Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Something Beautiful for God

One of the historical origins of the Presbyterian Church is the Reformed Church in Geneva Switzerland, begun in the middle of the 16th century by John Calvin and the Genevan Elders. On the crest of the hill in the old city of Geneva stands, to this day, the Church of Saint Peter, a massive stone edifice constructed by the Roman Catholics. Inside one can view all the apses and alcoves where the Roman Catholics had placed paintings and statues of saints for veneration. At the front of the sanctuary is a high vaulted ceiling which had been adorned with angels and a crucifix-still de rigeur in Roman Catholic sanctuaries worldwide.

But when the Roman Catholics were ousted from Geneva, Calvin and the Genevan Elders stripped St Peter's bare of all images and adornments. Since that time the sanctuary has presented only the stolid grey of cut stone to the entering worshiper: no votives, no statues, no gilding.

In October of this year I helped officiate at the wedding of a member of our congregation, Jordan, and his bride. They chose to celebrate the wedding at her home church, St James Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City, New York.
I had the pleasure of working with Father Joe O'Connor, an energetic young priest who returned to this, his former parish, at the bride's request. I had never before celebrated a wedding with a Catholic priest. In spite of the historic theological and sacramental disagreements between our branches of the Christian family tree, I had no compunction about doing so. In fact, it was refreshing to celebrate our common discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ with a hybrid of liturgy. (The congregation was not quite so hybridized: apart from the members of the wedding party, almost all the Catholics sat on the left, and the Presbyterians sat on the right. But our voices were one in song and prayer.)
The verbal content of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the wedding allowed me to hear new chords in the symphony of our faith. I got to hear and speak different phrases than the typical patterns of the Reformed tradition. Behind and above all the words, however, I was struck by the worship space--perhaps in a way similar to how John Calvin, John Knox, and so many other Reformed pastors have been struck by this aspect of Roman Catholic tradition.

The sanctuary of St James is decadent, perhaps opulent (though I say this having seen much more wealth on the walls of Italian basilicas). I had a thought so frequently quoted that it's almost embarrassing to write again here: What if all the money that had gone into this sanctuary had gone into serving the poor and the needy?

Let's be clear: the sanctuary of Nineveh Pres has stained glass windows, chandeliers, embroidered paraments, and a brass cross and candlesticks. Unlike the Moravians, with whom I spent more than a few of my Sundays growing up, American Presbyterians do not believe in complete austerity of decor. There is a sense, in all but the most rigorous of iconoclast traditions, that our worship space should present something beautiful for God.
But a few hours in a Roman Catholic sanctuary returned me to an important question: with what kind of beauty is God pleased? In the letter to Timothy Paul rather bluntly instructs women to abandon all tools of physical beautification and to let their good deeds be their adornment. I think the same instruction could just as well go for men. And, by extension, for the Church. The brightest gilding on the Church is her pursuit of justice; the finest braid is her following Christ in every mundane detail of life. Her opulence should be found only in the lavish grace of Christ which she offers to the world. By doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, the Church makes the most beautiful things for God.

I wonder if, even in our humble sanctuary in Nineveh, the smallest sum spent on physical adornment is not a distraction from the work that is the Lord's pride and joy.

~ emrys

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Some shots from 2013, which have been hanging out on my desktop for too long.

First, my friend Don, whose journey to a community house for the disabled occupied much of my time and heart in 2011 and 2012. It was a journey filled with frustration and disappointment, but also filled with amazing graces from the Lord and divine appointments. Here he is, proud to be functioning well again:
 And the community with which he now lives, supported by two saints, husband and wife, who care for their charges 24/7:
 Two shots from the youth Game Nights at Nineveh: evenings filled with crazy games, good food, raucous fun, and of course the offer of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

 My Lovely, working on a painting project while Daddy does some woodworking at The Shop (with goggles in case the paint splashes):
 Lintel over the door of a former train station in Ithaca, New York. Uncle Jim tells me that a train used to run from Ithaca to the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. My grandmother used to ride the train direct to Bethlehem during her Cornell years. Now, if I wanted to ride the train to the Lehigh Valley, I would have to drive from Ithaca to Rochester (90 minutes), then take the train to Albany (a couple hours), then the train to Penn Station, NYC (an hour or more), then the train back west to Pennsylvania (90 minutes). Driving from Ithaca to the Lehigh Valley takes about three hours.
 Two shots of the bridge from Louisville, Kentucky across the Ohio River to Indiana, taken during one of my business trips to Luhville this year. Something about the blue light on the girders attracted my lens:

