Saturday, August 17, 2013

Back in the saddle

"I want you to know, brothers and sisters,
that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."
                                                 — Philippians 1:12

           I couldn’t have done it without you.  Getting home from Germany and looking at the checkbook alongside the bills, that much became clear.  Thanks to all of you for the time, prayers, and financial help with this fabulous sabbatical trip.  The highlight for me was Wittenberg, of course.  Being there where the fuse was lit, where the Reformation began was an amazing experience.  One of the most important acts in history happened right there in that sleepy little town of cobbled streets, green gardens, and ancient shopfronts.  Here in 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 theses — 95 challenges to the church of his day.  But more than that, this is where Luther lived and taught and worked to support the reforms his challenges sparked. 
         Walking through Lutherhaus, the former monastery which Luther and his wife Katie turned into a guesthouse, you can easily imagine the halls filled with students and dignitaries who gathered there from all over Europe to visit Luther, to sit at his table for supper or hear him preach, or take courses at the local university.  Today it is a museum filled with paintings and everyday objects from Luther’s day.  You can see chairs he sat in, Bibles he read (and ones he published), even the robe he wore when he was preaching.  So much of it was so well preserved, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 500 years since the Reformation began.
              I wish I could take you all there, but the best I can do is to bring to you the images and story of my journey.  You are invited to join me after church on Sunday, September 22 for my re-cap of our Germany journey.  In addition to Wittenberg, my brother Paul and son Brian and I traveled to Munich, Berlin, and even ventured into Austria to visit Salzburg, land of The Sound of Music.  We wrapped up our trip in Berlin, where we saw such sights as the Brandenburg Gate and remains of the Berlin wall.  I hope you can be there on the 22nd — we want to thank everyone for helping us take the trip and give you a taste of  what it was like to visit the land of Luther.

Thankful prayers for the work of outgoing Florida-Bahamas bishop
Ed Benoway.
           As Lutherans, we are connected to a wider church community.  A lot has been happening in the wider church this summer.  We have a new bishop in our synod, Rev. Robert Schaefer who will be installed at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Lutz at noon on Saturday, August 31.  You are welcome and encouraged to be a part of history and attend the service, which is happening practically just down the road from us.  We give thanks for the years of faithful service of Bishop Ed Benoway, who lives just down the road in Lutz. 
          We are also celebrating the election of a new national bishop for the ELCA.  Elizabeth Eaton, bishop of the Northeast Ohio Synod, was elected as our denomination’s first female bishop at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on August 15.  Again we are grateful for the service of outgoing bishop Mark Hanson.  In an online interview, Bishop Eaton seemed as surprised as anyone at the election, and clarified that the process was not a political one centered on voting so much as a spiritual process, trying to discern what the Holy Spirit is up to.  From what I could tell in the interview, Bishop Eaton seems smart and personable and a good choice for national bishop.
New ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.
           By the way, this year marks the ELCA’s 25th birthday.  To commemorate this, all ELCA congregations have been asked to take a day to celebrate the ministries we do which make an impact in our community.  September 8 is the date for “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday, which will include some special highlights of our food pantry and baby shower ministries at Atonement, and also a special time where we bless the hands of all who do Christ’s work, which (I happen to know) includes you!
           I am so looking forward to being back with you at Atonement, and sharing the joy of Jesus with you in worship and service to our Lord.  See you there!

