handyman, has tried a tankless water heater, or wants a free treadmill that was rarely used. Some people post announcements of yard sales, or alert us that Girl Scouts will soon be knocking on the door (this year’s offerings include gluten-free “Trios,” and they’re not bad).

Most queries get one or two responses, rarely more than three. But, a week or so before the presidential inauguration, someone asked neighbors to recommend their favorite Chinese restaurant. I don’t know if folks around here really feel that strongly about Chinese food, or if they were just relieved to be able to express an opinion without fear of recrimination, but the floodgates opened.

Two or three responses turned into a dozen, then two dozen, then double that. As I write, 54 people have replied to the initial request, recommending 23 different restaurants within a reasonable radius, with names ranging from Banana Leaf to Super Wok, along with requisite monikers like China Best, First China, China Uno, China Cary, and so forth.

The clear winner for American style Chinese was Ginger (also my choice), mentioned in 12 replies (yes, I counted and tallied them all). Seven people recommended Taipei 101, most insisting that it is the most authentic. Next in line was First China, touted as best for takeout. Two respondents identified themselves as Chinese, giving more gravitas to their culinary choices. I’m sure that more responses are on the way.

It may or may not be entirely safe to speak Chinese in these American-first, anti-immigrant, restrictive trade days, but at least we can talk about Chinese food — a surprising place to find common ground.

The gift you always wanted

Camels are one form of transportation at Petra.

Camels are one form of transportation at Petra.

Need a last minute gift idea for someone dear, or even for yourself? Time’s a wastin’ (as Snuffy Smif likes to say) for you to register for the gift of a lifetime — a trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. Nurturing Faith Experiences and Campbell University Divinity School are jointly sponsoring the trip, slated for May 13-24, 2017.

People occasionally have concerns about safety, and my response is always the same: I feel more secure when traveling in Israel than I would on the streets of most American cities. We simply don’t go into areas where conflict might be likely. Our guide and bus driver are the best in the business, and they know how to keep folks safe. Your drive to the airport might be the most dangerous thing you undertake on the trip.

Want to know more? Here’s our itinerary:

May 13 (Saturday) – We depart from Raleigh-Durham or other airports for Newark, where we will board an overnight, non-stop flight to Tel-Aviv, Israel.


The remain’s of Herod’s palace at Caesarea Maritime

May 14 (Sunday) – We arrive in the morning to be met by Doron Heiliger, one of Israel’s finest and most experienced guides. We board our luxury motor coach and drive first to the seacoast city of Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Israel. We then visit the strategic city of Megiddo, home to more than 20 layers of civilization, and Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. We end the day with dinner and overnight at Nof Ginosar, our hotel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

A beautiful spring gushes from the ancient grotto at Banyas, near Caesarea Philippi.

A beautiful spring gushes from the ancient grotto at Banyas, near Caesarea Philippi.

May 15 (Monday) – After a morning devotion at the Mount of Beatitudes, we drive on the Via Maris to the ancient city of Hazor, then to the northern city of Dan, site of Jeroboam’s rival temple and a gate that dates to the time of Abraham. We then visit Banyasand Caesarea Philippi, where Roman gods were worshiped. We enjoy lunch in the Druze village of Mas’ada, then drive through the Golan Heights on our way back to Nof Ginosar.


An early synagogue in Capernaum, the "village of Jesus."

An early synagogue in Capernaum, the “village of Jesus.”

May 16 (Tuesday) – We spend this day around the Sea of Galilee, visiting the city of Bethsaida, Peter’s hometown of CapernaumMigdal (home of Mary Magdalene), and other sites. From there we travel to the ancient city of Beth-Shean/Scythopolis, and to the Jordan River, where persons who wish may reaffirm their baptism. We end the day with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee before returning to Nof Ginosar.

The view from Mount Nebo, where Moses looked into the Promised Land. The green area is Jericho.

The view from Mount Nebo, where Moses looked into the Promised Land. The green area is Jericho.

May 17 (Wednesday) – We bid goodbye to Galilee and cross into the country of Jordan, where we will visit Mount Nebo, where Moses looked into the Promised Land. From there we drive south through the territory of ancient Ammon and Moab, ending with dinner and overnight at the Mövenpick Hotel in Petra.

The so-called "Treasury," one of many tomb facades in ancient Petra.

The so-called “Treasury,” one of many tomb facades in ancient Petra.

May 18 (Thursday) – Today we visit the impressive Nabatean city of Petra, where the main street is lined with elaborate tombs carved from the colorful sandstone mountains. We then drive through the red desert territory of ancient Edom on our way to the Red Sea port city of Aqaba, where we check in for a relaxing evening at the Mövenpick Aqaba hotel, with an opportunity to swim in the Red Sea.

