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Truman: March 12, 2017

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Harry Truman served in the Great War, as the First World War was known at the time. Not that Harry Truman, though Harry S. served in that war as well. No, I’m speaking about Harry R. Truman, a native of West Virginia who lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of his adult life. Last spring, on flights to and from Eastern Washington State, I had a chance to fly over the area where he once lived, though Harry, his home, and the surrounding geography all disappeared on May 18th, 1980. For Harry R. Truman was the stubborn innkeeper who refused to evacuate Mt. St. Helens.

The two numbers to keep in mind are 670 and 680. Six Hundred and Seventy miles per hour was the speed of the debris in the pyroclastic flow when the mountain erupted, though some scientists believe it may have briefly passed the speed of sound. Six Hundred and Eighty degrees Fahrenheit was the temperature when it hit the first human victims. If there is anything that could conjure an image of hell, a wall of six hundred and eighty degree fire moving at six hundred and seventy miles per hour should just about do it. Continue reading →

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Walkabout: March 5, 2017

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Sometimes they don’t have to die, are simply distant, do not see their children for what they actually are, as in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” though death would eventually place the real Peter, John and Michael Llewelyn Davies, as well as their brothers, George and Nico, in that sick man’s power.

Sometimes the parents are kidnapped or ill. But it is usually, after all, death of one or both parents that sets the stage for adventure. The child hero is a hero precisely because she or he has been tested. Continue reading →

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Bruno: February 26, 2017

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I learned all sorts of acronyms in the Army, most not appropriate for primetime. I had an MOS, a Military Occupation Specialty that placed me in a TAB, a Target Acquisition Battery, a position I held until my ETS, Estimated Time of Separation. I learned more acronyms in the technology industry. Many you will know, like RAM. There are other less well-known insider codes like PEBCAK, Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard, and I-D-Ten-T error. Write it down. Trust me. There were even a few acronyms in Divinity School, like TULIP, a code that would take too long to explain for the central tenets of hardcore Calvinism. Social media and text messaging have created a whole new series of acronyms, LOL and GTG and quite a few that are also not pulpit appropriate.

Another acronym that has come into popular use in recent years is STEM, which stands for a cluster of academic disciplines, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We talk a lot about STEM for two reasons. The first is that sexism, both blatant and systemic, has worked to keep women out of these disciplines for decades. We lose a significant number of potential workers in STEM disciplines while they are still in the mandated years of education, K through 12, simply because of their gender. Making matters worse, our failing schools, under-funded but turning a profit for the educational corporations that develop standardized tests, are simply not producing high graduates with the skills needed for undergraduate and graduate study in STEM fields. The result is that our nation is increasingly dependent on other countries to educate STEM specialists. Without immigrants, most graduate schools, research labs and medical facilities would close. This is why universities and technology businesses oppose the xenophobia and isolationism that have become dominant in our nation, for if we can no longer attract STEM workers from other countries, we lose our ability to compete in the world economy. Continue reading →

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Vespuccians: February 19, 2017

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I guess it could be worse. We could be called Vespuccians, but somehow it was the first name of the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci that stuck, though in a feminine form to match the feminine names used for Asia, Africa and Europa.

As it is, the Americas, treated as a plural, refers to the entire land mass in the Western Hemisphere, North, South, islands, everything above Antarctica. Properly used, the phrase “Make America Great Again” would refer to the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the descendants of slaves in Brazil, the Japanese in Peru, and even those strange neighbors to our north, with their bizarre sense of decency and the common good, a rainbow of races. If “Make America Great Again” means a taco truck on every corner, I’m all in, baby… Continue reading →

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Amundsen: February 12, 2017

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Years ago, while I was still adding to the thousands of comic books in my collection, DC decided to re-boot the Batman series after a year-long narrative arc called “No Man’s Land,” Gotham recovering after a devastating earthquake. They brought in new writers, even started a new title, called Gotham Knights, that focused on the inter-relationships between Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, the original Robin who had gone on to be a hero called Nightwing, Tim Drake, the third Robin, the second having met a gruesome death at the hands of the Joker, Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl and, since being paralyze,d a cyber-hero called Oracle, and a host of other minor characters. In the series’ first issue, the first major Batman work written by a woman, Batman is investigating the murder of parents who left behind a young son, so similar to Batman’s own origin story. The other characters wonder why he can’t see what they see, that the boy was not the traumatized orphan Bruce Wayne once was, but was in fact the killer.