 Beans, rocks, beads, and salt, mixed together as a material illustration for Time for Children during worship. I can't remember exactly what I was illustrating, but I remember that the kids were not interested in eating this bean soup:
 Two pieces of hard evidence that as much as teenagers (and thirty-seven-year-olds) want to be considered adults, when placed in a room with building blocks, they will inevitably return to a child-like state:

~ emrys

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All You Need Is . . . Justice

My regular interactions with retired pastors come with certain benefits. One of the minor benefits is early pickings from their shelves when they decide to simplify and disperse their personal libraries. I have long forgotten from whose library I harvested it, but I recently pulled from my shelves Joseph Fletcher's Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work. This compilation of lectures and essays was published in 1967, an era that now seems well bygone but whose legacy is very much a part of my generation's thinking.

I had heard the term "situation ethics" or "situational ethics" uttered in several fora; but the term was usually conjured only for the purposes of its summary dismissal rather than engagement and evaluation. As a result, the contents of Fletcher's book, as old as they are, broke new ground for me.

The gist of situation ethics is that the answer to any question about the rightness or wrongness of any action is "It depends." Fletcher's ethics envisages ethical maxims for guiding ethical thinking, but does not embrace absolute instructions for behavior that apply unconditionally. To take one overwrought example: the injunction not to kill other people is a good maxim for most of life; for a soldier on the battlefield, however, the greatest good may well result from taking the life of another person.

Here is the sine qua non of Fletcher's thinking: ethical decisions arise from weighing carefully what action in this situation will result in the greatest good.

This approach to ethics offers a credible response to a grand conundrum in Christian ethics, illustrated in the gospel according to John, chapter eight. The religious authorities bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They ask Jesus if she should be stoned, as the law dictates. Jesus' response leads to the woman being forgiven and released without stoning. Jesus teaches his disciples to follow "a new commandment," to love another. Why is this commandment new? Because, as John 8 attests, it calls for something more nuanced and difficult than obeying the letter of a codified ethics. It calls for love.

Or, as Fletcher helpfully insists, it calls for justice. To rid the conversation of the fluffy connotations of our present use of the word "love," he presses use of the term "justice," making a cogent argument why love and justice are really the same thing. The ethical mandate of Christians, then, is in every decision to do that which will bring about the greatest justice for all.

My eyes were opened to the problem of absolutist ethics by Fletcher's insight that "rules are designed to minimize obligation." That is to say, the game of "following the rules" is a game of "how much must I do to pass," or not to get in trouble. The ethic of justice--and Jesus--is about pursuing justice for all those affected by our actions. Checking off my daily list that I have not killed anyone today is much easier than asking whether my decisions furthered the life and prosperity of those around me. Situation ethics are difficult. They're not for those who want to stay out of trouble; they're for those who--to borrow a phrase from the Salvation Army--want to do the most good.

This reflection demanded by situation ethics is what Fletcher calls "moral responsibility." Rather than moral correctness (right or wrong), his ethics calls for individuals to live in justice-seeking (moral) ability to respond (responsibility) to the needs of the social world in which we live. I find this description of the moral and ethical dimensions of life corresponds better to what I see in the life and teachings of Jesus than much of the conversation in the air. For this fundamental re-focusing of the Christian life I believe that Fletcher's ideas are indispensable.

His discussions in this book have two weaknesses. First, Fletcher ignores the self-sacrificial element of Jesus' life and teachings. There are some passages which smack of triumphalism, as if the world will never abuse those who seek justice, or that seeking broad justice will be as profitable (in worldly terms) to the individual as not. I wonder if Fletcher's 1967 work is not still basking in a generational optimism that humanity can cure all of its own ills if it just gets everybody on the same page. One of the central teachings of Jesus, embodied in the end of his life, is that living well will require sacrifice, often of our most valuable possessions. An ethics that does not take sacrifice into account is, in my view, deficient.

Second, Fletcher's discussion seems limited to the individual. In what may again be a symptom of his times, Moral Responsibility describes ethical decision-making as happening in a vacuum. In my brief experience, the maze of the world is too convoluted, the possibilities of our society too vast, and the human heart too deceptive for individuals to develop ethics of justice. Another benefit I glean from colleagues older and wiser than I is intentional reflection on the dilemmas of my life and the lives of which I am a part. It may be possible to follow an ethical code alone; without a community of support and accountability I do not think that any of us can make decisions in pursuit of justice.

