Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Story and reality

In college, a friend of mine (still a friend, I'd like to think, but we haven't spoken in a while) talked to me about the Gospel of John and had an interesting problem with the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was a dead man that Jesus told to get out of his tomb, then he was a live man who came out of the tomb. My friend asked, in effect, so, what did Lazarus say? Did he know he was dead? Did he see heaven? Why wasn't this played up more in the story? He thought, as far as I can recall, that this kind of thing made the story inconsistent.

What I failed to consider at the time is that good stories have certain qualities that reality does not. A story has a beginning, middle, and an end (more or less). A story has narrative impact. A story has unity of plot, character, and theme. A story doesn't have loose ends. A story skips the boring parts.

So what's interesting about the Lazarus story is that it serves a purpose in the gospel narrative (among other things, it explains why large crowds followed Jesus into Jerusalem for his Passion: because they'd heard about Lazarus), but for my friend it constituted a loose end. But loose ends don't belong in stories: they are the stuff of reality. If anything, and sure, maybe it's not that important in the long run, if the Lazarus story has a loose end, that militates toward its authenticity rather than against it.

A similar argument is sometimes made about the story (here paraphrased) when a crowd brings an adulterous woman to see Jesus (also in John's gospel). The crowd asks if they should stone the woman. Jesus writes in the dust with his finger, then says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This sucks all the hot air out of the angry mob and they leave the woman with Jesus. He says, "Does no one condemn you?" to the woman. She shakes her head, so he says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more."

The interesting thing about this story is that there is a loose end. Never before or since has anyone determined what Jesus was doing writing in the dust with his finger. As the story stands, it has this detail that doesn't contribute to the unity. (As CS Lewis says, fulsome details used for added realism in fiction did not exist until the 19th century.) So, the argument goes, this isn't a story at all. It's just reality.

I was thinking about this on Christmas Eve. We went to a service where the infancy gospel narrative of Matthew and Luke was fleshed out in little family details. I thought to myself, we don't have this little stuff, whether Joseph said he loves Jesus so much. We don't have blow-by-blow accounts of the Creator of the Universe in Earthly Form messing himself. There are missing hours, days, months, and then most famously, a gap that is basically decades long in Jesus' life story. Talk about a loose end we would be keenly interested in!

But, and here is the trick, this is just like a conventional biography. Details are always chosen carefully for their importance, whether the story is fiction or nonfiction. Incidents are omitted or concentrated on based on the unity of the story of a person's life. Every once in a while, though, the story ends and reality peeks through a meaningless little detail.

Have a holly jolly Boxing Day

Hi people. I missed Christmas with all of you, so I hope you had a good holiday with family. Not to discriminate against people who had other holidays or gathering demographics; I am just projecting my experience onto yours.

We've had a great Christmastime with my wife's side of the family and I couldn't be happier. My chewy noels came out a little strong (maybe I need to replace some of the sugar (sugar:flour::3:1) with liquor or something) but I love them. They are brown-sugary/salty/nutty/powdered sugar bombs of pure addiction.

This year the family decided to get me a supergift instead of just one little gift, so this is it. It's an acoustic-electric guitar (that is, it has built-in electronics) and is vintage sunburst rather than plain pine or whatever color is in the picture. Needless to say, I am overwhelmed at everyone's coordination and generosity. I love you all. It is awesome.

Sarah kept the whole thing under wraps until Christmas morning, when I received very few individual gifts and began to think that something might be up, but I had to wait until about 5:00 for the big surprise. Sarah always got nervous, the past few months, when I'd talk about wanting an electric guitar. "Wouldn't you like to replace that worn-out acoustic guitar first? Wouldn't you?" she would say. "Okay, okay," I would say, a bit sullenly, and secretly, I would dare to dream for a moment. But honestly, I never really believed the family would do it, so I'd just plan on going to the pawn shop with a few Christmas bucks, and play George Harrison songs on the sad-looking electric guitar at Sam's Club, with its missing strings and wussy practice amp. Now I'll get to plug in with a really nice guitar at home and church. You all knew me better than I knew myself. Well done.

