Invasive? Or Introduced?

If you want to get somebody going here in New Zealand, say something nice about a stoat.   Stoats are little animals in the weasel family that are, by all accounts, crafty and ingenious.

brown stoat

Stoats Are also ruthless and efficient hunters. They were brought to New Zealand in 1884 and released into the wild as a means of controlling the exploding rabbit population. However, the stoats soon figured out that it was a heck of a lot easier to catch and kill kiwi birds than rabbits.  The result is that the native fauna was decimated. Bird life, in particular, was drastically affected. Some estimate that stoats kill 60% of kiwi chicks born every year.   Not surprisingly, the stoat is listed as one of  the 100 worst invasive species on the planet, and many biologists consider bringing it to New Zealand to be one of the worst mistakes ever made.

However, there are some species that have been successfully introduced with very beneficial results. Ask a New Zealander about sheep, for instance.  By all accounts, these fluffy little wool producers have thrived here – there are about 4 million humans in this nation, and about 40 million sheep. In fact, the methane produced by these herbivores is so potent that there have been calls to enact a  “fart tax” on farmers as a means of containing those greenhouse gasses the sheep produce.  But I digress. MY point is that the average New Zealander would say that life has been enriched by sheep. Introducing that species has been a gift.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of learning about another successful and beneficial species introduction: the rainbow trout. I came into the town of Taupo and connected with Fishy Steve, an American transplant who now serves as a guide and tutor in the art of fly fishing. Steve made time for me in his day and took me out along on one of  the many rivers that flow from Lake Taupo.

Rainbow trout were introduced in this country in 1883 and form the backbone of one of the most amazing fisheries on the planet. With Steve’s guidance and equipment, I was soon wading in beautiful waters and by the end of the day, I had two beautiful fish – about four pounds each, I would say. We enjoyed them for dinner – but not nearly as much as I enjoyed bringing them to the table. It was a simply awesome day.

And as I fell asleep on Saturday, I was delighted for introductions that have gone well. Life is better with trout – no doubt. And then I got to thinking about the things I bring, or have brought, into my own life. How many, I wonder, are beneficial introductions that enlarge my life and capacity for joy? And how many are predatory invaders that will sap my energy and kill my spirit?

May God grant each of us the wisdom, the strength of relationships, and the reflective character to be judicious in what we allow into our lives. We need to grow and we will change, but by God’s mercy, we’ll always be introducing successful and beneficial growth. Thanks for reading this. Now, I have some fish to clean!

What Will Heaven Be Like?

This week’s (8/14/2011) message at Crafton Heights was centered on the idea of eternal life.  It was occasioned by some of the controversy surrounding the Rob Bell book on Hell…but as I thought about it, it seemed that Heaven was more interesting to me.  The texts for the week were I Corinthians 13:8-13 and  Revelation 21:1-5

What will heaven be like?

That’s a question that I get asked with some frequency.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a pastor, and therefore am culturally presumed to have some sort of “inside track” on this sort of knowledge.  Maybe it’s because I radiate a sense of holiness and godliness that simply screams “heavenly” to strangers.  But mostly, I think, it’s because I am privileged to spend time with people who are dying.

Actually, of course, we are all dying.  When I say I spend time with people who are dying, I should say, “people who realize that they are dying” or “people who know that their time is short”.  At any rate, I am often in conversation with people who have significant questions about the afterlife and are close enough to discovering the truth for themselves that they’re willing to talk through them with an amateur like me.

The stereotypical depictions of heaven seem to involve clouds, angels, and a lot of harp-playing.  Mark Twain commented on these notions in his inimitable style:

Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.  It would just make a heaven of warbling ignoramuses, don’t you see?  Eternal Rest sounds comforting in the pulpit, too.  Well, you try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands.[1]

In my own preaching, I have succumbed to the temptation to describe heaven as a place where you get to do all the things that you really like to do on earth, but somehow just haven’t gotten a chance.  I remember describing the death of a sports fan and saying something like, “Now, he’ll never miss another game.”  But it gets worse: at the funeral of a woman who liked to visit the casino I actually said something like, “Well, now our friend is living life in God’s Kingdom, where the slots always come up winners and every hand is a full house.”  Someone should just slap the microphone out of my hands when I say stuff like that.  That’s just ridiculous.  As if God created us and Christ redeemed us so that we’d be able to cheer for the black and gold, or pile up the chips for eternity. Seriously!  Pick any one thing that you really, really like…and then imagine doing it over and over again.  Forever.  I have a hunch that it would stop being heavenly in short order.  I suppose the Muslim version of this caricature involves 72 virgins.  One thing, no matter how exciting it may appear to you now, done ad infinitum, is probably not what heaven is about.  Give me a break, Carver.  Heaven had better be bigger and better and, frankly, more important than that.