I also believe that all justice is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His spirit living in us makes possible self-sacrificing pursuit of the good. Only his presence makes following him possible. But with his spirit, justice will grow out of us.

Fletcher's work has sparked an interest in me to read more current works on Christian ethics. I hope that someday I'll have a chance to do so.
~ emrys

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Africa Bound!

In February four members of the congregation I serve, along with two other folks from neighboring congregations, will travel with me to Ethiopia. Our presbytery (local grouping of congregations in our denomination) has a seventeen-year relationship with several congregations of western Ethiopia, in which we send delegations back and forth across The Pond every two to three years. It's our turn, so the delegation from upstate New York will spend seventeen days visiting church leadership and congregations in the region around Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia.
Our involvement with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters has had two foci: First, to pray for and support the church leadership there. The Church is growing in Ethiopia, so much so that she has difficultly training enough pastors to serve in all the congregations. So we do what we can to equip the leadership for its task of cultivating congregations on the rise. Second, we have supported the Ethiopian Rural Education Project. After the Communist government of the 1980s destroyed all rural schools (and church buildings), rural Ethiopians from the 1990s to the present have had difficulty obtaining education for their children, especially at the younger ages before students are eligible to move to the cities for government-supported schooling. So we have been involved in an ongoing effort to design, distribute, and implement curricula that provides literacy and numeracy for five- to ten-year-old children, in their native tongue.

When we meet with our brothers and sisters in February, we will discover how we can help with the needs of the Church and the furthering of education there. I also hope that we will discover how the Ethiopian Church lives out its faith, and allow that discovery to be instructive to us. The Church there continues to pray for us regularly; I hope that we may receive even more tangible encouragement from them on our visit.

While we are there, the Church in Dembi Dollo will be celebrating the 95th anniversary of Presbyterian missionaries coming to Ethiopia. We have heard news of many missionaries and church groups with Ethiopian affiliations who plan to be present for the event, so I expect we shall experience a grand and lively party!

We crave your prayers for the journey: that God would give us grace in the many details, joy in the experience, servant attitudes in our time there, and safety throughout. If you would remember us to the Lord, we will be blessed. If the Spirit moves you to it, you may also contribute to our financial need: we need to raise about $6,400 amongst the group to provide for our needs while there. Checks may be made out to: "Susquehanna Valley Presbytery--EPT," with "Ethiopia Trip 2014" on the memo line. They may be sent to: Ethiopian Partnership Team--SVP, PO Box 87, Nineveh, NY 13813.

~ emrys

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Festivals of Booths

A.J. Jacobs, in his (hilarious and insightful) book The Year of Living Biblically, describes trying to obey the scriptural injunction to spend a week of each year living in a booth made with one's own hands. He lives in a Manhattan apartment, so a bit of marital drama unfolds when he fills up the living room with two-by-fours, nails, and canvas for his booth.

Our household does not take that injunction literally, but I think we begin to approximate the spirit of it when we celebrate the pilgrim character of our lives by constructing a chair-and-blanket fort in the living room:

I say "we," but should be clear that Gwendolyn and I did this project, fueled with the excitement of sleeping inside it that night. (Mommy stuck to the comfort of the bed upstairs.)

~ emrys

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Out of the Depths of Vietnam

I hear many things on NPR that cause me to exclaim to myself, "I need to read more about that!" By the time the next radio story has finished, however, I have remembered that my reading list is backed up until 2035 and I really don't have that much disposable income. So I make myself content with what light NPR has shed on the subject and get on with my day. Except this once.

In Lent of this year an NPR show did an interview with John Borling, author of Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton (Master Wings Publishing, 2013). Borling was an Air Force pilot shot down during the Vietnam War and kept in the prison camps in Hanoi for almost seven years. The way he kept sane in that largely solitary experience of wretched imprisonment was to compose poetry (mentally and orally) and communicate it to his POW neighbors through a code of tapping on the walls.

I heard the radio story, got home, and ordered the book online.

I only surmise what drove me to buy this one. First was the fact that my dad wrote his own book about Vietnam from a physician's perspective, and something about a POW's poetic meditations gave me a sense that I would be connecting with a piece of my dad's history. Second was the intriguing thought of poetry composed orally and memorized over years, then recorded only after returning home. Third was the thought of poetry composed in prison, as a defence against what might happen to the soul in a place like the Hanoi Hilton.

