Monday, November 11, 2019

Like father – not so much…

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a
man lay down his life for his friends.”
- Joh 15:13

As sometimes happens when I write, the topic changes midstream. I was working on a piece about unexpected joyful experiences when my dad showed up. I shot him a mental smile indicating, 'I'll get back to you.' He didn't go anywhere.

Plans change…
I am in the final year of my father’s life. Ed Dreisinger entered earth's orbit in 1914 and drifted out of life's grasp in August of 1986, a quarter of the way into his seventy-third year. In the end, life was not so good. He was stricken with progressively debilitating Parkinson's Disease lasting for a decade and a half. The days were difficult. His last breath came in the arms of the woman he had loved and with whom he spent most of his adult life – my mother. 

The Stoics say nothing can hurt you without your permission, each person is responsible for the things they think and do. Losing an arm or leg, a job, your family can only hurt you the soul if you permit it. Since you are a spiritual creature, the decision to be affected by external circumstances is a choice.

My dad watched his body (and eventually his mind) slowly and inexorably slip into a chasm from which there was no escape. And yet to the very end, he held to the passion for, and in, the teachings of Christ.  They had taken him from the streets of Toronto to a life of service, for which he had hungered and never forsook. His physical circumstance notwithstanding, he was a faithful child of God…no doubt a stoic.

His early religious experience...
My father's religious journey began in Pentecostal fundamentalism. A form of religious teaching that focuses on fear. Fear that you will be punished in the fires of hell for sins committed in this life. Its teachings conjure images of Rodin's Gates of Hell which depict scenes from Dante's Inferno. The sculpture (Gates of Hell) leaves little doubt as to the eternal torment awaiting the sinner. The language and images sowed into the minds of congregations fill them with undercurrents of terror that influence them all of their lives.

It is uncertain when my dad came to understand how damaging this message was but he eventually left the church – a path roundly condemned by his pastor, by whom he was excommunicated. While a traumatic experience, he was undaunted and went on to get a formal university education in divinity and religious philosophy.

His ministry...
The mistress to whom he gave his life was the church. That is not to say he didn't love his family. He did with ferocity, but as the scripture says, your treasure is where your heart lies. His treasure? It was the people my father's Master touched through dad's ministry. That was what he wanted, and that's what he got. His heart? It lay in justice, faith, and ironically, fear.

Justice for the common man. He fought for the disadvantaged in the Toronto of his youth and early adult life. He saw how those with means often oppressed those without resources, and whenever or wherever he could, he confronted it. He was fearless in speaking truth to power. He was also funny with a great sense of humor. Oscar Wilde could have been talking about my father when he said, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." Dad had the touch to know when and how to use humor to deflect potentially dire circumstances.

He was driven by faith. A belief that all men and women deserved a level playing field. He fought for this his entire life, north, and south of the Canadian border. Like all of us, there were dark times when it looked like there was no path forward. In those situations, he found strength in prayer, knowing that focus, hard work, and the next step would bring a brighter day. Faith in Biblical teachings was the catalyst that kept him moving when it would have been much easier to back away.

There was another driver, one religious people hardly ever talk openly about, but hangs around their necks like a boulder teetering on the edge of a cliff. Fear is that boulder. There is the unvoiced dread that in some way, God has a cosmic algorithm generating spreadsheets jampacked with every action, thought, or circumstance of their lives. In the end, they fear life’s personal data will be used to determine their final resting place either in heaven or hell. The undercurrent of, "Am I doing enough to be saved" floats in the spiritual background, like a specter waiting to pounce.

My father knew intellectually this to be untrue. He lived, preached, and taught a loving and gracious God. There were never sermons nor personal counseling that threatened eternal damnation. He understood that when the scripture said to fear God, they meant to honor and reverence Him, not to be afraid of Him. Yet, while he escaped the clutches of Pentecostal fundamentalism, he never entirely overcame the insidious seeds of fear and doubt it had planted in his mind as a child.

He fell victim, as do we, to the metaphor in the parable of the wheat and tares. The scripture says a man planted wheat (truth) in his fields (minds of mankind), but while men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares (untruth). The problem, as the parable goes on to say, is that in early growth, both look the same. The story says to leave them alone until they are fully grown, so moral choices become clear. This takes a level of spiritual maturity or what the scripture calls the harvest. Making choices for right, are often easier said than done. As anyone reading this knows, it takes a discerning mind and the will to change things that hurt us spiritually.