My grandmother, prior to her death (obviously), asked me what age I thought she would be in heaven.  Would she be a little girl running and playing in the Midwestern cornfields of her childhood?  Would she be the beauty queen she was in her early twenties? (I’m here to tell you I didn’t get these rugged good looks by accident.  Clara Sophia Eickhoff just happened to be Miss Falls City, Nebraska, c. 1925)  I think her fear was that she wanted to know both her grandparents and her grandchildren – and be known by them.  If, in heaven, she were assigned an age of say, seventy, she’d know me and my siblings, but she’d not know her own parents.

Not long after my ordination to the ministry, I had a dream wherein my recently deceased mother came to visit me in the study as I was preparing to preach.  She had always hoped I’d wind up in the ministry, and I ended up dragging my feet enough to stretch the three-year seminary experience into eight, thus graduating four months after her death.  In my dream, I was dithering about in the study here at Crafton Heights, wondering if I was “good enough” to be a pastor, wondering why anyone in the world would want to listen to anything I was saying.  As the dream progressed, my mother basically kicked me in the rear and told me to get out there, that people were waiting for me, and that I better make sure that I told them the truth.  When I told my wife about that dream, she asked, “Do you think that she knows what you are doing?  Do you think that she’s in heaven looking down on us?”

My immediate reply was something along the lines of “Oh, please, I hope not.  I mean, I love my mom and I miss her, but I hope that heaven is somehow more interesting than that.  She’s in the presence of the Holy…and somehow, watching me preach is going to beat that?  I doubt that.  You have the opportunity to look Jesus in the eye, to be in the presence of the Father, but you’d rather come to church at CHUP?  Don’t get me wrong.  We’re good.  But we’re not that good.”

Erastus Salisbury Field, The Garden of Eden (1860)

Genesis gives me a clue about the afterlife, because it tells of a time when humanity and God enjoyed fellowship that was unencumbered by sin.  I’m a big believer in the notion that Genesis exists to give us some great insight into why things are the way that they are, rather than how these things came into being.  So it doesn’t matter so much to me to think of Genesis as describing twenty-four hour days or long epochs; I’m more concerned with the truth that God created humanity with the notion that fellowship between us was a good and beautiful thing.  In the beginning, we’re told, God created Adam and Eve in his own image.  From the description in the opening pages, it is clear that God seems to have conversed freely with the pair in Eden.  Note, too, how Adam and Eve are free to be totally honest with each other.  The biblical phrase is “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).

I understand that to mean that prior to the entry of sin into our reality, there was nothing we needed to hide from ourselves, each other, or the Lord.  Genesis 3 describes the intrusion of sin and brokenness into that reality, and the immediate rush to hide a part of ourselves.

If we were created for intimacy with God and with each other, and sin interrupts that, and Christ came to free us from the eternal effects of sin, then it would seem to me that the essence of eternity must mean a true and real presence with and for each other and the Lord.  This is borne out in the apocalyptic writing that ends the scripture.  You heard a piece of that earlier, when we read from Revelation.  In both chapter 21 and 22, we see that the new heaven and the new earth is characterized by God’s dwelling with his people. God as present to us.  Do you remember what Mary was told to name Jesus?  Imanuel – God with us.  In the new order, says the author of Revelation, we will know that full power and grace of God in ways that we cannot imagine right now.

God’s curse will no longer be on the people of that city. He and the Lamb will be seated there on their thrones, and its people will worship God and will see him face to face. God’s name will be written on the foreheads of the people. Never again will night appear, and no one who lives there will ever need a lamp or the sun. The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever. (Revelation 22:3-5)

I believe and hope that the eternity we experience will have more to do with celebrating the real and true presence that we have with each other and less with singing praise songs or listening to harp music.  Although I have an unshakeable belief in the bodily resurrection for all as a condition of the “new heaven and new earth”, I believe that the “resurrection bodies” we will have will somehow be ageless.  I also believe that we will be recognizable to each other and to our Creator, and that we will enjoy the gifts of fellowship unencumbered by the self-consciousness or limitations of sin.