In rare exception to the usual patterns of my life, my impulsive decision to buy was richly rewarded. Borling's poetry is fascinating. Some poems stir the soul with their verbal mastery, and could have been composed by a man sipping margueritas in San Diego; "First Light Flight," a proper sonnet, begins, "Pale golden talons stir the eastern sky / Another fledgling day departs the hills," offering a genius dance of aerial and avian metaphor. That sample comes from the lighter material about the pilot's passion.

From the "dark and bitter stuff" come works like "Hanoi Epitaph," which draw the listener (poetry must be read aloud) into a cold and vacuous place where "The years have passed, the many Decembers / And no one knows and no one remembers / The sound of your voice, your face, or your name." It is difficult not to go back and read it (aloud) again, and sink deeper into the void that so many of us are blessed never to have known. These words draw us into the repugnant mystery of what it must be like to live alone in a cold concrete cell for more than six years.

Some pieces read like lyrics to rock songs; others with the half-smile twang of a country ballad. Borling's work runs the gamut of styles, structures, and content. Much of it is not "good" (I put the word intentionally in quotation marks) from a technical perspective; but oral composition and memorization in a North Vietnamese prison tends to soften my critical standards. The epic poem that closes the book tried my endurance--but then again, I was forewarned by the introduction, and by the end of the book I felt dedicated enough to Borling to see it through. He warns his readers about the abundance of pilots' jargon and provides a glossary at the end to assist the land-lubbers like myself. Nonetheless, in the more well-constructed poems I found it possible to read through the strange acronyms and let the sounds work where comprehension could not--to good effect.

The ink of erudition has been spilled across many the page of Vietnam War history; the finest film producers have applied their craft to that era of America's story. But Borling has, I think, found a unique niche well worth exploring: the poetry that comes from a special kind of suffering. I have been enriched by his work and willingness, at last, to share the versified distillation of his experience.

~ emrys

The Perfect Favor

I have been to several weddings. And I have crossed a point in my work at which the number of weddings at which I have officiated exceeds the number I have attended simply as a guest. I have, by virtue of these, acquired my share of wedding favors.

I have also, several times, found an empty miniature bubble bottle lurking in a box long unpacked. I have found, in the bottom of long-neglected drawers, little plastic leaves, moons, and doves etched with the names of bride and groom. I have discovered that the durability and significance of wedding favors is far exceeded by the cost that goes into selecting and purchasing them.

At the reception for the couple that I most recently joined in matrimony, we guests found at our seats a small piece of parchment paper rolled up and tied with a simple orange ribbon. Upon unfurling the scroll I found this favor:
This favor has extra flavor for me, as the husband of a cancer survivor. But had the cause been feeding the hungry, providing clean water for underdeveloped villages, or supporting AIDS education in plagued areas, the favor would have been just as sweet. We enjoyed a fine meal, good dancing, and the warmth of two families celebrating the union of their own. The last thing I need is a small piece of plastic to be lost the next day in the whirlwind of my life. The world needs a bigger favor, too. This one, I think, will endure.

~ emrys

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Another Fruit of the Vine

A colleague of mine has allergies that fly under the radar of our current cultural popularity. Most of us know by now that lots of folks will die if their lips touch peanuts, and that shellfish make others go into anaphylaxis. But this friend gets hives from apples and grapes--the base fruits for almost every commercially sold juice on the market.

At home she can ensure that these fruits don't make it to the table. But in community--and for us, most importantly, in the church--there is no such guarantee. What's more, the tradition of the church is to use wine or grape juice for communion, with almost no exception. This means that my colleague must either go without both elements of communion or get water instead of the flavorful fruit of the vine.

Our denomination's constitution, as it lays out the guidelines for worship, uses an interesting turn of phrase to instruct us in the filling of the communion cup. It instructs us that a suitable form of "the fruit of the vine" is to be used. As I pondered my colleague's quandary, I wondered what fruit of the vine might substitute for grapes at the communion table.

Tomatoes, though technically on a vine and having the additional virtue of approximating blood, seem to my palate to lack the sweetness I have come to appreciate in the communion cup. And I cannot imagine that acorn squash would produce a tasty drink. Then I remembered the discovery I made while in New Zealand: that kiwi fruits grow on vines. 
Kiwi fruit is native to China but has been transplanted all over the world. One of its greatest market virtues is its ability to stay in room temperature storage for three months without rotting. So the kiwi fruit is available even in upstate New York in late October.
Some chopping, scooping, and straining turned five kiwi fruits into about one three-quarter cup of juice.
The rub: this colleague and I were to be part of a worship service on Saturday with communion. (Hence my production of the juice this week.) However, it turns out that those planning worship may not have included communion. And I'm not sure that fresh-pressed kiwi juice will last until the next time we're together for worship. So we'll have to take a moment on Saturday morning to raise our cups and unceremoniously toast to The King with our fruit of the vine.