Dad knew that to teach a punishing God was wrong and false, but for him, the roots of the tares ran deep. He had been taught as a child, for example, that sickness was God's curse for disobedience. When he developed Parkinson's disease, he wondered whether it was punishment for some unnamed sin committed earlier in his mind or life. In his later years, he openly questioned this with me.

Regardless, because of his early religious experience, he was determined to not plant fear of God in the minds of his congregations, and more importantly ­– the minds of his children. In this, he succeeded. To his flock and to us, he and my mother were unrelenting in teaching us that God was love, compassionate, forgiving, and understanding of our weaknesses – full stop!

What we are taught and, more importantly, what we choose to believe makes us who we are. My dad decided NOT to show the God of the universe as vengeful and punishing. In that context, his son grew up nothing like him. As a result, the seeds of love and assurance grew in his son, bereft of the fear of a vengeful Creator.  In reality, it is an impossible calculus to fully appreciate the effects of that decision.

When my father appeared midstream while writing about a completely different topic, I did what I could to politely and respectfully dismiss him. Once it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere, my mind drifted his way. I’m glad it did.

- ted

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Trying to think, but nothing happens...

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound
thereof, but cants not tell from whence it cometh, and
wither it goeth: So is everyone that is born of the spirit.”
-   John 3:8; The Bible

It's early morning, and the desert air is crisp.  A great way to start the day, except, the screen is blank – my mind is blank, and the black letters on the white keys look more and more like the enemies of my soul!

Sitting behind a keyboard and hoping for a crease in the universe of inspirational thought is a lonely business. There are moments, to be sure when the tap flows freely and words take on a life of their own, coming so quickly, my fingers have difficulty keeping up with them. That would NOT be the case today. 

Oh, stream of consciousness, where art thou?

It has always been that way…a void in the creative process, trying to listen, seeking meaning – staring into the electronic void of my computer screen. An excellent metaphor for life.

What to do…what to do. The rule? Write, no matter what!

Working to write has made me wonder about the Creator of the universe. I wonder if He struggled while stroking the blueprint for life on His cosmic keyboard.  Did the plan for all that is come fully formed or in fits and starts? Did the ideas flow with such consistency that from the beginning, there was never a doubt?

It seems so brilliantly clear in the opening lines of Genesis.

 "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.'" (Genesis 1:1-3)

Here, at the creative juncture of the universe, He said, “…Let there be light.” I’m not sure how many times he wondered whether the inspiration would come, nor how frequently the celestial computer screen remained blank, fingers frozen on the keyboard as he worked to write the recipe for life. When that inspiration came, it is not clear how it was operationalized, but when he said it, there it was. 

I accept the premise there is a Creator, a first mover, an intelligence I do not understand, but cannot deny. To me, the elegance and interactive complexity of the natural world are so awe-inspiring and ordered, it defies the belief that all of this could have happened by accident. How the heavenly programmer could keep any of the code straight and provide conscious thought is so far above my pay grade it resists comprehension. As the Roman Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas suggested, what he didn't understand, he called God. Precisely what I was thinking!!

My sense of wonder has nothing to do with religious belief. Instead, it has to do with the astonishingly consistent systems within which we live. Physical laws springing from intrinsic, rational guidelines, bring order to our personal and collective lives. In that context, it seems the first few verses of Genesis give but a modest overview. And like simplistic summaries, we are left with the ‘what' but not the ‘how.'

It's always the back story that broadens our understanding. Since we have none, we are left to discover it through scientific inquiry and observation. Paul provided insight into this in the book of Romans when he said, 

“The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” (Romans 1:20)

The more we observe and study nature and all its iterations – plant and animal, the more significant our opportunity to understand the creative intelligence of the universe.

Returning to the first chapter of Genesis, the scripture says God made humankind (male and female) in His image. Those who say nothing comes from nothing, miss the point. It is self-evident we create substance out of nothing more than thought. We do it all the time. Is this so different than the Genesis account?

What, by the way, is thought. Like so many things, we have never seen one – we also have never seen gravity, nor electricity, nor love, nor a host of things that operationalize our daily lives. Of course, we see results, but the ideas, the concepts themselves? Nope, so far, nada.

In the end (or is it the beginning), it is self-evident, constructs in our minds translate into all of humanity's physical works. The power of thought, like the creation of the universe, is incomprehensible. All we see is the result. Beliefs limit us or free us. Knowing this leads to intentional decisions that move us either forward or backward.