In 2010, I had a vivid picture of this kind of heaven.  Many of you will recall that I was gifted with a three month sabbatical from my pastoral ministry, and that involved an incredible amount of travel.  I walked the beaches of Chile, and hiked the rain forests of Peru, and sat for weeks on lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania; I visited the wonders of ancient Egypt and the Holy Land and I slept under the stars in the desert of Wadi Rum and swam in the Sea of Galilee and the Nile River.  When I returned from that adventure, many people asked me, “Dave, what was the best day of your trip?”  I had about thirty different answers, depending on the mood of the day and the questions that had preceded that one.  But whenever someone asks me, “What was the best ten minutes of your trip?” there can only be one answer.

Along the Tambopata River in Peru.

We had traveled many miles – and many hours – by motorized canoe down the Tambopata River in Peru.  When we got to our campsite, most of the rest of our group went towards the shelters.  But I thought I’d try my luck fishing.  I put my line in the water, and on the very first cast, I caught a little catfish.  What a thrill – to say that I’d caught a fish in the rain forest!  I rebaited, and after ten or fifteen minutes, I got a hit that was simply amazing.  The reel screamed and line flew out.  I would battle the fish in, and he’d head for the deeps.  I’d drag him closer, and he’d turn around and go flying once more.  For ten minutes on a cloudy day somewhere in the northern half of South America, I battled that fish, and finally pulled a barred sorubim (a.k.a. tiger catfish) from the murky waters.

Does this look like a shot for "Field and Stream" or what? Nice hat, eh?

During that time, I wasn’t worried about what was for dinner.  I didn’t wonder whether my friends thought that I was really all right or if I was simply annoying.  I didn’t think much about how the Steelers were going to fare in the upcoming season, or worry about the fact that I seemed to be putting on a few pounds.  I didn’t feel guilty about not reading as much as I thing I ought to, or not calling my family more.  I didn’t think about myself much, and I didn’t think about you at all.  No offense.

The Tiger Catfish: pseudoplatystoma tigrinum

No.  For those ten minutes, all that mattered was the fish on the end of the line.  I didn’t want my line to break.  I wanted to see that fish!  For the ten minutes that it took me to bring that fish in, adrenaline surged through my arteries and my heart pounded.  I was fully present in that moment, totally attentive to it.  It was exhilarating.

And you say, “For crying out loud, Carver, it’s a fish.  Get over it.”  And you’re right.  It’s a fish.  But more than that, it’s a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Because if right now, in my sinful and broken-down estate, I can get such a rush out of being fully present to a member of the family Pseudoplatystoma tigrinum for ten minutes along a muddy river bank in Peru…what in the world will it be like to be fully present to the Lord in all his glory?  What will it be like to know God as I am known by God, as we read in I Corinthians?  What will it be like to know you, and be known by you, even as God knows each of us?

What if heaven is a place that we don’t have to hide anything?  A place where we can truly be “naked, and not ashamed”?  What if our experience of eternity is one of being fully known, and knowing fully?  Of realizing who God has made us to be, and who God has been, is, and will be?  That’s an eternity worth hoping for – not just for me, but for you, and for the kid down the street, and for all whom God has called and loved and created.  What’s heaven going to be like?  After getting a glimpse of it through an unlikely experience along a river in the Amazon basin, I’m dying to know.


[1] “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” in The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers, 1922, p. 241)

A Glimpse of Glory…

When you think of an “oasis”, what comes to your mind?

Is it something like this – a lone palm tree, a small pool of water, and maybe a couple of camels thrown in to boot? 

How much more "deserty" can you get? A pair of apparently wild camels under a palm tree in the midst of the Sahara? Really?

I have to tell you, that’s what I thought.  Even when I read our tour itinerary, and saw that we’d be staying at an oasis, I figured that we’d just camp out with the camels and take turns with the water.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when the oases in which we stayed turned out to be bustling communities in the wilderness of the desert!  As mentioned in the previous post, they are scattered through the barren landscape – but they are sizeable and significant towns, at the center of which, of course, is life-giving water.

The date palms surround the oasis of Siwa on three sides. They seem to go on forever - and then the desert starts....

