Jesus on a bicycle

December 29, 2013

“Flight” . . . design by Yusuf Grillo of Nigeria, contributed to benefit UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund

The scripture text and sermon in church this morning (December 29, 2013) told about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing for their lives because King Herod was determined to destroy this baby whom he perceived to be a potential rival to his political power. It reminded me of the column I posted three years ago, which shows the Holy Family’s “flight into Egypt” on a bicycle. The story is eternal, the image is haunting, and its timeliness is always with us.   

I bought the UNICEF Christmas card with Grillo’s painting more than thirty years ago, and it continues to be one of my most cherished depictions of Jesus. As a work of art, it is striking in its composition, color, and emotional impact. As a theological statement, it surpasses most sermons and carols of the season.

By depicting the holy family as African, Grillo expresses the principle of incarnation. In Jesus, God comes to each of us in a humanity that is exactly like our own—Nigerian, Chinese, American, Albanian, Korean.

By putting Jesus and his parents on a bicycle—all three of them on one bike intended for one rider—the artist conveys their poverty in a way that people of many cultures understand. When all of a family’s possessions can be contained in a box hanging from the saddle, life is being lived on the edge.

The bicycle overcomes the time barrier. Of course, Joseph didn’t have a bike (or that kind of hand saw, either). It doesn’t matter. The holy family of Bethlehem comes to life anew in every time and place, in modes that are characteristic of life right now.

Even if we did not know the story that the painting depicts, the portrait is eloquent in its implications. The biblical narrative, told in Matthew 2:13-23, conveys the terror that forced Joseph to hurry southward into hiding in Egypt rather than returning to his Nazareth home in the north. For the first two years of his life, Jesus lived as a refugee far from home.

It could be said that he is always a refugee. “This world is not my home,” the Spiritual tells us. It wasn’t Jesus’ home, either. Yet, he came to live among us, “full of grace and truth,” experiencing the fullness of life, its high moments and its times of despair. No matter where we are going, irrespective of our mode of travel, the Incarnate One, whose first trip was on a bicycle, travels with us.

Thank you, Yusuf Grillo, for helping us to draw closer to Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, and Egypt, and everywhere.

Watching for water on the road

December 26, 2013

Part two of a series:

A Desert Highway

A Desert Highway

The clouds were darkening when we entered the restaurant near our home in Sun City West, Arizona. A few minutes later, the summer monsoon storm hit us. Winds were so strong that they knocked a patron to the sidewalk as she and her husband tried to reach their car just outside the restaurant door. Then came the rain—so heavy that a stream of water curb high coursed down the street.

In an hour, everything was quiet, and the flooded streets were dry. We drove home as though nothing had happened.

Early the next morning, I took my regular bike ride on quiet desert roads. At one spot, near the village of Nadaburg, a stretch of the road thirty yards wide was covered with sand and debris a foot deep. I could see the relevance of signs that usually seemed so anomalous on these desert roads: “Watch for Water on the Road.”

For hundreds of years the people who lived in the southwestern deserts understood the climate: hot and dry, but with two seasons when rains would water the earth. They had learned how to use this limited precipitation to grow the food they needed and they had developed complex irrigation systems that sustained densely populated communities for generations.

Suddenly, these urban societies collapsed and, as we now know, with starvation and internecine conflict. Has the climate that wreaked havoc on these early desert societies changed so that we can plan our lives confidently? Or can we expect new periods of crisis? Are we wise enough and our regulatory systems sophisticated enough that we will be able to survive new periods of drought and flood?

These are the questions that meander through my mind as I and my bicycle wander over the quiet byways of the western world I love so much.

In their book The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell us About Tomorrow, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam answer, in a disquieting way.

They base their climatic meditations on the painstaking work of a wide range of earth scientists, people who study trees, ice crystals extracted from glaciers, sediment in places like San Francisco Bay and ocean waters off of Santa Barbara, and archeological ruins across the West. They explain carefully, although in a largely nontechnical way, how their colleagues can develop detailed chronologies of climatic conditions and compare them with human history.

They also discuss how variations in the number of sunspots affect what happens on earth how changes in the orientation of the earth toward the sun affect periods and places that are wet and dry and hot and cold. Especially interesting to me are their descriptions of two oceanic and cosmic factors that largely control climate and weather.

The “seemingly random and unpredictable swings in climate [in the Pacific Southwest] are largely brought about by periodic changes in the Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it, producing phenomena known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)…ENSO events are typically six to eighteen months in duration, whereas PDO phases last two to three decades or more” (51).