I've begun to think about separating out my posts by subjects so they are a little less large and more focused. So, next down the pipe, a little Christmas reflection about stories and real life.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas goes "hi-tech"

I swear, not one of us was drunk at the time.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Blue Christmas
What Child Is This
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

1. Play Christmas carols at Hastings
2. Post videos to YouTube
3. ... ???
4. Profit!

We played for about an hour, so these are just the highlights (although I thought I'll Be Home for Christmas and O Holy Night were also highlights). We have the whole thing on DVD, so if you want a copy, email me or Sarah.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Last night Stacy, Tom, Suzy, Sarah, and I went to Stacy's workplace, Hastings, which is a cafe/(video/music/book) (renter/seller) to play Christmas tunes. Suzy plays a mean hand drum, Tom was on mandolin, shaker, and harmonica, I had the guitar, and everyone sang. Some people from our church showed up and listened. We got a little applause from passers-through, too. Sarah made a video and we should be putting clips on YouTube any day now. It's starting to sound like we'll go to Hastings next year about once a month, and play U2 or the Beatles or Nickel Creek or whatever.

I recently catalogued most of my book collection on Library Thing, a brilliant site that links up your books to everyone else's collections and finds interesting patterns, such as who owns the most books in common with you, suggestions for books that are similar to one you enter, unsuggestions for books (given that you own a book, what's the book it is most unlikely that you also own?). Very fun, interesting stuff.

We'll fall off the earth this weekend, but I should post again before then.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It worked!

That brings an end to my best semester in the Master's program yet. I finished my thesis proposal, and made two programs that actually do something interesting.

One is a web crawler that many computers can contribute to at once. The more computers you put on (and it works over the internet, so that could be any number), the faster it will run. The major bottlenecks left are the bandwidth and storage of the central server.

The other one is a hierarchy browser that uses speech recognition, mouse, and ten-key for controls (specifically, to construct a grocery list by selecting items from this household products database). Thus, it is accessible to the blind and the paraplegic as well as to handed and sighted people. This project came together a lot in the last week, when I finally had major time to work on it. I was amazed that it worked the first time, practically the way I wanted to.

Also interesting to me is the fact that both of these programs are in Java. If you have well-documented, intuitive libraries to work with, it's a real snap to start making something interesting. I am also getting better at the Java GUI model, which makes at least a good deal of sense to me.

Once I can figure out how, I'll post the programs for public consumption. They both rely on the user's ability to install PostgreSQL (a database program), which is not all cream soda and sunshine, if you know what I mean. But they really are cool.

I'm considering something I haven't ever done before: paying money for a developer tool. The speech-recognition library I used was put together by some company. I'm about a week into the 30-day trial. It would be $16 to get a personal license, which I could use for research. Or, I can suck it up and learn Windows MFC, ATL, COM, and MS SAPI.

I also finished The Genesee Diary. One of the things that interested me most was the epilogue. After 7 months among the monks, where Henri Nouwen's world was beginning to quiet down a bit and he was getting serene, he returned to a hectic schedule as a teacher, writer, and priest. Six months later, he wrote this epilogue, that he had been hoping that the monastery would change him forever, that he would finally be single-minded, committed, wholly devoted to Christ. That's not what happened. Instead, he saw his time out of the world as something to look back on, to strengthen him with hope for a better life, and also to humble him in comparison with his life out in the real world. He quoted Jesus in a disturbing moment, where Jesus says that you can clean yourself out for a moment, but your demons will come back to haunt you worse than before.

I empathize completely. Not only does his experience remind me a lot of my summer among the Christians in Lake Tahoe, I also long for wholeness with God, that final inch where I tip over into unassuming love for him and the people close to me and the world in general. But I never do quite tip over. I feel the need to live on the edge of the religion and the world, touching both, as I was reminded by rereading a journal recently.

In a way, it was shocking when Nouwen wrote about this cold douse of reality, so different was the style from journal to epilogue. But in a way, it was gratifying and comforting. Not, that is, to think that mountaintop experiences are illusory or failures or impossibly idealistic. Plainly, I think there is more to idealism than meets the eye. Instead, to know that he walked the same road I am walking and felt like me, that it's all right to be out in the world and not feel satisfied with yourself or the world. We don't need to fit because we don't quite fit. We are citizens of another country. The question, of whether that country is the material world of the unconscious animals, the absurd world of existence, nonexistence, and death, or the strange world of the spiritual, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Knowing where you belong doesn't help you fit back into the world. Humans will never fit back into the world. But it can relieve the pressure of worry about not being able to fit, even at your best, into that which you long for desperately, or belong to deeply.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Slaughterhouse Five

I'm falling off the face of the earth until Thursday. One distributed web-crawler and one speech-enabled grocery list coming up.

