Lenten Meditation–Repentance

He wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people.

My grandmother used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He returned to the home farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to be wooed.

It was a marriage in a rush with a baby born a bit earlier than the calendar would have predicted.  They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Summit Park Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter, the reason for their getting married in the first place, took sick and died quickly of cancer despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least, that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left the booze alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa felt forgiven and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“Phew, it’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

He was home at last.

Lenten Meditation–Ash Wednesday

End of Carnival

End of Carnival by Carl Spitzweg

I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday.  Even as a child in a mainline Protestant denomination, I had only a fleeting awareness of the significance of the days leading up to Resurrection Sunday. When my new middle school friend, a Catholic, wore the cross of ashes on her forehead to remind her of her mortality and her need for repentance, it marked me as well:

I will be ashes someday.  That is a given.  There is no drawing of the first breath without knowing there will be a last breath.  That awareness changes everything in between.

Salvation from the ash heap is only through the sacrifice and gracious gift of the Risen Savior.   I cannot save myself.

The party may be over, but there is plenty left to celebrate.    This is only the beginning.

May 19, 1975

This is another piece of my Gombe saga, working as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.

At first glance,  Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle.  It was a façade.  It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.

Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi.  When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us.  Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.

There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.

Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.

Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders.  The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.

Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion.  No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard.  Had someone been injured or killed?   There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.

We hurried along barely familiar  trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.

That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub.  A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do.  We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds.  We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world.   We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.

Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.

“Will they kidnap me, Jane?  Will they come for me?  Where will they take us?  Will they shoot us dead?”

Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders,  sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us.  We’re safe staying right here.  Everything will be fine in the morning.  No one will take you from me.”

She concluded: “They would have to shoot me first…”  and at that, Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.  He knew that was how baby chimpanzees were captured by bounty hunters, by shooting the mother dead and snatching the infant from her protective embrace.

When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting  an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy.  Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers hurt but with no life threatening injuries.   There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.

We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi.  Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp.  We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.

In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with some suspicion.  Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments.  We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa.  It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety.  The agents did not shed any light on whether our friends were alive or dead.

We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.

It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.

Childrens’ Hospital Rotation

The call came in the middle of a busy night
as we worked on a floppy baby with high fever,
a croupy toddler whose breathing squeezed and squeaked,
a pale adolescent transfusing due to leukemia bleeding.

It was an anencephalic baby just born, unexpected, unwanted
in a hospital across town, and she needed a place to die.

Our team of three puzzled how to manage a baby without a brain–
simply put her in a room, swaddled, kept warm but alone?
Hydrate her with a dropper of water to moisten her mouth?
Offer her a taste of milk?

She arrived by ambulance, the somber attendants
leaving quickly, unnerved by her mewing cries.

I took the wrapped bundle and peeled away the layers
to find a plump full term baby, her hands gripping, arms waving
once freed;  just another newborn until I pulled off her stocking cap
and looked into an empty crater — only a brainstem lumped at the base.

Neither textbook pictures nor cruel jokes about frog babies had prepared me
for the wholeness, the holiness of this living, breathing child.

Her forehead quit above the eyebrows with the entire skull missing,
tufts of soft brown hair fringed her perfect ears, around the back of her neck.
Her eyelids puffy, squinting tight, seemingly too big
above a button nose and rosebud pink lips.

She squirmed under my fingers, her muscles strong, breaths coming steady
despite no awareness of light or touch or noise.

Yet she cried in little whimpers, mouth working, seeking,
lips tentatively gripping my fingertip. A bottle warmed,
nipple offered, a tentative suck allowing tiny flow,
then, amazing,  a gurgling swallow.

Returning every two hours, more for me than for her,  I picked her up
to smell the salty sweet scent of amnion still on her skin as she grew dusky.

Her breathing weakened, her muscles loosened, giving up her grip
on a world she would never see or hear or feel to behold
something far more glorious, as I gazed
into her emptiness, waiting to be filled.

Borborygmus and Dust Bunnies

(fictional story written on a theme of “GRRR!” for http://www.faithwriters.com)


No response.  Five year old Ethan waits a minute in the dark, huddling under the covers, watching and listening.


Still no response.  Ethan’s eyes are wide open now, staring over at his older brother Erik’s bed, where eight year old Erik is fast asleep, breathing slow and easy.


Their sleepy looking mother, hair askew, bathrobe barely wrapped around her, opens the bedroom door and peers in.

“What is going on?  What’s wrong? It’s 3 AM, for goodness’ sake.”

“There’s something under Erik’s bed making terrible noises…. It woke me up but he is still asleep.  It must have snuck in here before we went to bed and it’s hiding under there.  I can hear it growling.”

She closed her weary eyes, attempting to organize her thoughts into coherence, wishing she was back snug in bed.