It is the sort of gritty realism that took hold in the Batman family of comics in the 1980s. In fact, many comic books took on a gritty realism. They even tried it with the Superman series, but it just wouldn’t stick, for like a bar of soap dropped into a puddle, Superman is self-cleaning, the ultimate Boy Scout goody-two-shoes. Which is okay. Sometimes we need that sense of unblemished good, hope and purity in a time when everything feels a little too real, even if that unblemished good is in the form of a resident alien from Krypton. Continue reading →

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Pedialyte: February 5, 2017

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After last week’s sermon, in which I spoke about beer, one worshipper wondered if I might have pushed an alcoholic off of the wagon. Were I only that influential! While I did mention that I enjoy beer, I don’t think my descriptions were particularly florid… Madison Avenue I’m not. The point was that four simple ingredients produce a transformation and a tremendous variety of flavors, much in the same way that our faith, which is simple according to both the prophet Micah and Jesus, has the capacity to transform lives, comes in many variations.

Then I got home and opened my Sunday New York Times, where on page 22 of the Magazine I found an article extolling the virtues of Pedialyte. It was not, however, by a parent who had used the product to treat a child with an illness. Instead, it was by a man who describes purchasing a supply of Pedialyte before a night of heavy drinking. Now there, I thought, is a real alcoholic, someone who knows that a product designed for sick children is also effective for hangovers. Fortunately, he also describes using the product after sessions of hot yoga, and catalogs the effects of excess, so not exactly a ringing endorsement of boozing it up. And just wait… the author is still under 40. Try that nonsense when you are 50 and you pay for a week. Continue reading →

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Reinheitsgebot: January 29, 2017

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I sometimes say, in jest of course, that I need coffee to get me started and beer to slow me down. In truth, while there is at least one cup of coffee every morning, usually two, the single evening drink might well be wine, or might be skipped entirely. Still, I love good coffee and good beer. And just as one man was responsible for America’s contemporary coffee culture, one man was responsible for today’s beer culture. His name was Bert Grant, a Scot, who opened the first independent brewery since Prohibition in Yakima, Washington in 1982.

Since then, the beer world has changed. You can still find beer that is mass-produced, watery and flavorless, but you can also find hundreds of other choices, beers in every traditional style and even a few completely new styles, though Cave Creek Chili Beer, with a whole chili pepper in every bottle, is a stretch even for me. Continue reading →

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Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: January 22, 2017

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Last week, as we celebrated Brother Martin, we were reminded to be gentle as doves and as wise as serpents. It is true that doves are not the brightest bird at the feeder, but I think the expression gives far too much credit to serpents. While deadly, snakes aren’t that smart.

Take, for example, the classic battle between the cobra and the mongoose, fictionalized and anthropomorphized in Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist classic story collection “The Jungle Book.” In the story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” he tells of a pet mongoose protecting his family, white and British, of course. The story first came to my attention when I was twelve, in a cartoon adaptation done by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame. Like many experiences of our childhoods, it stuck, and I’ve always noticed when something about mongooses, and that is the correct plural, appears in the Science Times or on a nature program I am watching. Continue reading →

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Cup o’ Mud: January 15, 2017

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I am sure folks referred to coffee as mud long before I thought about it, but it was in the Big Apple that I first encountered the MUD truck. You can find coffee on almost any street corner in Manhattan, not to mention the ubiquitous coffee shops, in one spot, two Starbucks within sight of each other, and countless diners and delis, though this last group is being driven out as developers rush to build investment properties for Russian, Chinese and American kleptocrats.

The MUD truck, orange with a stylish design and logo, bills itself as gourmet street coffee. We tend to blame the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular for coffee culture, the $5 cup of coffee and the strange notion that the quality of the beans and the degree of the roast matters, for bringing a European sensibility to US coffee drinkers, but it really all comes down to one man, a Dutch-American named Alfred Peet who died in 2007. Peet was the son of a Dutch coffee roaster, had apprenticed with a coffee and tea company, and when he immigrated to the US, he found the swill served during the post-World War II years undrinkable. He finally had the assets to open his own shop in that commie-pinko haven of Berkeley, California in 1966. The rest is history. Continue reading →

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Tel Blue: January 8, 2017

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It is our human tendency to reconfigure facts where needed to match what we have already decided to believe. Take, for example, the case of the Tel Dan Stele. Tel means “hill,” Dan is place in modern Israel, and a stele is an ancient inscribed stone, a monument or marker.

What is important about the particular stele found at Tel Dan during a dig 23 years ago was that it contained a reference to the “House of David,” which was a problem for the large number of scholars, many Jewish, who argued that King David was wholly fabricated, a national founding myth akin to that of Gilgamesh, or maybe Romulus and Remus. But here was this stone authenticated to the 9th century BCE in which an unnamed king thought to be Hazael boasts of his victory over Omri, King of Israel, and his ally, the King of the House of David. Hard, as in stone hard, evidence from only a century or so after David’s reign, the oldest evidence we have of that early Iron Age king central to the Hebrew story and so central to the story of those who would follow Jesus. Continue reading →

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