Sunday, December 06, 2009

Prophet of the Sun Ch 2

Link: Chapter Index for Prophet of the Sun

Hope ya'll are enjoying Prophet of the Sun. Leave a comment and let me know what a good interval between chapter posts might be .... I like to have at least a few days to give people a chance to read (and to build some suspense), but I don't want it to be so long as to lose people.

Chapter 2

A boy, scalp-shaven save for a braided tassel of hair dangling from the left side of his head, looked upon a crimson sky. Swirling black clouds spit cinders that grew into skull sized balls of flame. Between the explosions the boy heard cries and shrieks arising from the city. His eyes widened, his soft skinned jaw grew slack.

A black line snaked from the river below. The line doubled and tripled and quadrupled in width, growing into a phalanx of frogs, pitiless in their advance through the city. They poured over the walls, splashed in the basins, knocked over his mother’s perfume bottles and jars of ointments. They crowded through the hallways, and when he walked, they squished wet and jelly like under his feet. His enraged father, kicked them about, jabbing at larger ones with his spear – impaling them one two three four. His brother, the senior by far, dressed in leopardskin robes, chanted while holding a basin of libation above his head.

And darkness came over the household and the steps and down the street and across the land. No natural darkness, it chilled beyond the skin to muscle and bone and even the marrow– an enduring chill. His pulse throbbing in his ears, the boy looked to his father’s eyes for some sign that this horror might end. He saw only floating disembodied circles, straining to open wide enough to capture the hint of glow that emanated from the slave ghetto. He saw nothing of his brother – only hearing murmuring of prayer from where he stood.

A slice of air, sounding like an exhaled breath, whipped past the boy. He saw his father kneel before a crumpled form cradling its figure head, – its leopardskin robe stretched by the contortion of its body. “My son, O Thutmosis my son!”

     

Calvin woke in confusion -- his heart thumping against his ribs. Am I that far gone? Have I become as hard as pharaoh? Calvin, feeling the drilling pain behind his eyes, blinked four times, as though he could dispel the nightmare and the pain both. He rolled over to look at the bedside clock, an old fashioned radio alarm with the numbers that flipped. Half past noon. He ran a dry tongue over his lips -- he needed asprin, Tylenol, a replacement head – anything.

Stumbling out of bed, he scratched his chest and rubbed his scalp as he walked to the guest bathroom. He pulled the little metal tab on the side of the mirror only to find empty metal shelves. “Hey John,” he shouted, immediately regretting that he had done so, “you got any painkillers?” This time he spoke a little softer so as not to jar the pain too much. “My head feels like it’s declared war!” He turned on the faucet. Cupping a hand, he scooped cold water on his face once, twice, then sipping some on the third time around. He turned off the faucet and unfolded a washcloth, lying atop a step-pyramid of symmetrically folded oversize bath and hand towels.

Calvin had a natural propensity for remorse – he felt guilt about his anger; guilt about his rudeness to his friend; guilt about his out of control drinking the night before. He held the sides of the sink, staring down at the drain. He wished that he could re-do the previous night – wished he could re-weave the strands of the last three months of his life. His mind stuck on this wish, circling around it like a dog leashed for so long he’s worn the grass down. Calvin felt disembodied, as though his life were a movie and the credits were ready to roll and the popcorn would be swept up and discarded. His body had no reality for him as his own – it was a prop, a thing to be discarded.

He had no idea how long he stood there, holding the sink wishing his wish, lost in his movie, but the pain in his head stabbed with clarity. He closed his eyes, exhaled long and slow through pursed lips, opened his eyes again, and released his grip.

Calvin walked to the back staircase and called “John, you down there?” No answer. He descended the stair to the kitchen. In the center of the breakfast table sat a bowl of fruit – oranges and apples hinting at dietary redemption for the previous night’s foolishness. Wine bottles were arrayed on the counter, empty and hollow -- their best contents spent. The kitchen, decorated in a country yellow that made Calvin’s head hurt all the worse, looked otherwise undisturbed. No empty glasses in the sink. No cereal bowl. No note indicating that John had left. Calvin bit his lower lip, not wanting to delay in making amends for his sour behavior, but his headache compelling him to seek food and some painkillers.

Calvin opened the fridge, took out milk and Ducky Dawdle Orange Juice (“I’ve loved it since I was a kid” John had always said). He poured a glass of juice and a fixed a bowl of the most sugary cereal he could find. Following instinct, he opened the cabinet right above the microwave – there he found a neatly arranged row of plastic containers: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Ginko Bilboa, Ginseng Extract, Multivitamin, Asprin. He gulped down two asprin with a large glass of water. Then, after finishing his hasty breakfast, he peeked into the garage – John’s truck was gone.

Calvin ascended the stairs and detoured back to the library. Hurlburt’s diary still lay on the couch where John had left it. Calvin picked it up and thumbed the pages, breathing the aged-paper smell that was released. He held it reverently, as though he could capture John’s enthusiasm simply by osmosis. Then he gently replaced it on the shelf from which John had taken it.

Calvin returned to his room, stripped his pajamas, and walked naked to the bathroom. He turned the tub’s handle for hot water and held his hand under the stream, the temperature changing almost imperceptibly, until the water was warm enough. He stepped into the tub, pulled the curtain and bent down to pull the shower knob. Steamy water wet his hair and ran down his body. He stood still for a time, eyes closed, enjoying the warmth like an embrace. The Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words to express. His mind lingered on groans too deep – as though he might sink into the words and wallow there for a time.
After finishing his shower and grooming, he dressed and packed his duffel bag. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he went back downstairs to the kitchen where he poured another tall glass of water. Still no sign of John. Calvin felt out of joint – like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces had been forced. He didn’t want to leave with the unfinished business of apology; he wanted to assure his friend that he truly was interested in crazy Allan Quartermain schemes.