While we stayed in several Oases on our tour of Egypt’s Western Desert (so called because it’s on the west side of the Nile – it is the eastern fringe of the Sahara), our favorite place was Siwa Oasis.  This garden in the midst of the desert is about 80 kilometers (35 miles) by 12 kilometers (5 miles).  It’s home to — get this — 25,000 people, 75,000 olive trees, and 300,000 date palm trees.  The locals in Egypt say that the olives and dates from Siwa are the best and sweetest in Egypt – and I am not arguing with them.  According to The Lonely Planet, the donkeys in Siwa outnumber the combustion engines, and life is verrrrry relaxed.

One of the "main drags" in Siwa from our hotel balcony.

 While there, we experienced all kinds of surprises and joys.  As we did on the previous day, we took a four wheel drive safari, wherein we raced up and down sand dunes at an incredible angle.  I had a great view, several times, of what I thought would surely be my own death.  But it was so fun – the shrieks of laughter and terror outdid anything I’ve ever heard at Kennywood!

A friendly little game of Backgammon with Kelly down at Mustafa's Coffee Shop.

During the hottest parts of the day, and in the evening, we hung out at a little coffee shop called “Mustafa’s”, where Mustafa himself served us fruit slushees to die for.  The service wasn’t fast…OK, it took 45 minutes to get a drink, but hey, what’s the rush?  And besides, there was entertainment to be had.  The place was stocked with all sorts of games, and the Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones kept coming out of his state-of-the-art sound system (the man didn’t have a bug killer or a flyswatter, but I’m here to tell you that the place sounded great!).

We had the chance to bike around town, and to visit several of the cool, clear springs that underlie the entire operation.  The temperature was 107 degrees, yet the water was probably only 75 or 80.  Amazingly refreshing!

A little bike tour of Siwa Oasis. It's how we got around town!

Most of our Intrepid Travelers down at the cool springs near Siwa.

If you'd have told me I needed my fishing pole in the desert, I'd have said you were lying!

 One of my goals each summer is to introduce someone to the joys of fishing.  What a kick it was to teach my friend and guide Ahmed how to fish…in the middle of the Sahara desert…and he caught two!  Many of these pools were home to a variety of cichlid that seemed to go between two and eight inches.  Not worth keeping, but fun to catch!

As I reflected on the harshness of the desert and the wonders of the oasis, I thought about two scripture passages.

Isaiah 35 talks about the time when God’s reign and rule will be known fully among his people, and the prophet uses the imagery of an oasis in the desert as a way to describe how amazing that will be:

 1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
       Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
       it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
       The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
       the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
       they will see the glory of the LORD,
       the splendor of our God.

 3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
       steady the knees that give way;

 4 say to those with fearful hearts,
       “Be strong, do not fear;
       your God will come,
       he will come with vengeance;
       with divine retribution
       he will come to save you.”

 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
       and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
       and the mute tongue shout for joy.
       Water will gush forth in the wilderness
       and streams in the desert.

 7 The burning sand will become a pool,
       the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
       In the haunts where jackals once lay,
       grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

 8 And a highway will be there;
       it will be called the Way of Holiness.
       The unclean will not journey on it;
       it will be for those who walk in that Way;
       wicked fools will not go about on it.

 9 No lion will be there,
       nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
       they will not be found there.
       But only the redeemed will walk there,

 10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
       They will enter Zion with singing;
       everlasting joy will crown their heads.
       Gladness and joy will overtake them,
       and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Not long after that, the prophet returns to the same theme in chapter 49, a passage that was more meaningful to me after visiting Aswan in Egypt:

8 This is what the LORD says:
       “In the time of my favor I will answer you,
       and in the day of salvation I will help you;
       I will keep you and will make you
       to be a covenant for the people,
       to restore the land
       and to reassign its desolate inheritances,

 9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
       and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
       “They will feed beside the roads
       and find pasture on every barren hill.

 10 They will neither hunger nor thirst,
       nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them.
       He who has compassion on them will guide them
       and lead them beside springs of water.

 11 I will turn all my mountains into roads,
       and my highways will be raised up.

 12 See, they will come from afar—
       some from the north, some from the west,
       some from the region of Aswan. “

While doing all of this reflecting, I have been reading a book entitled Glimpses of Glory Dave and Neta Jackson.  It is an account of the first thirty years of Reba Place Fellowship, the group with whom Ariel will be doing her apprenticeship come October.  In it, the Jacksons talk about the wonder of community and the joy of relationship, and say that while Reba Place misses the mark on many occasions, they can see “glimpses of glory” every now and then – and those glimpses provide the community with the incentive to keep on trying, to keep on growing.