Ingram and Malamud-Roam reach three conclusions.

(1) Over the past 1,500 years, the climate of the American West has alternated between extended periods of intense drought and relatively well-watered interludes. Serious flooding and severe wild fires are part of the pattern, and changes can be sudden and catastrophic.

(2) The period since the Spanish occupation, even though it has seemed arid, is for the most part one of the well-watered interludes. Although there have been droughts in the recent history of the West (1927–1935 and 1987–1992, in particular) and floods (1861–1862, when the entire Central Valley of California was under water), these events have been short-lived manifestations of the western climatic pattern.

(3) The primary regulatory system in the American West since the early 1900s—the building of dams—has worked well but is nearing a crisis point. There is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power generation or useful water storage as early as 2021” (196). When that moment comes, ordinary life in cities from Las Vegas to San Diego will be threatened in the most serious ways imaginable.

The authors of The West Without Water suggest a course of action for people throughout the West, actions that could help us avoid the catastrophic collapse of a way of life that most of us take for granted. Now in my octogenarian years, I may not live long enough to experience this climatic apocalypse. While time remains, I hope to continue as an open-road cyclist, especially in the West.

But even for me, living as I do in part of the West that is currently wet, life has to change.  More about this next time.

Bicycling in America’s wet-dry world

December 20, 2013

West Without WaterThe West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow, by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 

I lived my earliest years in the dry land farming region of the Palouse country, south of Spokane, followed by growing up years in the marine climate west of the Cascades. After schooling in Indiana, I lived in the hot, dry South San Joaquin Valley of California and, after retirement, in the desert Southwest near Phoenix. For a decade now, I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest on the rainy side of the mountains. The wet-dry, hot-cool alternations are basic to my way of experiencing the world.

So, too, is the geographical and hydrological importance of the three river systems that penetrate the American West: The Columbia-Snake-Willamette in the north, the Sacramento-American-Kings-San Joaquin in Central California, and the Colorado-Salt-San Pedro-Gila through the canyon lands and deserts of Arizona and southern California.

These rivers serve as the organs that connect the dry (usually hot) and wet (usually cool) elements of the western regions of the United States. They also shape the roads and highways for my cycling endeavors. At home, I’m always riding along the Columbia and its tributaries and whenever I’m back in the southwest, the dwindling streams of the Colorado determine my routes.

In general, I’ve always been aware of two features of this part of the world. The first is that despite the stability of wet and dry as the basic character of the climate, there are occasional anomalies. Sometimes, the unusual periods are the normal features played out to the extreme: far more rain than usual or longer and hotter periods than seem to be normal. At other times, however, the weather seems to reverse the climate: wet lands become dry and constant rain turns dry lands to wet.

Another factor has always been evident. We human beings interact with the meteorological and hydrological features of the natural world. We adapt to wet and dry and to hot and cold. For hundreds of years, we have been able to engineer systems that allow us to reshape how nature functions. Irrigated agriculture is one of the most persistent and important elements of the engineered life. Urban civilization is another.

What we easily overlook is that our engineering successes last only for a time before forces greater than our own overpower us and the wet-dry alternation takes control once again.

Both as citizen of the West and open-road cyclist, I devote some of my time to learning about these climatic realities. My list of books-read in this area of study keeps growing. While I am generally aware of the history of wetness-dryness in the American West, what has been lacking is the longer perspective—a fact-based, narrative history of water in the West and how it has impacted human activity in this part of the world. There are so many questions, some of them dealing with time on a vast scale.

When and why were the southwestern deserts swampy lands lush with greenery and life? How could the ancient ones develop such elaborate civilizations? What caused their rapid disappearance? How could desert people in pre-discovery times live such well-nourished and seemingly leisurely lives? How could California’s arid central valley sustain lakes and swamps as recently as 150 years ago?

Willamette RiverSome of the questions are of more immediate importance to us. Will the technologies that we have developed enable people like us to continue our current way of life in the dry places of the West? Is western climate cyclical? And if it is, how long are the cycles? How extreme are the oscillations? What changes in climate should we anticipate during the early decades of the twenty-first century? What can we do now that will help us make ready for the future?

The book that is helping me understand these factors more fully is The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram is professor of earth and planetary science and geography at the University of California (Berkeley) and Malamud-Roam is associate environmental planner and biologist at Caltrans and visiting professor with her co-author at the University of California.