Following instinct once again, Calvin opened a kitchen drawer – neatly ordered boxes of tin foil, wax paper, plastic wrap, and sandwich bags all stared up at him. He tried the next drawer beside it – a phone book, yellow legal pad, and a long thin container of ballpoint pens. Not even junk in his paper drawers – how does he do it? He tore off a sheet from the pad, accidentally leaving a small tear where the paper did not separate at the perforation just right. Sitting at the table, he wrote:

Thanks for your time – a good one as always. I’m sorry I was a bit of a jerk there at the end of the evening. Your Egyptian treasure hunt sounds like a great adventure. I’ll give you a call this week, and I promise I’ll listen better. I’ll let you know if I’ve had any epiphanies on my end.

He let himself out of the house, locking the door behind him. After fumbling with his keys, he got the car door open, hefted the duffel bag in. One last look up at the house before he closed the car door. He turned the ignition and drove home.

     

“Mike, I promise – I really didn’t mean to drink that much.”

“Cal, it’s OK” the voice on the receiver reassured, “given what you’ve been through, I think I’d have tied one on weeks ago. You’re not planning on making it a habit, are you?”

“No.” Calvin said, still embarrassed.

“Then don’t worry about it. Jesus is still pretty fond of you.”

“I know – but I still feel guilty.”

“Fine.” Said Mike with resignation, “You are guilty – guilty as sin. Confess, repent, move on.” A pause as Calvin switched the phone from one ear to another, “How’re you doing otherwise?” Mike continued.

Calvin paused again – he felt the need to report progress, but didn’t know what to say. Though it was not a trait natural to him, he opted for bluntness. “Awful.” He paused for a moment, “I don’t know how to be with myself – when I’m sitting in the apartment, I ache because they’re gone. When I jog, I make it about a mile, and then run out of steam – I just want to come back to the apartment and sleep. Three days ago, I found myself walking the aisles of Buy-Mart – just puttering about, picking up a magazine here, a DVD there. When I turned down the toys aisle – there was this Spider-Man action figure – it was what we got Calvin for Christmas this past year. It was all before me, fresh as if it were happening. He tore open the present – shouted “Wow, thanks Dad!” He ripped open the box and began to run around the house, pretending that Spider-Man was web slinging from the chandelier.” Tears burned behind Calvin’s eyes, and he struggled to keep them in. “I almost broke down in the store.” He said with a quiver, “I’m a mess.”

Mike’s voice reassured. “It’s OK to be a mess. You’ve lost your wife and your child – no-one expects you to keep it together. You yourself have said many times that everyone grieves in their own way – some folks take longer than others.”

“Yeah – well now I say ‘doctor, heal thyself.’”

Another pause. “Cal, what are you doing to take care of yourself?” Mike said, concerned.

“Oh, I still jog every day – just not very far. I talk to momma at least once a week – and my sister tells me she’s coming up for a visit soon. I’m hardly eating, but when I do eat, it’s mostly vegetables.”

“You able to pray yet?”

Calvin paused for a long time and then said quietly “No – no, I’m not on speaking terms with Him. Not yet.”

Calvin asked Mike how the church was doing in his absence. Mike reassured him that things were improving: the temporary supply minister was good, but not nearly as good a preacher as Calvin. On his end, Calvin smirked. He had tried to bear up nobly after the funerals. Everything seemed fine for a couple of weeks, but then crises slipped from whatever dark recesses in which they had been fermenting: The chairs of building committee and the worship committee began to openly undermine one another; complaints were whispered in coffee hour that the youth director was too “flippant”; once enthusiastic supporters whispered that Calvin’s preaching was “not what it used to be.” Mike, one of Calvin’s best friends in the congregation, had astutely observed the strain that was building during what should have been a time of mourning. He suggested to the elders that a sabbatical was in order. On the surface, Calvin was going away to heal. But he wondered if he would ever return…would he drift to a new line of work and lay the vocation of ministry into soft earth as he’d laid down his wife and child?

“And tell the elders – tell them I really appreciate their giving me the time off.”
“Wish we could do more. You call me if you need anything, OK?”

Calvin smiled, “Sure will.”

After hanging up, Calvin tried calling John again. No answer. It had been four days, and still no answer, no return call. He didn’t bother leaving a message this time. He hung up and busied himself about the small kitchen. Half empty coffee cups sprung up across the apartment like mushrooms. He collected them all on the countertop beside the sink, pots piled up, crusted with spaghetti sauce from last night. A few dishrags lay on the counter, damp and crumpled. A roll of paper towels stood in the corner, the bottom end swollen with absorbed water that had rebounded off the pots in the sink and spread across the countertop. Calvin emptied the dishwasher, put a few coffee cups in, then walked into the living room.

Instead of an office, Calvin had set up his laptop on a cheap coffee table made out of light white pine slats attached with thin tacks to a frame with legs. Every so often, one of the boards would rebel and pop out of place. Cal would have to get the hammer from the basket under the counter and bang it back into place. The table was big enough for him to spread out his Bible and a couple of commentaries. He had a stack of books on the corner: The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery; Exegetical Dictionary of the Gospels; Manners and Customs of Bible Times; Intermediate Greek Grammar. A disordered pile of CD-ROMs lay beside the laptop – on top of The Anchor Bible Dictionary: complete on 1 Volume.

He had bought a used couch from the Salvation Army – it was just wide enough for two to sit on: terrible for napping. He did this by design, for he was afraid that if he’d bought a long couch, the temptation to lie down and sleep would be overwhelming. Already it was hard enough to fight against the gravitational pull to stay in his bedroom and sleep. He still tried to lie down on the couch every now and again, and for that reason, one arm had become loose and wiggly, threatening to break off altogether.