I wonder if maybe that’s what the Lord had in mind when he created oases and used that imagery to talk about the promises of his reign and rule among us.  For so many of the Israelites, life was hard, hot, and dry.  The desert was the norm.  But every now and then, they would stumble upon a place like Siwa and then – THEN – they could get a glimpse of what God’s intentions were all about.  Oases are definitely NOT the norm in this part of the world, yet they clearly show that such a reality is possible and does exist.

And while I was thinking about all of this, we came to a very special place in the desert.  Take a look at this photo and tell me what you think is going on:

Yes, that’s Ariel and I looking at the desert floor, with incredible dunes in the background.  But look at what is hidden in the desert:

Fossilized sea shells cover the floor of many parts of the desert.

Can you believe it?  All around me – seashells!!! Glimpses of glory in the midst of the desert.

As we left Siwa this morning, I asked the folks in our van to come up with some words that would describe the trip in and out of the oasis.  After all, it took three hours of driving to get to the nearest sign of human life after we left.  We came up with these words: tedious, boring, unchanging, empty, and mind-numbing.  I don’t know how the driver stayed awake – straight and flat and not a living creature (plant or animal) in sight.

Look at those words again: tedious, boring, unchanging, empty, and mind-numbing.  Now, think about the people you see on a daily basis.  Do you think that some of those folks might use those words to describe their own lives?  Don’t many of the people we know seem to exist in a desert (perhaps of their own choosing)?

I wonder…what if God intends each of us – His people – to be like an oasis in the midst of their lives?  What if each of us – not all the time, but sometimes, anyway – could be a reminder of the fact that there is more to this life than meets the eye?  What if we lived in such a way that indicated that there are seashells in the desert, and that there are cool springs under the sand, and that the scenery we’ve encountered the last three hours isn’t the way it always is?
What if each of us lived as though we were a “glimpse of glory”?  What if we shared the light we’ve been given and in so doing, encouraged our friends and neighbors and co-workers to think about the way that life could be – and about the healing and resurrecting that God longs to do?  What would that be like?

I think it would be like fishing in the desert.  Awesome.  Magnificent.  Fabulous.

Grab your rod.  I’ve got something to show you!

Ariel gives sandboarding a try - she had an awesome ride!

That's me, sandboarding in the desert at sunset. I guess I'm pretty good - I made it down both times without a face plant!

Crossing the Red Sea

After the wonderful hospitality of Sheikh Zaid, we wondered what would happen when we left Jordan for Egypt.  We drove south to the Jordanian city of Aqaba, where we boarded a ferry bound for the Egyptian port of Nuweiba.  While the  journey was uneventful, our arrival was hectic to say the least.  I would say that we were treated like cattle, but that would be unfair to ranchers everywhere.  Confusion was the order of the day as a shipload of people (mostly poorer Arabs) were herded off the ferry and onto the wharf.  We managed to crowd into a shuttle bus to immigration, where we discovered that most of the signs designed to help visitors were helpfully written in Arabic.  After about 2 hours of wandering between four or five different buildings carrying all of our bags in 115 degree heat, we cleared customs and met our Egyptian guide, Achmed.

The sun rises above Saudi Arabia over the Dead Sea in this view from the Egyptian Coast.

I say that because then, perhaps, you might get a glimpse of how wonderful it was to arrive at Sawa Camp a few kilometers north of Nuweiba.  It’s located right on the Red Sea – a stretch of white sand bordering a magnificent coral bed in the warmest and clearest of the world’s seas.  We got to spend two days here – and it was incredible.  No internet (no electricity, really), but lots of sun and sand and, of course, water. 

Moses took his rod to the Red Sea and parted the waters. All I wanted was a bite!

So I broke out the old telescopic pole and tried my luck with the fishing.  First, I tried at high tide.  Bad idea, because I was fishing in eight inches of water.  But when the tide receded, I discovered I would walk clear out to the edge of the coral reef, where the water dropped off into a depth of about 15 feet.  And it was so clear, I could see them there!

Fortunately for me, my host gave me a handful of squid to use as bait.  Unfortunately for my bathing suit, the only place I had to put that squid was in the pocket of my bathing suit.  Use your imagination as to how it smells now.

This is a Klunzinger's Wrasse, a species found only in the Red Sea. He lived to see another day as I released him.