~ emrys

Baching It with My Toddler

Mommy dropped off Gwendolyn at school on Wednesday, then drove on away to her work in Norwich for the day. Micah and I were left in our bachelors' paradise to whoop it up and explore the house from the point of view of a sixteen-month-old. First was about forty-five minutes spent opening, climbing into, playing in, and closing the shower:
 Micah could get the door closed and opened from the inside by himself. Once it was closed and he was outside, though, he needed me to reach the handle to open it again. So the sixth step in every iteration (the first five being enter, close, open, exit, close) was to go get me from the kitchen and ask for help please--in clear sign language. Once I opened the door for him, he didn't care what I did for the other five steps of his routine.

 The other arena of strength training, flexibility, and stamina yesterday was the booster seat. Micah wants no more to be buckled in. If he's going to sit at the table, he wants to get into the seat himself and sit unbound by seat belts that no adult uses.
 And he wants to feed himself once he's up.
And he wants to prove that he's also unbound by rules of etiquette and toddler safety.
That move was just for the record. After I got the photo, he sat down again and resumed eating.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to explore the world of adult furniture with a toddler. And I have remembered what it's like to cross an important line into an age of slightly lower maintenance: While Micah played in the shower and on the chairs, I got a load of laundry done and dishes in and out of the dishwasher.

~ emrys

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Another Part of the Story

I called her "Mom Squared." She is the mother of one of my closest friends in high school, who allowed me to come home to her house after school and open the refrigerator before I greeted anyone. She bought frozen burritos specifically for her son and I to eat as after-school and late-night-studying snacks. She bought Milky Way Ice Cream bars (since discontinued) just for me. She loved me like a son.

Sometime in my early university years, when I had fallen in love with a girl who was Christian (and I was not), I went to visit Mom Squared in the city to which she had moved: Miami, Florida. I have no idea how it came up, or whether her offer resulted from my request; my memory did not record those parts in a place I can access them. But she gave me a bible. The New Jerusalem Bible, to be specific; a Roman Catholic version printed in England and, as I recall, printed with instructions not to be sold in the United States.

This bible I read cover-to-cover, Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, over the next year and a half. This paperback brick with onion-skin pages became my daily companion, Apocrypha and all. Based on my reading of this text I decided, in early 1997, that I did not believe the stuff written in it.
 On June 7, 1997, the Author of All Stories That End Well called me to faith. I became a follower of Jesus Christ, and I began to inscribe that gifted bible with thoughts, research, prayers, and songs that made a deep impression on me.
When I went to seminary in 2002, the recommended translation of the bible was the NRSV. Sara bought me a copy of that version, which has been with me since then. The Jerusalem Bible, occasionally serving as a consultant, sat on my shelf until now. It's time to say good-bye, not to the story or the One Behind It All, but to the worn-out brick that's done its duty.

Thanks, Mom Squared, for your gift. The Lord used it well!

~ emrys

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Golden Door

As I continue to think and pray about immigration in the United States, I am haunted by Emma Lazarus' 1883 poem, cast in bronze at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, of which every American primary and secondary student learns a portion somewhere along the line:

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp," cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

My concerns about laws surrounding immigration are humbled before the recognition that our present society owes its being to the invitation of "wretched refuse" to occupy this continent. From the very generation in which Ms. Lazarus wrote, I can trace at least two ancestors of mine who were empowered to begin new lives because they had free entry to American ports and freedom to work in American society.

There may be reasons to reconsider, in 2013, the perspective lauded by The New Colossus, but I want desperately not to dispense with it.

~ emrys

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Seeds

Another reflection on the Church, in an attempt to fit thousands of words in a smaller space:

~ emrys

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Inheritance

It's official: we have done our legal duty as parents and established our Last Wills and Testaments. If the imponderable happens, there will at least be a legal framework for our children's care and the passing on of our property and finances.