The subtitle of their book offers a summary of its contents: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket gives a more complete synopsis:

“The authors show that, although the Western states have temporarily buffered themselves from harsh climatic swings by building dams and reservoirs and by making other changes to the natural landscape, they may be unprepared for the effects of climate changes that are occurring now and may continue for hundreds of years into the future. The authors argue that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliably available.”

There are many things to observe and reflect upon as I bicycle along the rivers of my part of the western world. The West Without Water is one of them.

A minimalist faith confidently proclaimed

December 16, 2013


The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by John Shelby Spong (New York: HarperOne, 2013)

In the Preface to this book, the author notes that he is 82 years old and that this is his twenty-fourth book. He believes more deeply than ever, although he has fewer beliefs. The time may now be upon him when he will no longer depend upon words to communicate the life that he has found in Christ.

Spong offers an autobiographical sketch that portrays his deep involvement in and appreciation for specific churches that have nurtured his life through all of the years. I finish the book (the first of Spong’s volumes that I have read) appreciating his Christian testimony and the character it reveals. As for the book itself, there is much to affirm about Spong’s treatment of the Gospel of John, but also certain aspects that leave me unsatisfied.

Spong acknowledges that he has always found the gospel of John difficult because it presents ideas and attitudes that he believes are barriers to Christian faith for people of our time. Although his earlier books have dealt with these issues, Spong continues to joust with them in this new book.

These barriers, as I perceive them in my reading of The Fourth Gospel, include literal understandings of the Bible; rationalistic approaches to religion, especially if they draw upon Greek philosophy; authoritarianism in religion, especially when it takes the form of required doctrine, rules of behavior, and conformity to institutional patterns; supernaturalism in every form; and atonement theology that, in Spong’s understanding, wraps the other errors into one all-encompassing and destructive religious system. Read more The Fourth Gospel

Riding into Winter: A Second Opinion

December 9, 2013

Long-Distance CyclingSoon after posting my column encouraging people to bicycle through the winter, especially if they live in a relatively mild climate such as the Pacific Northwest or in one of the warmer zones of the country, I came across conflicting advice in Long-Distance Cycling, a 1993 book by the editors of Bicycling Magazine.

The editors provide six rules for riding through winter, drawn largely from people who live in Colorado, a place where winters are cold. They start off with advice that seems to contradict my encouragement that cyclists keep at it through the gloomy months. “Take it easy,” they counsel their readers. “The first rule for riding through winter is: Don’t ride through winter—at least not too hard.” They warn against the dangers of riding so much during the off season that cyclists will burn out part way through the summer.

They do encourage cyclists to stay in shape with indoor riding on a stationary bike and cross training in other athletic activities. Even in warm climates like Arizona, they say, “it’s important to get off the bike to clear your head. It’s fine to keep riding, but the pressure should be off.”

The other rules for winter riding make it clear that despite the advice in rule one, they do expect cyclists to continue to ride even during cold winters in higher elevations. “Dress Properly” is the second rule. Several suggestions are given, including layering, generous use of wool, special protection of knees, chest, hands, feet, and face. They suggest how male riders can protect against penile frostbite.

Rule three, “Be Flexible,” makes allowance for variations in weather, with pleasant days interspersed with harsher winter days. A flexible attitude and schedule allow cyclists to stay in when things are bad and get out when conditions improve. One writer acknowledges a change that I too have experienced. As I grow older, my cutoff temperature for winter riding has gotten warmer. In Indiana, my winter rule for recreational cycling was 35 and sunny. In the Pacific Northwest, I’ve added ten degrees.

“Get Fat Tires” is a rule I would never have thought of. Their point is that winter time riding is designed to help cyclists stay in good condition. A mountain bike with knobby tires will allow cyclists to “crank along” at 12 or 13 mph rather that 20 mph on a road bike. You will minimize wind chill, but still get a good workout.

The next rule is to rearrange routes to avoid hills and wind.” You get really warm going up hills and then you get cold going down. It’s especially important in winter to check the wind and try to ride into the wind going out and with the wind at your back on the return.

The final rule: “see and be seen after dark.” Here they make a few suggestions about wearing clothes that can be seen at night, using lights and reflectors, and trying to get out during the day—during noon hour, for example.

The editors finish off their rules for winter riding with a strong word of encouragement: “So, don’t let bad weather make this your winter of discontent. Instead, mix weight-training and aerobic activities with some no-pressure winter riding. When spring does come, you’ll be fit and eager.