On the floor, Calvin had a small TV, but no cable. He could only receive 3 channels well – one of them PBS, so he was satisfied. The circular dining room table was on the other end of the great room that doubled as living room and dining room. It was covered with mail, little flyers that kept getting stuck in his doorframe, newspapers, both from Asheville and from Cincinnati, and bags from the most convenient fast food restaurants near his apartment: Taco Casa, Burger Barn, and Hot and Fried.

Calvin returned to the couch, and picked up a book: Commentary on the Gospel of Mark by RS Blanchard:

Church tradition, dating back to Eusebuis, tells us that the apostle Mark brought the gospel to Egypt. Mark supposedly wrote his gospel in Rome as a summary of Peter’s teaching. Legend has it that when Mark arrived in Alexandria, his sandals broke – he went immediately to a cobbler to have the sandal repaired. The cobbler, named Ananias, drove an awl into his hand and cried out “God is one!” Mark was startled by such an unusual exclamation; he had not expected to find monotheism in Egypt. He healed Ananias and began to talk with him. He went home with him that night, and soon Ananias and his family were the first converts of Egypt. Most scholars believe this story is apocryphal at best.

Calvin looked up from the book, letting it dangle in his hands. He had been away from his church for two months, but he still felt a compulsion to write sermons. If he didn’t have it done by Friday night, he was fidgety all weekend. He could no more break the habit than a pack a day smoker. He used to enjoy feeling the thrill of knowledge coming together with insights on application of the Biblical text. He had once delighted in weaving jokes, anecdotes, historical and grammatical tidbits, and sprinklings of Greek or Hebrew into a presentation and then delivering that sermon. He remembered feeling connected with his congregants as he told stories and presented truth – as though for a brief moment in the midst of the sermon there was a union - time was lost for a little while and hearts were melded to one. But since Bethan and little Cal’s deaths, it all had gone stale and wearisome. There was no joy in the task. Now, it had degraded to nothing but a compulsion and he wished it would let him go.

The doorbell rang. Calvin rose and peeked through the eye-hole. Two men in uniform, round hats signifying they were either highway patrol or sheriff deputies. Calvin unlocked the bolt lock, and opened the door.

“Hello, officers, can I help you.”

“Rev. Poteat?” said the larger of the two – a thickset linebacker type. His hazel eyes set in a recruiting poster face.


“Rev. Poteat, I’m Deputy Collins and this is Deputy Parrish. May we come in? We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Certainly, officers,” said Calvin, stepping back and extending his arm toward the couch, “come in and have a seat.”

Deputy Collins went straight to the couch and stood waiting. Deputy Parrish, a slender man with a hungry look, took off his thick mirrored sunglasses to reveal sharp blue eyes and a bridge of freckles across his nose. He scanned the room, sized up Calvin, and moved to stand beside Deputy Collins while Calvin brought a chair from the dining room table. As he sat, both the deputies took their seats, Collins taking his hat off and holding it in his lap – Parrish leaving his on his head.

“Is there something wrong, officers?”

Collins begin “Rev. Poteat – you’re a good friend of John Carter’s aren’t you?”

“Yessir, I am – at least I like to think I am.”

“And you were at his house on Sunday night?” Collins continued.

“Yessir, I was. We were catching up on old times.” Deputy Parrish’s eyes narrowed just slightly.
“Have you talked with him since?” Collins continued.

“No sir. I’ve tried calling and left several messages, but no answer and no return calls.” Calvin had the feel of being a chess piece, so he broke in with a question, “Is there something wrong? Is John OK?”

“Rev Poteat,” Deputy Collins said, “John Carter has been missing for four days – and it seems that you were the last person to have seen him.”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Prophet of the Sun Chapter 1

Back a few years ago, I started writing a novel .... a spiritual action-adventure of sorts. I've shared it with some friends. And now it's my pleasure to make it available online, one chapter a week. I look forward to hearing what you think. My friends, enjoy.... Prophet of the Sun.

Chapter 1

Common sense says that alcohol makes you more of what you are. In some cases it makes you akin to what you once were: like some spectral impression, hanging on at a crossroads haunt, hoping the past is more than memory. Calvin had hoped for twenty years to melt away so he and John could recapture the easy cadences of years gone by… nights spent on Calvin’s rooftop trading thoughts not as profound as they imagined; hours wasted driving the mountain roads faster than their parents would allow. On this night, Calvin hoped to numb his pain by retreating to a time before it. The treasures of John Carter’s wine cellar were but vehicles to that end. For the moment, the strategy was working.

“John,” said Calvin, “ – you have corrupted the morals of an honest and upright man.”
“I can hear your mother now.” John affected a lowcountry drawl, accentuated by alcohol borne slurring “John Canarvon Carter, what have you done to my boy!” They crumbled into breathless laughter.

“She’d – she’d be horrified if we broke into Monty Python,” Calvin wheezed. He began singing, John quickly joining in, a half measure behind:

“Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant
Who was very rarely stable
Heidigger Heidigger was a boozy beggar
Who could drink you under the table
David Hume David Hume
Was a hmmmm hmmm hmmm (for here neither could remember the words)
Hmm hmmm hmmm hmm hmmm hm
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart
I drink therefore I am.”

They collapsed in laughter again – “I think Graham Chapman would have been proud,” Calvin said between gasps.

“Oh no, the ratings are plummeting – viewers are tuning out in droves!” exclaimed John in mock horror. They enjoyed the easy comfort of old rehearsed banter, relishing inside jokes that had baffled their parents and annoyed their friends. They needed no new material.