I found it impossible not to wax at least a bit philosophical when considering the choices involved in making a will. Something about weighing the situation after my physical demise--which, make no mistake, will come eventually--makes me consider the value of this life which will then be ended. I think about inheritance, that which I pass along, and wonder about what will remain after me besides my physical stuff. It strikes me as summarily unsatisfactory to have the entirety of my legacy enumerable on balance sheets and tax maps.

We Christians throw around the word testament quite a bit. We have two of them specifically designed for Sunday mornings: the Old Testament and New Testament. In this context we read into those words the meaning "book," but the original intent is closer to what we just signed with a lawyer: that which is legally and enforcibly passed on to the next generation. In Christ we receive the inheritance of God's Spirit, who imbues us with courage and grace in this life and into eternity. Christ is the seal on God's will for us, broken, opened, and disbursed for our blessing. In Christ God passes on the blessings of divinity to us.

What shall I pass on to my children, and to others with whom I might share this journey long enough to leave a good impression? Though I desire that my children, until they can make their own way in this world, are provided for in material ways, I want more passionately to pass on faith, character, and the things that make for peace. I want my children to be wise--I pray for it every day--but I am not sure that wisdom travels one generation to the next by structured means. Perhaps it seeps in more by lived example, like the grace notes in a song only heard after hundreds of listenings. I want to pass on love, but not the kind that satisfies instantaneously or the kind that gives words more weight than action. I want to pass on love that waits and endures, love that produces a wondrous synergy between the melody of speech and the harmony of behavior. I want to pass on a love that is not deceived into believing that what comes first is best, but recognizes that sometimes the last is the richest.

I pray that my children will receive abundance of life as I have known it--and more! In Christ, with the community in which they live, and in themselves. I pray that this inheritance will last long after the final penny of my life insurance is spent. I hope that the expansive principle of the kingdom will make it possible for my inheritance to bless many generations in ways I could not ask or imagine. I shall pray for this, then live tomorrow for eternity.

~ emrys

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Screwing Up the Floor

Before we closed on the purchase of our house, the seller agreed to have the joists supporting the downstairs bathroom floor replaced. This room is the only one on the first floor not supported by concrete slab; below the bathroom is the original footprint of the house, which was built to be a spring and pump house in the 1920s. The space is a five-foot deep cellar, into which all the piping and equipment for water filtration and heating has been crammed. It's a maze of copper, PVC, and wire, whose complexity and tightness are only hinted at in this picture:

The gentleman who replaced the flooring in our soon-to-be house may have had some screws loose. Or he may not have had enough experience replacing floor joists in complicated settings. In order to hang sister joists next to the old ones, he discovered that piping and tubing got in the way. To solve this problem, he decided to cut the three center joists of the room right down the middle, like so:

 The problem with cutting through a floor joist is that, no matter how many nails you use to tie the two halves together, the joist is going to sag. This principle holds true especially in a bathroom, which sees a lot of traffic and holds a clothes washer and dryer. Thanks to this repairman's structural decision, the center of our bathroom floor had been descending over the last six years, to the tune of about two inches.

I had several conversations with my DIY heroes at 88-BC, our local building supply joint, and we settled on a plan to raise the floor by jacking it up. One of the guys in my congregation, who has probably put up, torn down, and modified more barns than I've ever stepped into, kindly allowed me to borrow two screw jacks which easily lifted the floor:

 (Thanks, Harold! You saved me a couple of hundred dollars renting or purchasing my own for a single use.)

The screw jacks pressed up on a pair of 4x4s that in turn lifted a single 4x4 set cross-wise under the four joists in the center of the room:

So as to avoid cracking any of the floor, I raised the joists in increments (though I was told by Harold later that my progression was overly cautious). I wrote on the 4x4 the distance from floor to joist after every turn of the screw:

 Then I inserted 2x4s as scabs along the length of the severed joists. The insertion was probably the hardest part, because the piping and electrical work made it impossible just to lift the board into place. It was a headache to weave these boards--all while crouched in a cellar space twelve inches too short for my frame--between tubes and pipes to get them in place. Plus I had a four-and-a-half-year-old helper, whose insistence that she "turn off the light to see if her pencil drawing will glow in the dark" did not speed things up. But I did it with eight boards, then anchored them in place with TimberLOK screws (handed to me by my Big Kid helper, who was genuinely helpful at this point), which my trustworthy sources tell me are as strong as carriage bolts in this application:

With a little prayer, I removed the jacks. Only a few complaints sounded from the floor as it returned to supporting its own weight. I went up stairs to the bathroom. Lo and behold, the floor is still hight and level. I hope that it stays so for a very long time. Should it sink again, I'll have to call in the pros.