I finished Slaughterhouse Five. It's a book about fatalism, about a man who has come unstuck in time and continually revisits and relives his life, out of order. But since he's already done everything he's about to relive, he is a little helpless against his circumstances. As aliens from Tralfamadore explain to him, events are as they are out of mechanical necessity, not by choice. (In a way, Heroes is also about this issue.) Billy, the man, is a prisoner of war when Dresden is firebombed. Was that, too, a product of environmental conditions and robotic performance? Should those deaths be shrugged off, like so many others in the book, with another "So it goes"? No, no, never. I can't live like that.

So I give you dueling poems. They can be reconciled if you believe in a fixed past, but a wide-open future. Like many issues in philosophy, such a belief may be a question of thinkers justifying something people have long intuited. Good luck with life for the next few days.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

Friday, December 08, 2006

AK: (I.9-11) Love in the time of Cachet Blanc

We're back! I had a rough time deciding how to write about this next section. But a passage from The Genesee Diary showed me the way. Like I said earlier, it's an account of a Dutch Catholic writer and priest who goes to spend seven months in a Trappist monastery, living as a monk.

Here's the passage:

Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become. The contemplative looks not so much around things but through them into their center. Through their center he discovers the world of spiritual beauty that is more real, has more density, more mass, more energy, and greater intensity than physical matter. In effect, the beauty of physical matter is a reflection of its inner content. Contemplation is a response to the world that is built in this fashion. That is why the Greek fathers, who were great contemplatives, are known as the dioretic fathers. [not diuretic - ed.] Diorao means to see into, to see through. In celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, we celebrate the presence of the risen Christ among us, at the center of our lives, at the center of our very being, at the heart of our community, at the heart of the creation...

Keep this in mind as we talk.

Mountaintop At The Garden. Levin meeting Kitty at the ice skating rink might be described best as a mountaintop experience.* In the full flush of his yearning to be joined to Kitty, he uses language that is religious in its fervor to praise her: "Everything became bright in her presence. ... The spot where she stood seemed to him an unapproachable sanctuary... He went down, trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking." And like someone who looks too long at the sun, he is blinded.

Here's a poem I wrote way back when. If I explain much about what it means, it'll be obvious who it was about. The title is the name of a place on the moon, originally thought to be a sea, and thus called Sea of Tears. One night I looked into the sky, which was quite clear, and saw an enormous silver ring around the moon. Think of it, if you like, as another take on Levin.

Mare Imbrium

Your halo crowning the dark skies
You're too far above me
I sought the sun and I found you
I stared so long my eyes hurt
When I looked around, your image
Was reflected in all I saw
You were imprinted in my brain
I staggered blindly and still your face
Stared back at me endlessly

Maybe you didn't know, when I went into orbit
Circling around, in empty space
Pulled by an irresistible force
I was not an immovable stone
I hate to think you ignored it.

Stay blameless
You'll remain pristine forever in my memory
That is what you deserve-
You never attacked
But maybe I did
And I burned out my own eyes
For sight of you

It's a little hard for me to write about this particular chapter, Chapter 9, because of stuff like this. Not God's gift to poetry. I see several changes to make ten-ish years later, including some ghastly punctuation, some clunky phrases. But I was idealistic enough then to believe that Levin was piercing the mystical veil and seeing Kitty as she is. I thought you could have "childlike serenity and goodness," "gentle, calm, and truthful eyes," "an enchanted world," if you only went on a quest for this perfect woman. This attitude spills from the margin, from my high school attitude, into my reading.

Only lately have I seen Levin's attitude being portrayed here as quixotic and a bit unreliable. I transcribed that passage on contemplation, though, because perhaps I have this exactly upside down. It's hard to tell whether visionaries are mad or geniuses. We could all be wrong. Even Tolstoy could be wrong, in a sense, about Levin. Maybe we have only the common sort of sight and he sees the things that are really important.

Faith is the belief in things unseen. That's the common point of view, straight from a quotable Bible verse. The spiritual realm that lies behind or permeates the physical realm is not accessible to our senses. But faith is also the seeing of things believed. Sometimes when I am in the church building, I imagine to myself, what if we could see through this physical thing to the spiritual thing behind it: a pristine church as beautiful as a Monet painting, angels singing in the rafters along with the congregation, the radiance of God shining in every person and from every corner. Sure, there are these brown wooden pews, and the water damage, and the PA is a little too loud this morning and they're out of stubby pencils. And now we must decide which view, which vision of the church is more essential. My instinct is to say that the first one is more real, even though it is, from the common point of view, wholly imaginary.