Catching their breath, each collapsed into his seat, John reclined on an overstuffed brown leather couch facing a cold fireplace, Calvin in the matching chair. Photos of John’s family were neatly arranged atop the mantelpiece, bracketed at one end by an old Colt revolver in a box and at the other, a framed two cent bill from the State of South Carolina dated 1845, discolored in the lower right hand corner with a smudge that might be blood. Across an open space at the other end of the room was another couch and wingback chair, stiff with formality, before a stern antique mahogany desk, topped with a green shaded banker’s lamp. A neat stack of manila folders lay to one side of the darkened flat screen monitor, to the other side was a glass mug filled with pens, rulers, pencils, bits of glass, half used erasers, paper clips, and commemorative pocket tokens. The desktop was otherwise spotless and dust-free. Even the wires for the computer and lamp were bundled and tucked away under the desk, their chaos hidden from sight. No disorder was evident. The room was clean and bright.

Spanning the length of the room was a wall of built in bookshelves, filled with volumes from different eras – some still bearing the glossy dustjackets of contemporary thrillers, others having the worn binding and dusty sweet smell of books past their prime. It was a wall filled with portals of escape: stories of love, loss, and pain – all the great stories that call to you to fall forward into the page and be absorbed into the world, emerging again hours later refreshed and clean and good.

The other wall was a row of windows that looked out on darkness –hints of tall sentinel straight pine trees just visible from the interior light spilling out onto the lawn. On the walls above the desk hung a neat arrangement of black and white photos of jungle-hidden pyramids, crumbling classic ruins, and megalithic stone circles. In the center of this arrangement there hung a green-painted plaster bas relief sculpture. It’s wild masculine face emerged from a background of greenery – the leaves forming hair, moustaches and beard – looking vaguely like an arboreal Mark Twain. In the windowside corner by the fireplace stood a replica Pacific Northwest Indian totem pole, faces mysterious, the wings of the eagle at the top jutting out, stuck in an uncomfortable wooden pose.

Calvin blew a long exhale between pursed lips – then in quiet contrast to the preceding hilarity, he said “Thanks for letting me vent. It’s been a …. a hellish couple of months.”

John averted his eyes. “I’m glad you came. I wish there was something more I could do.” A few moments passed, longer than either felt comfortable.

“Well….. Enough about me,” Calvin said to break the silence, “what are you doing to pass the time in early retirement?”

“It’s not easy when you’re a self-made millionaire,” John said with mock arrogance. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, “But I’ve got a project that will help me do it.” He would have seemed much more serious had his right elbow not slipped as he said “project”. He caught himself and fixed his eyes on Calvin, silently begging him to ask for more.

“Yes?” Said Calvin, only half curious.

John thrust himself off the couch, lurching for a moment until he was steady. He walked to the far end of the bookshelves. “I can’t believe I found this. I was browsing the sale rack at the Captain’s Bookshelf when on a whim, I looked over in that old glass case where they keep the expensive rare books. The binding on this caught my eye.” He pulled an old leather book, tied round the middle with a strap “I paid more than I ever thought I’d pay for a book, but it was worth every penny.” He walked back to Calvin, and held out the book to him, a little too close to the eyes, making Calvin lean back uncomfortably in the chair. John’s eyebrows danced for a moment “See if you can tell me what this is,” his tone suggesting that Calvin would fail.

Calvin cautiously took the book, as though it might crumble to dust or perhaps come alive and snap at him. He fumbled at the leather strap, but finally got it open. Within were yellowed pages filled with the compact cursive of another era – cursive that took effort for his modern eyes to decipher.

After reviewing the precursors to disaster that were the other submissions for the contract, I have commissioned Lieutenant Commander Gorringe to retrieve my obelisk. His proposal clearly marks him as the man for the job. I have the utmost confidence in his resourcefulness….
Calvin, regretting that he’d started this conversation, quickly gave up reading, “You’ve got me – what is it?”

Retaking his seat and leaning forward, John replied: “That, sir, is the diary of Henry Hurlburt.” Then, breaking out with a Christmas day grin, John said, “Now, ask me who Henry Hurlburt is.”
Calvin sighed, “All right, who is Henry Hurlburt?”

John’s eyebrows continued to dance as he talked, “Henry Hurlburt was the editor of the New York World in the late 19th century, and a friend of William H. Vanderbilt.”

“And this is important because?”

“He would be completely forgotten to history but for one thing…while having a conversation with the Khedive of Egypt about improving relations with our country, Hurlburt suggested that one way would be to present America with an Egyptian obelisk.”

“An obelisk.” Calvin said flatly.

“A tall thin spire carved out of solid rock ….” Replied John.

“Yes, I know what an obelisk is,” interrupted Calvin, “Ancient Egypt – pharaohs and Cleopatra’s Needle and all that.” He was annoyed, unprepared for this burst of earnestness; he had been enjoying the pity of his friend, and was not prepared to release John from the hold that pity had. Perhaps if he had not drank so much, he would have been better prepared to politely go along – he might even have been intrigued by his friend’s plans. But now, Calvin was simply annoyed.
John, oblivious to Calvin’s body language, clapped his hands together, pointing them at Calvin’s chest. “Exactly! Cleopatra’s Needle! In Central Park – right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art! That’s the obelisk that Hurlburt is talking about!”

“Mmm Hmm” murmured Calvin, wondering how long this was going to take.

“It was a marvel of diplomacy – the Khedive was Isma’il Pasha – he was working to modernize Egypt. He built railroads, made deals with all kinds of European powers. Queen Victoria even made him a knight!” John leaned back in his chair, having the look of a college professor absorbed in his subject, forgetting the student in his office. “But his modernization schemes bankrupted his country and he was forced to abdicate his rule to his son.”