Thanks to Jared and the crew at 88-BC for their expertise and assistance!

~ emrys

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Green Pan

In about 1995, during my university years, I bought a huge Texas frying pan. (I don't remember whether it was called a "Texas" frying pan in Montreal, but that's what they call it in Yankee country.) It was made out of thin steel with a coating of teflon. Great for cooking up big batches of stir fry to feed hordes of college students. My most enduring memory of using the pan was to make stir fry for a floor event in our residence hall. I discovered at the grocery store that in Montreal they sell horse meat and that it's considerably cheaper than beef. So I made stir fry with horse meat. Everyone loved the dish--and had frequent seconds--until they discovered in conversation what kind of protein was in it. Then a few backed off.

After fourteen years, three or four moves, and too much use of metal spatulas, the pan was pretty beat up. The teflon came off the bottom in occasional flakes, which I've heard is not healthy. At the end of last year, it was time for Old Texas Faithful to go.
 In Walmart and other purveyors of fine goods, I had passed a new invention: ceramic-coated frying pans. I was intrigued, but had not yet made the decision to buy. My brother Chris, who has become a Foodie of Wisdom and Simplicity, heard about my investigations and bought us a Green Pan for Christmas.
 We have used it for six months now, and it is serving us very well. The ceramic coating works as well as teflon for a non-stick surface, and we're no longer consuming tiny black chips of mysterious bonded chemicals as additional spices. Thanks, Chris!
~ emrys

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Carrying My Lovely

The morning before I left for my last business trip to Louisville, My Lovely Daughter took me out to the front lawn to pick dandelions. She handed me the bouquet of yellow and told me they were for me to take on my trip. So I wrapped the steps in a wet rag, stuck them in a ziploc bag, and hoped that security wouldn't confiscate them. I took pictures and sent them at each stage, so My Lovely would know she had gone with me. Here they are in the Syracuse airport, waiting to go through security:
 Here they are in DC, waiting for a connecting flight:
 Here they are in Louisville, Kentucky, arrived safely (though a little wilted from a day's travel, like me) in the hotel:
Here are the tired blossoms the next day, on the edge of the Ohio River:
And I thought a fitting send-off would be dispersal into the great Ohio River--who knows how far they've traveled toward the Mississippi delta since I let them go?

~ emrys

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thinking Cosmically

When I was in high school, one of my favorite series of books was Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy of four books). It has been at least ten years--maybe fifteen--since I read one of his works. No matter how long the span, however, Adams' words stick in the recesses of my consciousness like mental LDL. So I knew after seeing "DON'T PANIC" on this window in the DC airport that I was in for a treat of reminiscence:
[For those with less-than-optimal resolution, it reads, "It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words "DON'T PANIC" in large, friendly letters on the cover."]

I am thrilled that someone in the Dulles administration is well-read enough to see the value in printing a Hitchhiker quote for travellers to enjoy. It's especially fitting for someone returning from a glorious Colorado vacation to the duties of pastoral ministry. We need more DON'T PANICs in large friendly letters in our lives.

~ emrys

Cutting for Stone

Physicians who are worth their salt recognize that the practice of medicine is an art rather than a science. The complexity of the human person overflows categories defined by anatomy and physiology; to treat a patient is to treat body, mind, and soul. Neglecting one results in misdiagnosis of the other two.

Authors worth their salt recognize that the individual is a microcosm of the world, and the world reflects the struggle of the individual. To tell the struggles of a single person is to tug on the vast web of relationships that make up families, cultures, and societies. We can tell when a story does not tell the truth about a person, because it does not ring bells across the tangled skein of the cosmos.

Abraham Verghese's 2009 bestselling book, Cutting for Stone, reveals its writer to be a physician and author worth his salt. The premise of the novel--conjoined twins whose struggles of discovery span from Ethiopia to the Bronx--might be enough to attract any avid reader. But the real wonders of Verghese's work lie below the surface of nation and history. Verghese describes human relationships with the skill of a practiced surgeon: far from repeating rote anatomy, he handles human complexity as a veteran familiar with both disease and healing. He lays open before us the conjoined twins of physical pain and heartbreak, of sutures and reconciliation. Within the matrix of brotherhood and family, Verghese deposits wonderful descriptions of the surgeon's art. Though brutally clinical at times, the florid poetry of these descriptions will entrance even the most medically-averse reader.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Cutting for Stone, to me who is on the cusp of a journey to East Africa, is the interweaving of Ethiopian culture and history with the tale of Marion Stone's family. Verghese brings out such fascinating detail about life in twentieth-century Addis Ababa, then sets it alongside a picture of an immigrant physician's life in New York City. This comparative taste of world cultures only sharpens my desire to taste injera for myself in the heady richness of Ethiopia's capital city.