“Ethan, there can’t be anything under Erik’s bed.  You must have been dreaming.”

“Mom!  It’s real!   I heard it!  It sounded just like this: ‘GRRRR!’ “

“Ethan, there is nothing under Erik’s bed other than too many toys and dust bunnies that reproduce themselves.”

“Mom, get a flashlight!  I think it must be a wolf!  Get Dad!  Do something!”

“I’m not waking up your father. He has to be up in another two hours to get ready for work.  You aren’t making any sense.  It was just a bad dream. Now go back to sleep.”

She closes the door and starts to feel her way back down the dark hallway.


She stops.  Turns around. Opens the door again and looks in.

“It just growled again!  It sounds really hungry!  You’ve got to get it out of there!”

She stands at the doorway, eyes closed, when she hears it.

“Did you hear it??  Now you believe me? Mom, it’s real!”

She smiled.   Ethan is whimpering now.

“Ethan, you have just heard the dreaded ‘borborygmus.’  It likes to growl.  That’s all it can ever do.  It will never bite or hurt anyone.  But you are right, it does sound very hungry…

“Mom!! Make the borbory-mus leave!  PLEEEASE get it out of here!”

“Ethan, it’s just Erik’s stomach growling.  That’s all it is.  It must have been the pepperoni pizza we had for dinner.  Let’s hope he’s not about to get sick.  Now that’s something for which you can call me out of bed. Good night now, go back to sleep. ”

And she headed back down the hallway.

Ethan sat in the dark, now more annoyed than relieved, watching his brother sleeping soundly, oblivious to the rumbling growls coming from inside his tummy.  Then worry snuck back and attaches itself to Ethan like Velcro.


One more time, with all the patience she can muster, she cracks open the bedroom door, tempted to growl at him herself.   But she is a good Mommy, so she only says in a very quiet controlled tone worthy of an Oscar winning performance:

“What is it now?”

“Mom, do you think dust bunnies bite?”

She took in a deep breath, hesitating for only a moment.

“No, but a tired Mommy certainly might if she isn’t allowed to go back to bed.”

“OK, night, Mommy.  Thank you for saving me from the borbory-whatever. You are really a great Mom, you know?

And as she crawled back into bed, she knew he was right…

The Sunday School Express

photo by Gary Herbert

The rusty, scratched and dented shell of a school bus sounded as if it would barely make it around the corner. Yet it always ran if Pete was at the wheel as he drove the “Sunday School Express” in our rural neighborhood, picking up all willing (and some not so willing) children within a 6 mile radius.

This was the only way these children would get to attend Sunday School at Wiser Lake Chapel. The bus was the cast off donation that made the pick up routine possible. Pete provided the fuel for the bus and, along with his wife and a few other steadfast volunteers, was one of the teachers of the classes. This was a mission effort to reach the local kids, most of whom were growing up poor. Their immigrant and Native American parents were too weary from a week of working the fields, logging or fishing to get to church themselves, so were grateful for the two hour respite from their noisy children offered by the Sunday School Express.

The chapel was a humble destination. It was a boxy building with flaking paint and loose shingles, with a squared off steeple and a large bell to ring in the belfry. The children would take turns tugging on the rope inside the front door each Sunday, announcing the clarion call to all within a ½ mile that once again the Word of God was being proclaimed in this little building.

Pete made sure these hungry children were fed from the Word along with a lunch that would carry them through the day. He taught them the old hymns and made sure each one received their own Bible by age eight. For years, he and his family spent their Sunday mornings at this little chapel, not attending a church service with a preacher or a sermon, except when it came time to do the rounds of local congregations to ask for continued financial support for the mission outreach he was doing.

He came to know the children well as he picked them up in the bus and then delivered them back to their homes and would occasionally stop briefly to chat with their parents, to ask about any needs they may have and encouraging them to consider coming to one of the larger churches in town for worship. As he traveled about his Sunday morning bus route week after week, he’d sometimes discover the children’s homes abandoned, suddenly dark and empty, with no way to know or find out where the family had gone. He would pray they would find another home and another church would find them.

His unique ministry continued for almost a generation. As Pete’s own children grew up and moved away, he and his wife Esther helped recruit a pastor for the little chapel, and it grew to become the vibrant worshiping community it is today, to include some of the adults he had taught when they were young. They had been fed to the point of being able to feed others and a number of them became Sunday school teachers themselves.

Pete passed away several years ago, a beloved and respected father to his own children and teacher to many hundreds of others’. His funeral service was a simple service befitting a devout and faithful servant. What made it most remarkable was the overflowing chapel sanctuary, filled with people who he had picked up and delivered over the years in his rickety Sunday school bus, picking them up from their humble surroundings and delivering them into the grace and glory of God. He had fed them the Word and he had fed them lunch. And they returned in the fullness of their gratitude.