“… and the obelisk?” Calvin asked weakly, trying to move the story forward.

John, stoked by the question, extended a finger in the air. “Ahah,” he said with triumph, sitting forward again. “Pasha didn’t really want to give up the obelisk, but Hurlburt and Vanderbilt pressured their connections in the state department to force the issue. Pasha agreed. But the sly devil knew that the French had taken 50 years to figure out how to move an obelisk from Egypt to Paris – these things are huge you know – hundreds of tons of solid granite. And half a football field in length or more. It took the British almost 75 years to work out a plan for moving the obelisk they took to Trafalgar Square. Pasha was confident that the Americans would never move the obelisk in his lifetime.”

John leaned forward again, narrowing his eyes. His voice took on a dramatic hush, like a campfire storyteller weaving a spell about his young charges; Calvin, despite himself, felt pulled back from the slumber he had been slipping into. “Pasha didn’t count on Henry Honeychurch Gorringe.” His eyes pursued Calvin’s attention – his head jutted forward at the end of his sentences. “Gorringe was unstoppable. The Italians tried to stop him with lawsuits – and failed. The Egyptian crowds met him with hisses and insults, and he moved in like a conquering Ceasar. French creditors tried to seize the obelisk as collateral for loans to Egypt. Gorringe hung an American flag from the top and declared he’d shoot the first man who tried to take it down.” Admiration radiated from John as he became lost in the story, his own enthusiasm overcoming his intoxication. “When his team had assembled the mechanism to lift the obelisk from its platform, a huge Egyptian crowd surrounded the worksite, as though to disrupt the proceedings. But Gorringe was too clever – he’d spent years as a navy officer in the Mediterranean. The night before he’d called upon an admiral in the Russian navy he’d befriended years before. As the Egyptian crowds circled about, in burst hundreds of burly Russian Marines, encircling the entire worksite, not letting anyone in or out without Gorringe’s say so.”

Calvin, wearied of the story, switched from polite tolerance to sarcasm “So you’re going to bronze the diary and embed it in a monument to his memory.”

“I don’t have to.” Replied John, “there’s already a monument – it’s on Graywacke knoll in Central Park. The obelisk he brought back.”

“So you’re going to impale this very expensive diary on top of said obelisk.”

“No,” John continued unflappably, “but the diary tells us what’s inside the obelisk – or rather its pedestal. Before Gorringe could erect the obelisk in New York, he had to reassemble the pedestal that it stood on. The pedestal is made up of giant blocks encased by steps – and between the blocks were gaps that had to be filled. Gorringe and Hurlburt issued a call for people to send items to be sealed in lead boxes which would then be used to fill the gaps. Stuff came from all over the country – bibles, tools, medals, instruments of trade, catalogs. But Hurlburt also contributed a single lead box – the contents known only to himself!”

Calvin smirked, “Probably copies of his newspaper.”

“Very funny – maybe I didn’t make myself clear” John said, beginning to sense that his audience lacked enthusiasm, “Hurlburt put some secret in the pedestal, and then Gorringe erected a 200 ton obelisk over top of it, and now nobody knows what was inside that lead box.” John punctuated those last words, jabbing his finger on each syllable.

Calvin made their tennis match conversation as a kind of game: “So your task is going to be to sneak in by night and blow up the obelisk” he came back with mock excitement, “Then you’ll remove the lead box, bring it back to your secret laboratory and open it to discover ….” He paused dramatically, “that Hurlburt had packed his teddy bear in the time capsule.” Calvin threw himself backward in the chair with a hard laugh “I’ll bet he even said ‘rosebud’ on his deathbead.”

“This was before the teddy bear had been invented, ” John said with a surly tone, trying to regain his momentum. Calvin felt he had scored a point. “Now stop interrupting – this is where Hurlburt’s diary comes in. He tells us that Gorringe was shown the remains of an old Egyptian tomb.” John snatched the diary from where Calvin had laid it. Flipping through pages, he said. “Listen to this.” He found the page he was looking for and read:

Gorringe described to me what could only be a tomb of such antiquity that it predates the historical record. Apparently his guide showed great discretion, wanting to keep the location a secret. Why he led Gorringe to this spot was known only to himself, I’m afraid. Gorringe spoke of rooms filled with wooden chests. He hadn’t opened the chests for fear of damaging the contents, but he was told legends that they contained a great treasure. Strangely, Gorringe seemed unconcerned about the chests – he said that the inscriptions on the walls were what interested him. He wouldn’t reveal much, only that he hoped to return with scholars and experts to more scientifically explore the find and record his findings. He predicted that his find would be more important to our understanding of antiquity than the Rosetta stone….
John flipped pages. “Now get this…” He read again:

What great tragedy – Gorringe’s accident has robbed us all. To memorialize his great achievements, I have taken his notes and drawings for his planned expedition and have bound them and sealed them beneath Gorringe’s obelisk. I do not think it right that any man of this generation follow through on his quest of discovery. May Gorringe rest in peace knowing that this undiscovered tomb will always be his.

“Did you get that – Gorringe died before he could go back to Egypt. I found out that it happened while he was hopping on board a train in Philadelphia – possibly on a trip to raise funds for his expedition. Hurlburt took all his writings about the lost tomb and put them under the obelisk – likely in that very same mysterious lead box that he’d placed earlier.”

Calvin saw another opportunity to score again: “So you’re going to blow up this 200 ton historic artifact to retrieve another dusty old diary.”

“Stop it… I’m serious.” Another point scored. “Hurlburt says he placed it under the obelisk after Gorringe died – that was three years after it had been erected.”

“Oh, so you’ll just get irradiated with gamma rays and become a gigantic green monster and lift the obelisk up?”