All of which brings me back to what began as an empty page, producing little except a note or two reflecting the awe I feel, and the conscious recognition that an empty screen, empty mind, and fingers frozen at the keyboard is awesome in itself.

Ah, well…there is always next week and hope springs eternal. After all, moving from zero to one is the most significant increment of all.

‑ ted

Monday, October 28, 2019

On the horse – off the bike

 "Life is dangerous. There are no guarantees."
– AndrĂ© Charles (RuPaul) entertainer

"I'm heading out, hon," I said as I opened the garage door and hopped on my bike to ride with my neighbor, Dave. As usual, the refrain was, "Enjoy the ride and be safe."

"Yup," I replied and was off.

I always smile at that, because there are few places safer than riding the trails on my bicycle.  Even so, I always wear a helmet with a rear-view mirror.

The Chuck Huckelberry Loop, known here as ‘The Loop,' is a mecca for bicycle enthusiasts. Riders often come from far-away places to enjoy riding on these well-marked off-road bike paths.  As Fall temperatures approach, cooling the air, months of sunny, temperate days are perfect for pumping the pedals.

The day could not have been better. Clear skies, temperatures in the upper seventies – this morning the trail was not so busy. We were shooting for eighteen miles. It would be a lovely ride.

It happened so quickly that there was no time to think. Bump, wiggle, bang, and suddenly I found myself eating asphalt, stunned, breathless, and unable to move. You can violate the law of gravity, but when you do, there is a price to be paid. I had taken a ninety-degree corner off the bridge a little too quickly and leaning in, caught the corner rail with my bike. While the distance to the ground was not so great, gravitational accelerating forces of thirty-two feet, per second, per second were invoked with prejudice. Boom! And that was all she wrote.

How it got to this…
Dave and I have been riding off and on since Molly and I moved to Oro Valley. We enjoy each other's company. If a person wants an enjoyable and lengthy time in the saddle, Tucson is the place to do it.

A few years older than me, Dave loves to ride. The Oro Valley portion of the trail lends itself to his passion for pedaling. There are gorgeous views of the mountains and clean, clear air.

The issue for Dave has been the toll taken by time and gravity on his seventy-seven-year-old legs. As much as he enjoyed being in the saddle, it was getting more and more taxing to ride. That is until now. A couple of weeks before we headed out, he purchased an e-bicycle. For the uninitiated, an e-bike is an electrical-assist machine that provides power for those slight, but pesky inclines that are part of riding the trails.

Our rides are social events, and until the arrival of his electric bike, we rode so slowly that (and this is true), more than a few joggers passed us by.  With the advent of his new bicycle, a step change was coming.

“Look out now, pardner,” he said in his southwestern twang. “I’ll be burning those hills, and not care about the wind. You’re gonna have to work to keep up.”  Like a kid on Christmas day, his smile could have lit the morning sun.

I grinned and replied, “No problem – ‘pardner.’”

The event in question occurred as we crossed one of the many bridges that span the broad washes here. Washes are water pathways that look like dry riverbeds…that is until the monsoon season when they become dangerous torrents water violently rushing down from the mountains – hence ‘washes.'

We were into the ride about twelve miles. He was ahead and pulling away. When the ninety-degree turn at the far end of the bridge came, I didn't slow down enough. The back of my bike caught the edge of the railing. I bounced to the other side of the trail, hit the railing, lost control, and went down like a pregnant elephant. The ‘thud' was stunning, and as I lay there unmoving, it was not clear what damage had occurred.

Initially, I couldn't move and struggled to breathe. My first thought was that I had fractured a rib and maybe punctured a lung. I could wiggle everything (fingers and toes) but couldn't roll over or get up. A couple of passing Samaritans helped me sit up where I stayed for a few moments. Then they got me to my feet. 

Gently touching appropriate places, and in spite of the excruciating pain in the upper right quadrant of my chest, it appeared, no bones were broken. While on my feet, I couldn’t stand up straight or breathe without extreme discomfort.

The good news is the paths lie in relative proximity to roads. Molly came to get me and whisked me off to the emergency room for a thorough body check.

In the end, all was good. Aside from a rather unsightly bruise on the side of my right buttocks, a couple of strawberries (knee and elbow), and two weeks of labored breathing, the healing process did what it was supposed to do.

Last week I was back on the bike taking a little more care on bridge crossings and appreciating that this could have been much worse…even life-threatening.

Life isn't really about the expected, but the unexpected.  What I should have said as I headed out the door, “Yes, ma’am. Love you!”

After all, the outcome could have been very different…

- ted