Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Amtrak adventure

My railroad journey is nearing its end, and this last leg of the trip (Chicago --> St. Louis) includes free wifi, so I thought I’d go ahead and post a roundup of snippets and scenes from the past few days.

I really should have taken more photos in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. There’s an unassuming beauty to the Midwest that is harder to capture but is brilliant nonetheless.

Anyway, instead I caught up on sleep, reading and tatting. I plowed through Albert Camus’ The Stranger and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, two classics I should have read long ago and which Joe lent me for the trip. Five stars to each.

Managing to snag a spot in the popular observation car for portions of the winding trek through the Rockies, I had my camera at the ready more often during this section of the trip.

Two volunteer tour guides (affiliated with the National Park Service) provided a special treat from Denver to Grand Junction, sharing their knowledge of high points along the route over the intercom and via objects we could touch such as pine-beetled wood.

The Rockies never get old, even if you lived in their front yard (the Front Range) for a decade and a half or so.

Maybe the coolest thing was the way the California Zephyr seemed to follow alongside the South Boulder Creek and then the Colorado River (after crossing the continental divide) the whole time.

I guess I don’t know for sure that it was the whole time – and maybe that’s not particularly remarkable, anyway – but there’s just something about that that’s calming, deep. Perhaps it’s the lack of a need to reinvent the wheel, that the river knows the best way through.

This nearness to the whitewater also meant upwards of 20 moonings by river rafters (a fellow passenger was keeping a tally) – but alas I did not attempt to capture any of those moments.

No offense to the mountains, the streams, the idyllic towns – but my favorite photo during the hours in my old home state is probably this one (above), from the confines of the lower-level cafĂ© car while stopped in Grand Junction.

That’s where the kindly tour guides bid us farewell – but the gorgeous, stunning scenery didn’t end there on the Western Slope. Utah was striking along the rails as well. As one fellow passenger described it, the Utah landscape seemed very “layered.”

The morning after deboarding the train in Salt Lake City (though I’d love to take it all the way to San Francisco, sometime!), I rented a car for the last few hours of the trip to my friend’s wedding in Victor, Idaho. As rain clouds rolled in midday, the combination of sky and landscape was again breathtaking – and surprisingly colorful.

These Idaho shots are looking mostly eastward, toward the Tetons and Yellowstone, if I’m not mistaken.

Despite hardly ever driving a car these days, I’m partial to rearview-mirror photographs, and I like how this one (above) turned out.

The rain stopped just in time for my friend’s wedding ceremony at a scenic ranch venue. The celebration couldn’t have been lovelier, from the parade of cowgirl-booted, pint-sized flower girls to the cozy cocktail hour complete with a fireplace and the smell of fresh rain.

Something about the juxtaposition of the deejay’s setup for the dance and the horses hanging out just behind the shindig made me chuckle.

All too soon it was time to head home. But not before hanging out in Salt Lake City on a Sunday, which, FYI, is maybe not the best plan. Since the downtown Enterprise closed at 4 p.m. and the daily train didn’t depart until the middle of the night, I had envisioned a cool, car-free, play-it-by-ear half day in the city. Let’s just say that’s a better plan if most places (and transit!) in said city aren’t shut down on Sundays.

On the up side, the temple grounds were open and busy and photogenic. I also eventually spotted a Barnes and Noble and a showing of Ant-Man, which carried me through the evening. The movie was quite fun, although I think at that point I was most excited about setting down my duffel bag for two hours or so.

The trip home on the train was enjoyable as well. I aspire to one day invest in a sleeper car, however. Access to a shower and a less-public bathroom sound like true luxury right about now, as I type away here in coach. :) So does home.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The same as an unbeliever

I have sometimes imagined Bertrand Russell actually asking what he said he would ask if, after he died, he discovered that God did indeed exist.

If he really said to God, "Then, sir, why did you go to such lengths to hide yourself?" I hope God at least acknowledged it to be a very understandable question. So many of those who speak with authority about God do not, including prominent evangelical theologian John Piper. Piper sweepingly accuses Russell of playing academic games in the latter's Why I am Not a Christian.

"One great benefit of going to a good Christian college is that you read important bad books with the help of wise Christian scholars," Piper writes in an October 2009 "World" article. "I thank God for wise Christian scholar-teachers who led me through the swamps of academic unbelief so that I could see how inauthentic its play-actors were."

I read Russell's book in college, too. On my own, on a plane ride. And while I still considered myself a Bible-believing Christian at the time, I remember thinking Russell had understandable reasons for his conclusions. And he wasn't a jerk about stating those reasons. He titled his treatise simply Why I am Not a Christian, after all, not something like God is Not Great or The God Delusion. From what I can tell, Russell was honestly seeking to know the world around him. He looked for God, and he longed for certitude, like me. But Piper recognizes in Russell‘s philosophy little worth sympathizing with.

"Yes, we die. And there is darkness and sorrow," Piper writes. "For those who see only that, there will be something much worse than Russell's 'extinction in the vast death of the solar system.' That is not what hell is. But for believers, the despair and futility are swept away in the dawn of Easter Sunday."

When I read words like Piper's, I too can see only that – darkness and sorrow. Hell. Piper's world is ultimately an either-or one, with no space for ambiguity. It's full of realms that welcome dichotomy, banishing nuance.

Elsewhere, Piper talks about the appropriateness of "holy ostracism" in an online transcript of one of his "Desiring God" radio broadcasts. "Holy ostracism" is a new phrase to me, and I continue reading. He‘s been asked a question about how to interact with a fellow believer who comes out of the closet and starts attending another church where he is welcomed.

Piper‘s advice? Take the now openly gay friend to lunch one last time and explain that unless he repents they can‘t be friends anymore.

Piper goes on to suggest that this is the loving approach with those we know who "claim the name of Christ." He cites an example of friends whose daughter was "living in sin" and how they broke fellowship with her, believing this ostracism to be the correct approach. The family stopped associating with their own daughter. The result? They did the right thing, Piper says, and the reward was great because the daughter became so distraught about the loss of those ties that she soon came around.

"So I've seen it work," Piper concludes, "It doesn't always work. But that's what the New Testament prescribes."

Maybe the healthy response to this kind of authoritative counsel is simply to shrug it off as ridiculous. But it deeply alarms me. So many people regard Piper as a trustworthy guide. He's prolific, and his book aimed for young adults, Don’t Waste Your Life, lit me on fire when I encountered it in my early twenties. He made me think about what it would mean to go all out in following Jesus, to have a sense of urgency and to take up my cross daily.

But there are only two words with which I can describe his approach to dealing with fellow humans whose lives or opinions or decisions don‘t fit a given mold – manipulative and devastating.

For Piper, this approach is an application of scripture's exhortation that if a fellow believer is caught in sin and will not repent he should be treated the same as an unbeliever. The same as an unbeliever. What does that look like?

It looks like Chava. Little bird, little Chavalah from Fiddler on the Roof. It reminds me of the scene where her father, Tevyeh, remains implacable to her pleas for acceptance of her marriage to a man outside the Jewish faith. Before completely turning his back, he reminisces, singing to himself, and implicitly to her:

Little bird, little Chavalah
I don‘t understand what's happening today
Everything is all a blur
All I can see is a happy child
The sweet bird you were
Chavalah, Chavalah...

But his knowledge of his daughter's love for the family, and of his fatherly love for her, does not sway him from his convictions and his beloved, disappearing tradition.

"Accept them?" he says to himself. "How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend, that far, I‘ll break. On the other There is no other hand. No, Chava! No! No..."