Cave 4 near Qumran, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Cave 4 near Qumran, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

May 19 (Friday) – We leave early to cross back into Israel and drive through southern Judea en route to Herod’s desert fortress at Masada, the last Jewish holdout against the Romans in 74 C.E. Driving north along the coast of the Dead Sea, we stop to visit the oasis of Ein Gedi, where David confronted Saul, and pause for a quick look at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We will have an opportunity to float in the Dead Sea before driving through Jericho on our way to our first night in Jerusalem, the Holy City. We arrive at Ramat Rachel, our home for the next four nights, as Orthodox Jews gather to welcome the Sabbath (Shabbat).

The Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane

May 20 (Saturday) – We begin on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. We walk down the Palm Sunday Road, pausing to visit both modern and ancient Jewish cemeteries. We stop for a devotion at Dominus Flevit, traditional site of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, then walk through the Garden of Gethsemane and visit the Church of All Nations. We drive to Bethlehem for lunch, a meeting with Palestinian Christians, and a visit to the Church of Nativity.

5-28_HolySepulcheMay 21 (Sunday) – Today we tour the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Pool of Bethesda. We will worship at Ecce Homo, where Jesus may have been held before the crucifixion, and walk along the Via Dolorosaon our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We experience the Jewish Quarter and the City of David, where excavations have uncovered monumental buildings from the time of David. We conclude with a walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel to the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a blind man.

May 22 (Monday) – Today we travel southwest to Beit-Guvrim, near the ancient town of Maresha, to participate in a hands-on archaeological dig. Afterward, we visit the city of Lachish, second only to Jerusalem in Judea, famously conquered by Sennacherib in 722 B.C.E. We drive back through the Valley of Elah, where David defeated Goliath, and stop to take in the view at Beth Shemesh. We end the day with a visit to the Yad-vaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.

"Gordon's Calvary," near the Garden Tomb, has a skull-shaped formation on the side of the hill.

“Gordon’s Calvary,” near the Garden Tomb, has a skull-shaped formation on the side of the hill.

May 23 (Tuesday) – Our last day includes a visit to the Davidson Center and the Southern Steps, where Jesus and other pilgrims would have entered the Temple Mount. We will visit Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, where we will share in a communion service before visiting the Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of priceless antiquities. Afterward, we drive to Jaffa (ancient Joppa) for a fabulous seaside farewell dinner, and on to the airport for our late-night flight home.

May 24 (Wednesday) – After an overnight flight, we arrive early morning in Newark before transferring to our homeward flights.

Note: This is a study tour, so we pack as much as we can into each day. Participants need to be in good health and able to handle steps and occasional steep paths. The schedule is subject to change as we go. We will see many sights not specifically mentioned on the schedule, and may be able to add a bonus stop or two along the way.

To ensure your spot, sign up by January 1. After that, we’ll continue to add participants as long as we have room on the bus — excuse me — “the luxury motor coach.” If you have any questions, feel free to email me at Links for online registration and payment can be found here: A $250 deposit due with registration, refundable before Feb. 1. The total cost is $3995, an incredible value for an incredibly meaningful trip.

Join us!


Pressing on …

The paucity of posts I’ve generated in the past few months reminds me of how hard it’s been for me to generate blogs lately. I could claim a lack of time, but I’ve always had to squeeze blog-writing into what are typically very busy days. I could claim a lack of subject matter, but that would be blatantly untrue.

The main problem, I think, has been too much subject matter — of the wrong sort. Our country has surrendered to the worst sort of fear- and hate-mongering, allowing fake news and distorted claims to generate enough hysteria to turn sufficient numbers of the electorate against the best-prepared candidate for president we have seen in years, and toward a man who is not only woefully unprepared, but dangerously unwilling to believe anything that doesn’t fit with his preconceived notions.

It’s a downside of democracy that things like this may happen. Several things contribute to the difficulty of writing about this. One is that the issues seem so obvious that you would think they need no comment, or that a few words of reason would be sufficient to clarify the better options, but many have become so entrenched in the twisted views manufactured for them that reason has gone by the wayside. Another is that feelings have run so high that it’s hard to even talk about the election without offending people I love, some of whom really believe electing Donald Trump as president was a good idea.

hopeI don’t want to offend anyone, but we have to acknowledge that the country is embarking on dangerous territory. The best hope I have at the moment is that, when you elect a completely egocentric individual as president, perhaps he will recognize that his own reputation will rise and fall with the fate of the country. So, if for no other reason than to build a positive legacy, one hopes that he might heed good advice from all quarters and truly seek what is best for all who call this nation — which has never stopped being great — our home.

And so, though I still find it hard to put the words “president” and “Trump” together, I will pray for him and hope that the weight of the office will somehow forge his largely unhinged past into something resembling steady leadership.

In the meantime, I look for other things to celebrate. I’m blessed with good health, good friends, and an amazing wife who makes every day special. I managed to turn 65 while feeling at least twenty years younger, and with no thoughts of retirement. I have the privilege of teaching a whole passel of amazing students at Campbell University Divinity School, and of writing Bible studies that help me connect with thousands of readers. I evan managed (with the help of a YouTube video) to fix the shift key on my Macbook, at least for now.

Life is good for me, and I am grateful. I hope our country can do as well.