But that’s not the point.  The point is that every single cast, I got a bite.  Sometimes the fish ran into the reef, and I ended up having to break my line off.  Sometimes, I missed the hit.  But I pulled in about 12 – 15 fish, and even attracted a crowd – two of my fellow travelers saw me having so much fun they came out to try.  I fished until I ran out of bait, and then it was time to pack away the pole and break out the snorkeling gear.  We spent several hours coming face to face with some of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.

This is a Red Grouper, who along with two of his buddies, served as dinner!

The time here was truly a gift, as our group got to know each other better and we didn’t have to drive anywhere for 36 hours.  The accomodations were simple, but I would go back again in a heartbeat.  It was a wonderful place to experience the grace of time and space within a community of other people.  The only hardship was the incredible heat…in our hut, it was well over 90 degrees as we lay in bed at 11 pm.  That made it tough to fall asleep (however, it did help my undies to dry on the line in record time!)

A quick update as to the actual plan: I am leaving Cairo tonight for Luxor and the Aswan Dam.  I am unsure as to what we’ll do for internet in the days to come.  I have more stories to tell about the events of the previous days: climbing Mt. Sinai (on a camel!), seeing a “whirling dervish” and a belly dancer on the Nile, and, of course, the Pyramids.  I hope to catch up soon…but for now, know that I am grateful for your prayers and your friendship.

Sawa Camp, on the beach of the Red Sea

The Galilee Experience

Wow!  That’s all we can say after two days and nights in northern Israel – the region known as Galilee where Jesus conducted most of his ministry.

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee.

The day started in an amazing fashion.  We were staying at Nof Ginosar, a kibbutz located right on the lake.  We had access to the sea all day and they also have a fascinating exhibit of a 2000 year old fishing boat – just like the kind that Jesus’ followers would have used.

In Luke 5, Peter says,  “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Now, I don’t know what Pete was using, but my Little Cleo pulled in this monster:

Dave 1; Fish 0

He looks small, but he's actually smaller.

After a successful morning with the fishing rod (at least as long as I”m not trying to feed my family), I woke Ariel up and we took an early morning dip in the Sea of Galilee.  Amazing.  Then, we did what the two of us do best: We wandered and we hiked and we wondered and we imagined.  We got in our little Chevy and we drove all the way around the Sea of Galilee.

We visited some of the churches and shrines that commemorate various events in the life of the Lord: The place where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount; the Chapel of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes; The Church of the Primacy of Peter, and more.  But what really got us were the sites where there were simply ruins.  We loved visiting Korazim, the town that was condemned by Jesus for their lack of faith.  When we got there, the temperature in our car registered a cool 46 degrees centigrade (115 farenheit).

Dave on the cliffs at Kursi, formerly known as "The Region of the Gedarenes"

Later, we found ourselves at Kursi, the site where Jesus drove the demon from a man into a herd of swine that later rushed off the cliff.  This has always been a favorite story of mine,and to imagine it happening there was simply marvelous for me.  Recent road construction unearthed a 4th or 5th century church that was built to commemorate that miracle.  Amazing!

From there,we went up the hill and discovered the ancient town of Hyppos, one of the “Ten Towns” (the Decapolis) that is mentioned several places in the Gospels.  Here, we had the entire place to ourselves, as we explored this town of great Greek influence and knowledge, now a several-kilometer long street of ruins.  Look:

Those zany Israelis have a unique strategy to make sure you stay on the paths. Why bother with "keep off the grass" when you can threaten to blow people up instead?

Step fancy, missy, and watch for land mines!

We truly enjoyed wandering and imagining what the people’s lives might have been like, and what the place looked like now.

Amongst the ruins at Hyppos - one of our favorite places!

The day ended as we realized that we had forgotten to eat lunch (yes, we drank a LOT of water).  We started looking for a restaurant, but they were all closed.  We pulled into a gas station and asked, and the guy basically said, in Hebrew, “What kind of crazy person are you?  It’s a Friday night (Sabbath for the Jews) during Ramadan (when Muslims fast).  Jews aren’t working and Muslims aren’t eating.  Good luck, folks…” But we had our hearts set on St. Peter’s Fish, and finally, after an hour or so, we discovered a joint run by a group of guys we think were Lebanese Christians.  And they served us St. Peter’s Fish and dates for dessert.  It was splendid.