Once Levin's head floats off its shoulders, action that is altogether prosaic becomes gold-leafed. "Skate together?" Levin asks himself. "Is that possible?" The undercurrent of this action is not Levin's epic romantic destiny, though. Back on the ground, Kitty is frowning and turning things over in her mind. When Levin lets slip his intentions, saying to Kitty regarding the length of his stay in Moscow, "It all depends on you," she is shocked and runs away from him.

We are thus not surprised that she thinks of him as "her favorite brother", and says "I know that I don't love him." On this paragraph, the story pivots, and we grimly anticipate the failure of Levin's marriage proposals, and understand how loosely he is anchored to reality. To his credit, Levin is at least by turns hopeful and hopeless about his prospects. But again, this has more to do with his uncertain view of himself than anything Kitty might have said or done, which he might have paid attention to.

It's a pitiable situation; Tolstoy skillfully sets it up so we tensely await the reveal throughout the following action, until Levin asks Kitty, as he's come to Moscow to do, to fulfill his destiny, to be complete, to find Jesus and God and heaven and be burned up in the sun. Then, presumably, she will say no.

Coming Down The Mountain. Once the radiance of Kitty fades away, Levin finds himself down in the twilight of a dinner with Oblonsky. Quickly, he feels like he and his idealistic thoughts of beauty and truth and Kitty do not belong in this sybarite's world. A woman wearing makeup is the first target of his ire, but more follow over the course of their luxurious meal. "He was afraid of besmirching that which filled his soul." And if there's one thing that really smirches the place up, it's Flensburg oysters.

Levin can't tell Oblonsky all that, so he channels his discomfort into classic town mouse, country mouse talk:
O: "Well, naturally. But that's the whole aim of civilization: to make everything a source of enjoyment."
L: "Well, if that is so, I'd rather be a savage."

The friendly banter starts to unravel as Oblonsky brings the conversation back around to the Shcherbatskys, though. It's hard not to hear Oblonsky dragging a source of holiness for Levin down into a source of enjoyment for himself. Levin reaffirms, once more in religious language, both what this love means to him ("It is not mere feeling, but a sort of force outside me which has taken possession of me") and why he feels unworthy of it ("that we--who are no longer young and have pasts... er... not of love but of sins--that we find ourselves drawn close suddenly to a pure, innocent being!").

But in this affirmation we can hear Levin's confession that all the disgust he had directed outward at the evening, the tarted-up woman, the luxuries, and Oblonsky, the paunchy nobleman, also convicts him. I am tempted to say that Levin's opinion of himself is just as valid as his opinion of Kitty. Another phrase springs to mind: "in humility, consider others better than yourselves." Is Levin's attitude humility, or do we need a more destructive word?

As If. As if the night couldn't get any worse, Oblonsky talks about one of Kitty's suitors, the handsome, intelligent, young Vronsky, then forces Levin to talk about adultery. I have wondered for a while whether there is a subtext here that Levin is too old for Kitty. No one really comes right out and says it. It's all couched in terms of experience.

I'll leave the talk of Vronsky for another night. As for the talk on adultery, it's fairly predictable when you think about where they're both coming from, but it's fun to read. There are some great lines and moments in this chapter, and this is already getting long, so I'm going to cut this thing short.

I really like the moment when Levin is talking about how pure love should be, but all of a sudden he realizes that he is not so pure and becomes confused: "However, perhaps you're right. Yes, perhaps you are. ... But I don't know. I really don't know." This is the culmination of Levin's being pulled between the two versions of his love all day long, masterfully depicted by Tolstoy. Oblonsky has a great line in response: "You want the activity of every single man always to have an aim, and love and family life always to be one and the same thing. But that doesn't happen either. All the diversity, all the charm, and all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade."

Finally done! Hopefully the next installment won't take so long to get out.

* The reference is to the Transfiguration, a story in the Gospels where Jesus takes John, Peter, and James up on a peak, where they see him transformed and conversing with Moses and Elijah. (Incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches celebrate this event on August 6, a day I have always firmly associated with the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.)