Frustration edged into John’s voice. “That’s not funny. I’m really serious about this.” Yet another point. “If Hurlburt was able to hide Gorringe’s papers under that thing, then there must be an easy access beneath the pedestals. If I can find that access, I can find Gorringe’s papers – don’t you get it – Gorringe describes a lost tomb filled with treasure that hasn’t yet been found. If I can get hold of the papers, I can find a treasure trove of Ancient Egypt!”

“Brilliant, just brilliant,” Calvin said brusquely. “I’m sure your investment banker thinks you’re insane. Who else have you brought into this little Allan Quartermain scheme of yours?”

John hesitated for a moment. His eyes drifted left; and he said with a smile “Just a few associates….” His gaze lingered upon his desk.

“Goody for them – I’m sure they’ll love digging up King Solomon’s mines. Well, this has been wonderfully entertaining – I think we should have Tom Cruise play you in the movie. But I’m going to bed before I get the spins. Think you should too.” At this, Calvin headed up to the guest room, angry that John had something to fill his life – angry at himself for his drunkenness and poor manners – angry at Bethan – angry at God – angry at anger.

John, meanwhile, stayed slouched in his chair for some time, nursing his bemused hurt and cradling the diary in his hand. That’s not the way it was supposed to go. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Half an hour. He stood up and looked out the window, seeing nothing, his mind still flooded by the confusing ending of the evening – muddled up with thoughts about his plans. What am I doing? Am I this much a fool?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Smoke on the Mountain Review from 2007

Some clown used the comments to advertise nasty stuff on an old post. I can't find a way to delete comments ... So I'm deleting the old post and replacing it here.

We were blessed this weekend by a generous couple who gave us tickets to see Playhouse in the Park's production of Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. This third play in the trilogy about the musical Sanders family brings the beloved combination of old-time music (think guitars, banjos, mandolins, bass viols, and tight harmonies that tug at memories of celtic roots) and winsome and wistful storytelling that makes Garrison Keillor read like the yellow pages.

Set in 1945, just a few months after the victory in Japan, the play depicts one last gathering with the Sanders family singing a church service at Mount Pleasant Baptist church before they split up to head in different directions. Mama Vera Sanders is visibly upset that her daughter June is moving to Texas with her husband Mervin -- who is taking a pastorate of a small Baptist church on the frontier. However, son Dennis Sanders will be taking over the ministry there in Mount Pleasant. Meanwhile uncle Stanley Sanders has returned from his career in Hollywood to be a part of the homecoming -- but something is obviously troubling him.

What is nice about this production is that is played entirely straight -- no irony whatsoever. The characters are earnest and winsome, at times a little daft. But there's no mockery of these people or this time. The helpful contrast might be with O Brother, Where Art Thou? In that film, George Clooney mugs the whole time at the head of an eccentric cast cutting the Odyssey down to size to fit into depression era Southern purgatory complete with klansmen politicians, strange riverside seductresses, and a psychotic mono-optic bible salesman. All sense of the people and time are blurred into the strange and darkly comic. Simply put, the film drips of irony and the arched eyebrow. About the only thing that Smoke on the Mountain shares with O Brother Where Art Thou is really good music.

We have an elderly lady in our church -- a real tough cookie who served with the WAVES in World War II. She's told me several times "I feel sorry for children today. When we were growing up, there was so much goodness about -- and they don't have that today." Smoke on the Mountain evokes what I believe she's talking about: earnestness, family, a love of home. This was an era when people made music rather than simply listening to it. Each monologue carries its own poignancy:

First comes patriarch Burl- he explains why he and Vera are retiring from music to work the old family farm. It's a wistful story straight out of EB White depicting a love of the land (complete with rich lush descriptions of farm life in each of the four seasons). However, a touch of reality hits as he tells of his emotional struggle against taking out the loan, an action that violates his religious principles (I remember well my grandfather talking about how he lost a bundle of money co-signing a loan during the 1930s -- loans were not for common people then -- they were for the wealthy. That's why George Bailey's Building and Loan is a threat to the Bank in It's a Wonderful Life). We see how he is gradually persuaded that this loan won't put him at risk and that he can enjoy the new prosperity of post-war America.

Comical monologues come from Denise, the sister who has married and given birth to out of control twins, and mother Vera, who delivers a fine example of a hyper-allegorized children's message. Brother Stanley talks about sin and redemption while June, preparing to leave for Texas gives a brief but heartwarming monologue about following God's call and knowing that wherever God is, there is home.

But the piece that tore me up was Dennis. He had just returned from war. He spoke of how some think that the call to the ministry is for the weak, but he knew it was for the strong. And then he spoke of a man in his Marine company who had a call to ministry. This soldier dropped to his knees every day to pray -- he didn't work on the Sabbath -- he endured the insults and threats of his fellow soldiers. They stole his pocket bible from him and played keep away, but he never responded in anger. But when they were assaulting the heights on Okinawa and were beaten back, it was this bible believing praying soldier who stayed atop the heights, gathering the wounded and lowering them down the cliffs with a piece of rope and a prayer for each of them. Dennis said that was the kind of toughness that ministry required, and that was what he hoped to bring to his ministry.

It was a tearjerker for me because I knew the story. It's not a made up tale for a play. Desmond Doss was his real name -- he was the only Medal of Honor winner who was a consciencous objector. He was a medic who refused to carry a gun because of his religious beliefs. And that day in Okinawa, he saved 100 lives. I knew his story from a comic book (someone tell John Schroeder to do a feature on that!) I'd read about Medal of Honor recipients (no-one "wins" a Medal of Honor). I found a site for a documentary about his life that just recently came out. The major modificaiton in the play -- the hero dies, whereas in real life Desmond Doss lived to a ripe old age. He died just last year.