Ariel enters the Mediterranean Sea at Caesarea Philippi

This morning, we got up and tried to find a little village in Nazareth where they do reconstructions of life in the first century, but we gave up because Nazareth is HUGE.  Funny, but on the Christmas cards it seems so small… So we blew out of Nazareth and went to Caesarea Philippi, the ruins of the amazing town that Herod the Great built in the first Century.  The ruins are scattered up and down the Mediterranean seacoast, and you can walk and wade and swim through them.  There were a ton of helpful signs and we learned a lot…and had a wonderful time.

All we can say at this point is WOW.  What a wonderful experience – and a wonderful day.  Tomorrow we will worship in Jerusalem and then head back to Jordan through the Palestinian Territories.  From there…well, that’s another story.

The hoopoe is the National Bird of Israel. We saw a flock of them at Caesarea Philippi

A Creature of the Air

WOOSH!  WOOSH!  WOOSH!

The Osprey scans the waters for its next meal.

The Osprey’s powerful wings filled the air with sound as it lifted itself from the water, winging towards his perch with a sushi dinner.  My friend Tim and I had been drifting through the cove at Raystown Lake for a couple of hours.  Although we weren’t catching many fish, there were three Osprey who were having a pretty good night.  We’d watch as they soared high above the water and swoop down, flutter for a few moments, and then hurl themselves into the water to grab their prey with razor-sharp talons.  It was simply amazing – better than fishing!

The Osprey is a raptor (a “bird of prey”) that grows to a height of nearly two feet.  Its wing span is five or six feet wide, and it can weigh between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds.  It’s called a fish eagle, and the word “osprey” comes from the Latin ossifragus, which means “bone-breaker.”  While Bald Eagles are limited to simply flying above the water and grasping fish that are near the surface, Ospreys are able to become completely submerged and then fly away with their dinner.  The Osprey is an immensely powerful bird.  It was that power that attracted our attention as we observed this display of fishing prowess.

The Osprey takes the plunge (Photo: Tim Salinetro)

The air is a blur as the Osprey's powerful wings lift it from the water.

The Osprey bringing home dinner

A female Mallard heads for cover

As I listened to the tremendous amount of air being pushed aside by these massive wings, it occurred to me that the Osprey is a special creature.  We’d seen a lot of birds that engaged both the air and the water.  Ducks and Gulls, for instance, are always around the surface of the water.  Herons prowl the shoreline in search of small animals and fish who are unlucky enough to be caught away from cover.  Cormorants, which have been known to dive nearly a hundred feet beneath the water’s surface,  were plentiful at Raystown.  Yet none of these birds had the combination of amazing strength and grace that the Osprey possess.

The Osprey is so impressive to me, I think, because it knows to which world it belongs.  While it is capable, and even willing, to enter the water in search of a meal, it is first and foremost a fierce creature of the air.  Its wings lift it through the air and propel it heavenward, even when heavily laden.

The Great Blue Heron

Each day, I must remember that I was created as a child of the King.  I am not always soaring with Eagles, I know.  There are times when I find myself in all manner of environments – but if I am to be true to my created nature, I must remain connected with the One who fills my life.  All day long, every day, I have the power to shape my surroundings.  I determine what I listen to and what I see; I decide where to go and with whom to go.  If I am not wise in those decisions, I could find myself acting in ways that are contrary to my created nature – as if an Osprey were raised by a Heron and spent her life wading through the shallows.  John chapter 1 describes the ministry of Jesus as follows:

“But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.” (The Message)

C. S. Lewis talked about the power of human choice and our ability to fit ourselves for our environment in this way:

“Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And, taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature — either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

My hope and prayer is that during sabbatical and during my every day life, I remember who I am, and whose I am – that I live in the environment for which I was created, and that I continue to grow into my true self – my “child-of-God” self.

Like I said, it’s better than fishing.

A Green Heron waits for something to happen...

A Bald Eagle on the hunt.

Back to the Basics

The opening lines in the application that we submitted to the Lilly Endowments for this Sabbatical experience were these:

When the Lord of Life began to re-shape humanity by means of the Gospel, he put himself in the company of fishermen.  Not your Robert Redford A River Runs Through It trophy-hunting sportsmen, but rather strong, honest men who contended with the uncertainty of the waters for their daily bread.  In building a community that heralded the Kingdom, Jesus called those who had spent years reading the surface of the waters, trusting each other in the cooperative nature of net-working, and appreciating a nourishing meal at day’s end.