I had a mountaintop experience in the summer of 2000, when I spent several weeks in South Lake Tahoe with Campus Crusade for Christ among adults in ministry and 80 like-minded students on a mission. I don't regret the weeks. They rank with some of the best I've ever had, and that's where I met Sarah Conrad from Utah. There was even a literal, yet symbolic mountain to climb where you could see for miles into the blue, Mount Tallac. I picked wildflowers to give to Sarah. I had a two-liter bottle full of them before Matt Stumbaugh educated me about zero-impact principles.

It was a perfect environment for living as a Christian and being close to God. There are all kinds of things I could say from here, like "too perfect...?" and "for that reason, to be mistrusted" but they're not quite true. The mountain is real, and the valley and the flatland are real too. What you learn on the mountain is for the rest of your life, but it requires a bit of translation to the rest of your life first.

Visualize whirled peas

And how did I forget finishing The Visual Display of Quantitative Information? It's a beautifully designed history and primer-by example of on how to visualize data (the medium is the message; it's a beautiful book), especially useful for scientists, but useful for anyone who wants to use graphics to explore data. You can read more about it here.

The guy who wrote it is Edward Tufte, a pioneer in visualization. He has a website.

I also recently happened across a site called Information Aesthetics, which showcases the creative display of data in the news and on the net. It's fascinating stuff; bookmark it, subscribe to it. Here's an example: the flow of user traffic through various pages on a single web site is visualized as a circle, with heavy lines for the most common pathways through. Sure, they're gorgeous, but they also show how people tend to use the website, which can provide insights to the site designer.

The post title is almost my favorite "visualize X" bumper sticker. One day I thought of one I liked better, and I told Sarah, and it cracked us up. If it doesn't crack you up, you obviously have an impaired humor system and you should get it checked out:

Visualize Using Your Turn Signal

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Run! Don't walk!

NBC has a great show running called Heroes. I read somewhere that if Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of the best shows) is like a comic book guy (Joss Whedon) doing a TV show, then Heroes is like a TV guy (Tim Kring) doing a comic book. It's layered and intricate, thoughtful and exciting, full of the surprises and connections that made Buffy so great, and it has a warm human heart at the center of a very intellectual, meta take on heroism and courage. Do not miss it!

Sarah saw a few episodes of Heroes out of order, then came back when I watched them all in order (I am a stickler about this kind of thing). She was constantly saying, Oh, I totally didn't get that before but now it all makes perfect sense. The order is important, and there's actual integrity that should be observed.

So, friends, welcome to the future of TV and the internet:

There won't be a new Heroes episode on until January 1, so NBC decided to stream every episode online. Take my strong advice and watch them immediately. You have a few weeks to get through them.

To my mind, this solves the major problem until now with primetime serial adventures and dramas. There are a lot of these twisty shows now, like 24 and Lost. I watched 24's first 7 or 8 episodes, then I missed one, and I didn't want to pick up with a missing episode because the whole thing seemed so integrated and full, like a novel. You wouldn't read a novel with a few chapters missing out of the center, and however many years later, I haven't seen any more 24. The networks are obviously picking up on this, and they don't want to lose me for another five years by these little accidents of scheduling.

I felt the same way about it as NBC, but I didn't know they were doing this (up to now, I think they were only doing "this week's episode" for free online), so I downloaded about 7 using BitTorrent and taped two more on Scifi (which has a syndication deal or something) so Sarah and I could catch up. Is it that much different from what NBC did? If I had a TiVo, I'd just tape them anyway. The sooner the networks embrace time-shifting and file-sharing, the better off they'll be. There's a real sea change going on right now as primetime TV struggles to come to terms with the internet. I personally don't think they'll ever catch up, but it'll work.

And the last thing: if you watch Heroes online, you'll be watching (or ignoring) ads at the beginning of each segment (six per hour). NBC has found out how to make money on the internet, and it's uncanny how similar it is to how you do it with television sets.

And one more. There's an amazing Beatles album out there called Love. I'd only seen prancy, goofy commercials full of clowns noting the fact that the Cirque de Soleil is using it as a soundtrack for one of their shows. Here's what it really is: an authorized remix (or mashup, if you will) of the Beatles catalog by Sir George Martin and his son. Here's the site, where you can hear samples and interviews with Mr. Martin, Paul, and Ringo explaining why and how they made the album. Every song is full of cuts and quotations and pieces of other songs. The version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps is just beautiful.