Whether you are an aficionado of medicine, a connoisseur of foreign culture, or a gourmet of the complexities of the flesh, you will be rewarded for picking up Cutting for Stone. I do warn you, however, you may not be able to put it down.

~ emrys

Monday, May 27, 2013


I took Gwendolyn today to the graveyard which is under the care of our congregation. We walked among the tomb stones and took note of all the flags--US, firefighters, and one New York State flag for a member of the State Police. I remembered with her the few that I have buried in my six and a half years here pointing to names on glossy head stones. I remembered for her that her Grandpa George is buried in a cemetery in Pennsylvania, and that she won't get to see him in person until we get to glory. In her sensitive four-year-old way, she told me that she "missed him very much," even though she never met him. We remembered in prayer all those who have lost to war, and the Prince of Peace who we hope will arrive soon to put an end to our self-inflicted suffering.

In spite of my own ambiguity toward nationalism and national pride, I want my daughter to remember, among so many other things, those who have departed this world in theaters more strange and dangerous than most Americans will encounter. So today we remembered.

In Memoriam:
George Tyler, MD
Vietnam 1970-1971
Army, 1st Cavalry Division


all The Boys he could not save
who lost their lives
out in the boonies
far from home

~ emrys

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Spontaneous Creativity

Gather a bunch of high school students together in your home, and fascinating things will happen.

Invite anyone over the age of ten to play with wooden blocks, and they will take offense. Blocks are for little kids, their faces will tell you.

Invite kids over the age of ten to hang out in the vicinity of an open container of blocks, and they will inevitably begin to build things. As long as they have not been asked to do so.

Last month we had some high schoolers over for brunch during their spring break. Here's one of the many constructions that grew out of our living room floor:

Note the four-year-old spectator on the left, dressed in pink fleece. She wasted no time including herself in the engineering work.

Let's hear it for creativity and the most basic of toys.

~ emrys

Anti Monkey Butt

During my chaplaincy internship I was paired with another woman from my seminary. The work of our internship included in-depth examination of how the stresses of chaplaincy revealed our strengths and weaknesses as pastors. These revelations came to us in many and varied ways, but usually within interactions with other people.

At one particularly stressful point in our work together, she and I gave each other nicknames which allowed us not-so-passively to express our consternation with the circumstances. The nicknames stuck long after our internship ended. Since that week, I have called her Freak Show. And she has called me Monkey Butt.

Imagine my glee when, a few months ago, I came across this product in the hardware store:

Here's to you, Freak Show!

~ emrys

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Creative Learning

 We purchase an annual membership to a national association of children's museums and science museums. Ever since we encountered the Discovery Center in Binghamton with a toddling Gwendolyn, we have discovered great joy in spending quality time in these paragons of civic effort. During this week's vacation in Durango, Colorado (our home away from home), we found that our membership pass gets us into the newly established Durango Discovery Museum.

Discovery Centers, Science Centers, and Discovery Museums have the twin goals of hands-on education and fun for kids of all ages. I do mean all ages; here is Jill climbing up a stylized tree house, finding her inner contortionist:
 As part of a promo weekend, the Discovery Museum had a set of Imagination Playground blocks--imagine Kinex magnified and fashioned from blue foam--of which Gwendolyn availed herself for about an hour.
 She systematically collected blocks from the scatter created by other kids' work; I did, on occasion, need to remind her that cannibalizing blocks from other children's projects-in-process was not allowed. She was quite determined to include every possible block in her architectural wonder. She required little help except to learn how twisting a foam noodle helps to thread it into another block.
 I took great joy in watching her creative vision play out on the sunlit patio. I also took great sobriety in watching the young children interact and noting that without parental intervention our offspring would have played out a version of Lord of the Flies. There was lots of enforced sharing and rebukes for stealing blocks. But aside from one meltdown among a group of twelve or thirteen kids, the afternoon's activities went off without serious incident. And a foam city brought concrete expression to the heart of my four-year-old daughter.
If you ever have the opportunity to engage the joy and learning of a children's museum . . . engage!
~ emrys