Pastor Dave Carver is a fisher of fish.  If he has a chance to spend a few hours alongside the creek or the lake, it’s a good day.  If you are there to fish with him, then it’s a better day.  And if you and a few friends agree to sit on the deck and share not only the freshly-grilled catch of the day but also the contents of your hearts and minds, then it’s about the best of all days.

Sparky holds a striped bass that weighed nearly 54 pounds - his fourth state record fish from Raystown Lake.

And, you see, that’s who I see myself, most days.  That’s who I’d like to be.  But when I get in the middle of things, sometimes my priorities and expectations get a bit skewed.  Take fishing at Raystown Lake, for instance.  In my “cover” materials, I say that I want to fish for “real” fish; I want to be able to feed my family and friends, and that the trophy doesn’t matter.  Of course, when I show up at Raystown, I decide to go ahead and hire a guide who just happens to have the PA State Record when it comes to fishing for Raystown’s “signature species”, the striped bass.

As you may have noticed, there are no photos of me holding giant fish.  But yesterday was the best day of fishing I’ve ever had at Raystown Lake.  Why?  Because I got back to basics.

Dave Carver holds a blue gill weighing nearly two ounces, one of four that he caught with Tim while fishing James Creek.

On Tuesday morning, I was joined for almost 24 hours by my good friend and fishing/birding partner, Tim.  When he arrived, we enjoyed a delicious meal of fried catfish and corn.  Then we went fishing, and while we brought in a few nice bass, the real treat was watching the pros – a trio of Osprey put on a fishing clinic for us.  More about that in a future post.

An osprey, looking rather disdainfully at a couple of amateur fishermen.

Wednesday we got up early and didn’t do so well in terms of putting fish on the stringer…OK, we struck out in that department.  But we saw a mink, a pair of bald eagles, a snake, some turtles, and about eight species of birds.  As I bid farewell to Tim, it occurred to me that it was the second anniversary of my dad’s death – the man who taught me to love fishing and to care for the earth.  As I cruised around the lake, I gave thanks for the life of the man who so enriched the first half of my life.

Eat Fresh, Eat Local (except for the Pepsi...

When it got to be evening, I thought I’d troll around the deep end of the lake.  “Who needs a guide to get stripers?” I thought. You could hear them jumping in the night.  Every now and then, one would jump clear out of the water.  “I can do this,” I thought.

A mink pauses in his morning routine to check us out...

Well, not yet I can’t.  No stripers.  No problem.  Ariel’s friend Mina had come through with some chicken livers for her friend Dave, and so I sat on the back of the houseboat with a few lines in the water.  I was looking for a couple of really nice channel catfish – make a few steaks for the freezer and set myself for winter.

What happened, of course, was that there were no channel cats.  But let me tell you something marvelous: whereas I was watching the lines hoping for a giant strike followed by a huge battle ending with me one-arming the net laden with a giant fish into the boat, what I saw was a series of subtle bumps and twitches.  At first, I didn’t see anything when I reeled my line in.  But then a small bullhead took the bait, and I saw what I was dealing with. I lightened the weights on my line, put on smaller hooks, and went to town with these small catfish.  I probably pulled in twenty or so.

A fine day of fishing in what we called "catfish lake". That's my brother Tom on the left, me on the right, and our friend Kevin in the center. Dad is, of course, behind the camera.

When we were kids, my brother and I would go with my dad to a lake in southern Delaware that has a real name, I’m sure.  We just called it “Catfish”, because every time we went there, we wound up with a mess of bullheads.  They are not particularly difficult to catch, and they are a royal pain to clean.  But they taste great.  And today, they will taste sweeter as I remember that I continually need to remember to keep the main thing the main thing, and to take what the Lord offers.  It was a great evening to remember my dad; it was a wonderful time to acknowledge the fact that my happiness so often depends on my expectations and my ability to be flexible and to deal with the things that are actually here, rather than my hopes or fears.

Maybe I’m the only one who needs a reminder, every now and then, that it’s ok to switch the tackle and adapt to the situation that I have, rather than doggedly pursuing the situation that I wish existed.  Maybe I’m the only one who needs to remember that sometimes the gifts of God come with a bump and a twitch, and not a giant splash.  Maybe I’m the only one who wanders away from where I say I want to be and in doing so lose my focus and my ability to be God’s man in this time and this place.

But if you’re still reading this, then I bet that I’m not the only one.  I hope your day is blessed with a couple of little nibbles and a few prizes that bring you joy.