So what am I doing on this 27 degree, gloomy, snow-spitting day? I’m sure not out there on my bicycle. I’m sitting in my warm condominium writing this blog.

Oh, and I’m dreaming of my near-New-Year’s-Day half-century, which this year I hope to do while visiting my son in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. In fact, the thought is so happiness-forming that I may do two and credit one of them for next year when I might be someplace cold.

Civil religion in Africa and America: A Thanksgiving Meditation

December 4, 2013

HarDivBulletinThe rare juxtaposition of dates on solar and lunar calendars brought two holidays together in November 2013: the American Thanksgiving, based on Puritan-Native American relations in colonial history, and Hanukkah, based on Jewish history from before the beginning of the common era.

These two celebrations come together nicely because they encourage the spirit of rejoicing throughout the entire community. The festive character of the celebrations makes it possible to include many people, whether or not they share explicit religious interpretations of life.

While celebrating Thanksgiving with extended family and friends at my Seattle daughter’s home, I found and read an essay discussing the relationship of civil religion and institutional religion in Nigeria, which helps me understand the broad meaning of Thanksgiving Day in America.

The author is Jacob K. Olupona, son of a Nigerian Anglican priest and now Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School. Early in the article, Olupona discusses the fact that Nigeria has two imported religious traditions that coexist in his country more successfully than elsewhere in Africa. He identifies a third institutional religion, indigenous African religion, which also is distributed throughout the nation.

What holds these three institutionalized religions together and makes possible their operations in relative harmony are “the ideology and rituals of Yoruba sacred kinship.” Olupona refers to this Yoruban system as a civil religion; it “is the incorporation of common myths, history, values, and symbols that relate to a society’s sense of collective identity.

In a footnote, he cites American sociologist Robert Bellah who describes “civil religion as the sacred principle and central ethic that unites a people and without which societies cannot function.”

Olupona’s understanding of civil religion embraces a wide range of activity, including “rites of passage and ceremonies…that promote the symbols and values of communalism and national sacrifice”; other activities that involve religion in public affairs; “the human, cultural dimensions within faith traditions, such as how human agency shapes, influences, and complicates religious control”; and “religion not only as a sacred phenomenon, but also as a cultural and human fact brought into being through social interaction.”

Nigerian civil religion is derived from one of the nation’s institutional religions—the indigenous African religion that was already there when Islamic and Christian missionaries brought their respective religions to this African country. Although the civil religion uses elements that come from institutionalized Yoruban religion, they have been modified so that their spirit also infuses Christians and Muslims.

The institutionalized religions are deeply established in Nigeria, and clearly are distinct from one another; yet, they have been dynamically intermixed “because of the enduring role of indigenous moral systems and practices among those professing Islam and Christianity.”

The United States and Nigeria differ in fundamental ways. Most important, in light of Olupona’s analysis, is the fact that the culturally dominant population of the United States consists of immigrant people who, like invasive plant species, have overrun and crowded out the original people with their myths, rituals and moral systems. What now operates as the American pattern of indigenous belief, ritual, and morality is derived from Christian belief and practice brought to North America by successive waves of European immigrants.

Not only in the churches, but in literature, music, politics, and culture in the broadest sense, the American sense of transcendence is shaped by the God of the Bible. The common ventures of life, such as marriage, work, and death, are framed by practices carried over from times when they were defined by Christian beliefs. The instincts concerning good and evil, justice and honor, mercy and care for another are derived from ethical systems derived from Jesus and other prophetic voices in the Christian Bible.

The serious character of this indigenous system came to mind again as I hurriedly scanned Stephen Mansfield’s recent book, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What it Meant for America (Thomas Nelson, 2012). Mansfield traces Lincoln’s religious trajectory, beginning with a period when he scoffed at religious practice and read widely in the literature of skepticism.

Gradually, Lincoln moderated his views and the tenor of his speeches and writings changed. Although he seems never to have joined a church, he attended frequently, read the Bible carefully, absorbing many of its ideas, and adopted the Bible’s tragic view of life. Increasingly, this somber sense of America’s character and destiny permeated everything that Lincoln did.

This all came to expression in one of the most revealing documents in America’s cultural, political, and religious history, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Although redolent with American indigenous religious language, this speech cannot be contained within any of the nation’s institutionalized religions. It presents the moral vision that is a central feature of American identity whether or not people affirm the explicit understandings of God and the divine purpose that are inscribed in the Bible.

It is good that we read the president’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation every year Even better, if we want to remember the deeper meaning of America’s civil religion, would be the annual reading of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.