More books

I don't think I wrote about this at the time, but I finished Secrets and Lies by Bruce Schneier recently. It is a layman's introduction to the security technologies that underlie just about everything we do on the Internet, along with pluses and minuses. A major takeaway for me was that technology is the strong point, but deploying it and handing it over to people to use is the weak point. Security policies are only as good as the people who are implementing them. It's a little out of date now, but in some sense its philosophy on security is timeless.

I zipped through Salem's Lot, like I said earlier. I actually tried to read it once, maybe a year or so ago, but one early scene was so frightening (when Ben gets the globe from the house) that I couldn't read any more. Recently we got our tires rotated, which was sort of an excuse to buy a book for while I was waiting. Every time I read a Stephen King book, I'm like, "Where have you been all my life?" This one was an homage to Bram Stoker, but it was also a skillful multiple-person narrative about a small town. Sometimes his word choices are a little dubious, but I can't fault him for great, moving stories. He definitely deserves his bucks.

And of course, the list of his books that I've read is slowly growing... The Eyes of the Dragon, The Dead Zone, Misery, Carrie, the early four Bachman books (The Long Walk, Rage, which I think is also called Getting It On, Roadwork, and The Running Man). If I'm going chronologically, I think The Shining is up next. I've never read The Stand, but it's on my bookshelf too. Its size is a little intimidating.

I started Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and let me just say, Kurt Vonnegut, where have you been all my life? So it goes.

I have the 7th book in the Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh, Destroyer. The stories are about a human colony that has crash-landed, helpless and unable to return to the rest of civilization on an alien planet. The main character is a sort of linguist-diplomat who mediates between the remnant of humanity and the alien race that dominates the planet. The stories are sort of about language, about anthropology, about communication and the difficulties we face in seeing from someone else's perspective. They're very sophisticated, but magically, they're still engrossing, addictive, page-turning adventures. My mom put me onto these a long time ago. Thanks, Mom. The first one is Foreigner. I have several of them if you want to borrow them.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Only 13 shopping days left until Beethoven's birthday

I miss Peanuts. They're such classics.

We had a bangin December worship service today. It was all Christmas songs (except for Let Us Break Bread Together for communion). In fact, I think everything we played was a hymn. Tom, our mandolin/harmonicist/hand drum player said our beats were rocking. I thought to myself, "Beats?", but I suppose we did throw a few changeups on a swing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings of Orient Are ("Steve, play the drums like a camel walking through the desert" "Think caravan"), and a song about Mary sung to the tune of Good King Wenceslas.

We were going to end with Go Tell It On The Mountain, but as it turned out, we had something different today. We did communion at the end of the service, then our pastor, Don Emerson, read a statement to the church. It turns out that it was a long time coming, but he is resigning as pastor effective two or three weeks from today. He is in his 70s, so it's not so much surprising as shocking. This is, after all, the man that presided over my wedding, that I've worked with in Men's classes and financial classes and running the service and just life in general. When Sarah and I reached out for help, he was always there for us with a good word, faithfulness in prayer, and love. We'll miss him terribly.

As he put it, he's retiring for health reasons. He and his wife Carol spent the last several years (decades?) caring for Carol's parents, who were in their 90s by the end. They're moving down south to a warmer, dryer climate like Arizona or Texas. It sounds to me like a last grand adventure with his wife Carol. I wonder how I would live in a situation like that, what I would do to redeem the time.

It's a happy parting in some ways. He's not dying, but this enormous part of his life is ending. He's probably been a pastor for more than 50 years. We can all rejoice in the new things God will do in his life.

I don't know what the transition will be like at Maranatha. It's a strong community with many natural leaders, so I don't doubt we will sail ok. At the same time, it will feel a little funny because in all likelihood, Sarah and I and Alex will leave the valley this spring too. First the pastor, then us, and that means the worship teams will get reconfigured as one goes headless. And there's a pastoral search process, and maybe guest speakers delivering the sermons.

I wonder what it will be like to say goodbye. It might be a last goodbye.

I guess if you're reading this and you used to go to Maranatha, if possible you should come up to Logan for his send-offs. I think his last Sunday will be the 24th, if I heard right, but it might be the 17th. And no doubt there will be a bon voyage sometime soon. I will post more details as I become aware of them.