In Sum: Great Music, Good laughs, and honoring that which ought to be honored. It's no wonder the first Smoke on the Mountain is already the most produced musical in America right now. I have high hopes that this production of the third musical will rate just as highly.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why ancient philosophy?

Yes, I've been incommunicando for a while. We've had a lot going on at church, at home, and I've been in the throes of my advanced studies in Ancient Cultures through the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Right now I'm working on a module on ancient philosophy. How do such studies help the church? My primary reason is to make me a better interpreter of scripture. Hellenistic philosophy oozes through the New Testament, and for me to better explain the New Testament, I'd best have a working knowledge of how Hellenistic philosophy was actually practiced. A little tidbit of what I'm working on right now as an example. I'm reading an essay on the contrast of friendship and flattery in the Epicurean schools of philosophy. Apparantly Epicureans were criticized by adherents of other schools (such as the Stoics) for being flattering sycophants to the great leaders and powerful men of the day. Epicureans saw no problem with a philosopher attaching himself to a powerful man as a "house philosopher" for that man. Of course the Epicureans defended this practice, making a distinction between being a sycophant and being a court sage. Now put this context as background to the Paul before Roman Governor Felix (Acts 24: 24-27). The passage tells us that Felix was waiting for money. This of course is true. The whole Roman economy functioned on patraonage, bribes, kickbacks, loans, favors .... from Findlay's depiction in his work The Ancient Economy, it seems like the Roman economy looked ahead to Don Corleone rather than Adam Smith.
But the passage also tells us that Felix kept bringing Paul to speak with him over the course of his two year assignment. Could it be that Felix was treating Paul as his own captive court-philosopher? It was the mark of great men to surround themselves with men of learning. Was Felix trying to offer Paul opportunities to continue on as a court philosopher if he would but tone down his rhetoric? Was he grooming Paul to be part of his entourage? Does any of this background make the tragedy of Felix's incomprehension even more pressing? Soli Deo Gloria

Posted via email from russellbsmith's posterous

Friday, July 10, 2009

Trying out Posterous

I'm trying out a new social media app called posterous... a way to manage updates to multiple social media applications via one email. More to come later. Russell
Russell Smith
Covenant-First Presbyterian Church

Posted via email from russellbsmith's posterous

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Friendship: Can we have some categories please

Meredith at YPulse put up this post about friendship status on Facebook. She suggests that some "reverse mentoring" is needed for younger users to teach older users what it means to be friend. Her assertion that friend on Facebook roughly means "someone you know" and we still intuitively have categories of friendships. She writes about:
How in the same way there are people in your life you consider "bona fide BFFs" and others "you air kiss at a party once a year," on Facebook there are some friends you have a "Wall to Wall" conversation that runs on for multiple pages, others you post a message once a year on their birthday, and others still whom you forget were even born. In short, if you interpret "friends" as
Facebookspeak for "people you know," you can pretty much assign the same value system for friendships that you always have. Without cheapening the meaning.

She has a point. I hear moaning and gnashing of teeth about how social media are destroying our capacity to relate to one another. Meredith's point is that social media (at its best) simply extends what naturally happens. We all intuitively have a range of relationships: compadres, companions, and colleagues; mentors, proteges, and advisors; acquaintences, amigos, and intimates. We have confidantes and we have hangers on. All of these categories and more are under the rubric of "friend" in Facebook.

The problem of "friendaholism" is not that the technology cheapens our relationships. The problem is that of understanding the categories. Of course it would be unseemly to ask people to categorize types of frienships on a tool like Facebook; the question is do people have an understanding of different categories at all? I'm not convinced we do. A cursory scan of the shelf at my local Mega-Book-Mart reveals lots of books on "relationships" -- meaning romance, intimacy, and sexuality. There are shelves of books on working relationships and personality profiles. It's really hard, however, to find books on Friendship.

To offer a contrast, a quick look at Amazon reveals over 400,000 titles with friendship as the theme. The main themes in these titles tend to be 1) stories of great friendships 2) about the friendships of women 3) spiritual friendship. So clearly there's interest in understanding what friendship is and how it operates in our lives.

A look through my own library revealed some stuff. CS Lewis has some stuff on Friendship in The Four Loves. Of course Cicero has a definitive classical treatment on it. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics speaks of it. Richard Baxter in A Christian Directory gives instructions about friendship.

But perhaps the best way to get into this is to ask my friends (no matter what category you place me in... acquaintence or compadre or... well you get the idea): how do we think about friendship?

Comment box is open.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From the trenches of study: The Bronze Age Collapse

I'm sure I studied about it in seminary, but it was likely from the tangential perspective of establishing the reasonableness of the exodus. Never did I consider it from the perspective of the interconnected cultures of the Ancient World. I'm talking about the biggest historical sea change that you've never heard of: The Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course we're familiar with the disintegration of the Roman Empire (though James O'Donnell's latest book The Ruin of the Roman Empire presents the case that popular understanding about said disintegration is seriously flawed -- more on that book in another post). The Reformation radically transformed Europe, and thus the Americas. The Industrial Revolution plundered the countryside for laborers to move to cities, and certainly we're living through the turmoil and abundance brought on by the electronic information age. But the Bronze Age Collapse seems to overshadow them all.

The scenario was this: for about a millenium, villages had been coalescing into city/states and then into proto-empires. We see the rise of the great Sumerian City States, the Hittites (in modern day Turkey), the Myceneans in Greece, and of course, the granddaddy of them all -- the Egyptian Empire. By around 1500 bc, we see great powers jousting on the global scene and engaging in international trade and diplomacy. Civilization and culture were on the advance. This would be the backdrop for the Biblical Patriarchs.

And then starting in 1200, there's a collapse all around the Mediterranean. For the next 200 years we have evidence of destruction of cities from Troy (Northern Turkey) all the way down to Gaza. Egypt retreats it's armies from Syria and the Levant and Nubia. Society crumbles in Greece and Asia Minor to the point that literacy seems to have been lost for 200 years. The Mesopotamian kingdoms retreat their forces. The sparse records we do find from Egypt and Mesopotamia talk about "sea peoples" in the Mediterranean and "Arameans" in the east. We can imagine other people groups taking advantage of the chaos to plunder and claim other peoples property for their own.

This era makes the dark ages look like a twilight game of capture the flag.

And it is the historic backdrop to the Illiad and Odyssey and the books of Exodus and Joshua and Judges. Truly it could be said that this was a time when there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Historians debate the causes behind said collapse: a natural disaster, a migration of peoples, an exhaustion of the potentcies of empire? Yet on the other side of it, new stronger political forms arose. And on the other side, we also see the establishment of the united kingdom of Israel.

Looking back we can see the hand of Providence turning the collapse of human empire into the seed bed out of which the state of Israel would arise. And perhaps in that knowledge we can find comfort for our own tumultuous times: that indeed all the nations of the earth are like a drop in a bucket; they are but dust on the scales of God. But as nations rise and fall, the word of the Lord endures forever.


Monday, January 19, 2009

New Species found -- the heavens and earth resound

I see, from time to time, news stories about the discovery of heretofore unknown creatures in remote places. Whether they are cave dwelling critters hidden away for centuries or bizzare entities living in the deep sea, they all capture my interest. That's why this article on today's Yahoo News caught my eye: yet another discovery of heretofore unknown creatures, this time in a deep Australian reef.

I find these discoveries encouraging for several reasons. First, from my theological perspective, God created all things as instruments of His praise and glory. No matter what your perspectives on the process that God used to create, it still holds that in His Providence, He establishes these creatures that have existed for thousands of years outside the knowledge of mankind. And what have they been doing all that time? In their own humble way, they have been living as unique distinctive expressions of God's glory, creativity, power, and goodness. In their own little ways, these creatures have been living Hallelujahs tucked away in the remote corners of creation.

Second, such discoveries never fail to stir a sense of wonder and humility in the hearts of even the most hardened skeptic. As humans we seem to have in inborn sense of awe before the unknown. Such discoveries continue to remind us that this universe is far vaster and more astonishing than we heretofore grasped. Such wonder should serve to expand our understanding of God. God is indeed far bigger and far more grand than we like to admit.... yet His attention to such small details as these creatures shows forth his affection and delight in creation (I'm mindful of the creation story as told in Proverbs 8 -- wisdom alongside God as God forges all of creation -- and doing so in rejoicing and delight in all that is made).

Let us rejoice and be glad that the Creator continues to hold surprises for us in this universe ... and that we may delight in them.

Previous posts of interest on this topic:
Biodiversity to the praise of God
The Instinct to Care for Animals

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will the real John Calvin stand up please?

John Calvin has taken on an odd kind of personality disorder. If you follow the popular renderings of Calvin, you get the impression that he was a very brilliant and very angry man. William Manchester plays into this stereotype in A World Lit Only By Fire. And as I talk with people about Calvin, I hear this kind of impression: "Calvin's Geneva was a dark place." or "Calvin burned Servetus" or "Calvin was a wrathful pessimist who taught that all people are evil."

Contra that are the hagiographies: Calvin was the greatest theologian since Augustine. Not only was he brilliant, but he was an excellent stylist. He was a humble man who always fought against having authority thrust on him.

I suggest that both portraits are vastly skewed. As we enter into the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, we have an opportunity to re-assess his heritage and legacy. Calvin was a man, a human subject to frailty, foibles, and folly. He would likely be the first to admit that. Calvin would have us look first and foremost to the sovereign God and his majesty. However Calvin was also blessed with great talents and giftedness ... and he would likely rejoice if in our celebration of those talents, we gave thanks to God for the witness of a saint who has gone before.

Volume 5 of BB Warfield's collected works focuses on that great scholar's writings on Calvin and Calvinism. In his biographical sketch of Calvin, he demonstrates that Calvin's early training as a humanist scholar played out in his later works. Calvin, like Erasmus and other minds of the day, marinated their minds in the classic works of Greece and Rome, and this affected his work. He saw himself first and foremost as a "man of letters" - a writer and commentator on the great issues of the day. Hence his voluminous literary output. Whether we look at the Institutes of Christian Religion (Calvin's great systematic theology, which is still highly readable today -- and which focuses on the practicality of a living faith, rather than a purely cerebral faith) or his large corpus of letters, we find Calvin to be a man using his pen and rhetorical gifts to persuade, encourage, challenge, and confront. Warfield demonstrates Calvin's deft use of satire as a rhetorical tool.... showing Calvin to be a man with more humor than is popularly thought.
What we see in Calvin's Institutes is a "positive programme" for Protestantism. The Protestant cause began in criticism, and might have remained there but for Calvin. However in his Institutes, Calvin presents a vision of faith that is illuminated by a supremely majestic God who lays claim to all of creation. Calvin presents all of life as the sphere of service to God. His comprehensive understanding of Christianity as a whole life endeavor was his great contribution to the Protestant cause. The critics focus on the frailty of the man without recognizing the positive life affirming vision for Christian life that he presented.
I hope this year we'll all give Calvin a closer look .... and perhaps take up the task of reading some of his work. The Institutes are a great place to start.... well worth reading and profiting from the insights of this great teacher.
Soli Deo Gloria