Pastor Scott




Sunday, August 4, 2013

Epic America

Though not exactly a bucket list, I had a few places in mind that I wanted to go this summer and bring my family along to see.  I always felt a little guilty about not showing them much of our beautiful country.  When we traveled, it was almost always the same long route up I-75, up through Ohio to Michigan or down to Florida.  True, we visited Washington DC once, and Su and I had visited Colorado once before the kids were grown.  But despite a few mission trips and a couple trips to Texas, the family had missed seeing major parts of the country.
And so when my birth mother Linda invited us out to spend a few days out in Tustin, CA with her and Harley, her ailing cat, it was an opportunity for a major road trip. I started thinking of all the places I'd been but never taken the family.  We could do New Orleans, where despite several recent Youth Gatherings being held there my kids had never been.  Once I'd been to a conference in Phoenix, AZ and taken a day to drive up to the Grand Canyon.  As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a place I wanted my whole family to see.  Also, I've loved southern California since making a trip there to visit the Crystal Cathedral back in its heyday.  Here was a chance to show my family the places I'd told them about so enthusiastically.
So I sat down with Expedia and Google maps and worked out a route that would take us out to California and back with about 8 hours of driving per day.  We'd stay an extra day in New Orleans (going out) and Las Vegas (coming back) to give us time to explore these cities.  We also wanted to visit my sister Valerie in Montgomery, AL on the way back.  On days I had activities planned, I tried to reduce the driving hours to 4-6.  For days with large stretches of ground to cover, there could be 12-14 hours of driving in the works.  Since Brian had his permit, as long as a licensed driver sat up in the passenger seat next to him, he could share driving duties.
Driving into New Orleans over the long Lake Ponchartrain bridge was a new experience for me.  Our hotel was in the heart of downtown, a block from the French Quarter.  A renovated warehouse (actually six of them) with exposed beams and brick, the hotel was comfortable and unique.  We spent our first evening walking down by the river and checking out some record stores (with real vinyl records).  We wandered through the French Quarter, every so often encountering street musicians.  At the very edge of the neighborhood we discovered a group of young kids playing trumpets, trombones, and drums with such exuberance that we had to stop and join the crowd gathered there listening.  They were so loud and having so much fun, the joy was contagious.  We ate at a fun little restaurant called Mona Lisas, an Italian place decorated with different styled renderings of the Mona Lisa, from traditional to Andy Warhol, to a Mona Lisa in Gene Simmons "Kiss" makeup.  I have to admit, the manicotti was superb, with a molasses-sweet sauce the likes of which I hadn't tasted for decades.
After some delicious dreams, we spent the next day walking through the French Quarter up to Louis Armstrong park and discovered Congo Square.  A grove of old oaks marked a spot where slaves from the old French days would congregate, singing and dancing in their varied  traditional styles.  We talked with  Christoph, a man siting on a park bench who claimed to be a "ranger" of this park.  If he was a real ranger, he certainly looked retired.  Anyway, Christoph told us that young Louis Armstrong developed his trumpet technique here, and told us the dimensions of Sally, the huge central oak in Congo Square.  He also told us that during Katrina a kind of piranha had gotten into the pond and eaten all the goldfish.  The fish in the pond certainly did look nasty, but they were leaving the ducks alone.  Who knows?
We spent the rest of our time in New Orleans riding the Natchez steamboat up the river on an afternoon jazz cruise.  The sights on the riverbank were great, but it was also fun just watching the giant piston turn the paddlewheel.  I set up a video of it on youtube.  From the bow of the boat we watched spots of rain pour down on downtown New Orleans, but never got wet ourselves.  On the way back to the hotel, we realized we had not yet had any beignets -- something Cassie had told us we should do -- so we stopped by CafĂ© Beignet for a bagfull and ate them back in our room.
The next morning we were on our way to College Station, TX.  We planned to meet up with my uncle Luther and his wife Elizabeth.  We ended up going out to BJs with them and my cousin Mary and her daughter Emily, who was cheerful despite having had her wisdom teeth pulled that morning.  On our way out of town, we stopped to see Aunt Linda, my father's sister.  Luther and Liz joined us for the delightful visit at the nursing home Linda stayed at in nearby Bryan.  Aunt Linda was in good form that day, and introduced us to her pet fish, Geronimo.
As we made our way west, we took a short detour to the north up to Waco.  Last time we were in Waco, we had run out of time and were not able to visit a site near and dear to the hearts of my sons and myself: the Dr. Pepper museum.  The kids and I being fans and valued consumers of Dr. Pepper, we didn't want to pass up another opportunity to experience this American landmark.  The museum was housed in the old Dr. Pepper factory, with an artesian well and an old bottling machine on the first floor. Half of another floor was dedicated to remembering a tornado that went through town and damaged the building (you can still see the "scar" on the outside of it).  The top floor was dedicated to the greatest Dr. Pepper salesman, Foots, who later became a CEO.  The tour was topped off with Dr. Pepper samples straight from the soda fountain.
After our museum visit, we drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.  We stayed in Whites City, just outside the park.  The grocery store was closed, but we had plenty of snacky-things along with us to eat for the night.  That morning, we drove up into the Guadalupe Mountains to the visitors center, and decided we had time for a visit to the Big Room -- the largest single limestone cave in North America.  We took the elevator down and followed the well-designed pathway through the cave, surrounded by countless strange shapes and at times looking down great shafts into still unexplored passages below.
Back on the road, we had a long drive which took us back into Texas through El Paso, then on to Tucson for the night.  One more day of driving through long stretches of desert finally brought us into California, where suddenly things were green and inhabited, though that would change again.  Brian was excited to see the windmill farms near Palm Springs (we had seen lots of windmills out in west Texas, proving to him that the Germans weren't the only ones using wind power).  Then, after a few confusing road directions from the GPS, at last made it to Tustin.
We had a very nice time staying at Linda's.  Her little mobile home park was quaint and quiet.  We took a day to worship at a local Lutheran church and visit some of the small local towns.  We also spent a day going up to the Fender Guitar factory (a special treat for Brian), and another seeing the San Diego Zoo.  The big epic fail happened on the day we decided to head up to Los Angeles on I-5, one of the busiest freeways in the world.  Our plan was to visit the Grammy Museum, Griffith Park, and do a driving tour of Hollywood.  We never made it that far -- our van conked out in the middle of the interstate.  While I was driving in the center of five lanes of northbound traffic, suddenly there was no forward thrust coming from the accelerator.  Cars on both sides were beginning to pass me as the van slowed down, but somehow I made it over to the left shoulder.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much left shoulder, and the van was sticking out into the fast lane.  I tried restarting the van with no luck, while Su called AAA.  They told us they'd make us a priority, but it was still half an hour before the tow truck showed up.  Every second of that half hour we prayed that every one of the cars and trucks coming up from behind would see us and pull over enough not to hit us. 
Eventually we had three tow vehicles there.  They told us that because there were five of us in the vehicle, they couldn't just let us out and tow the van, which seemed to us like the only logical way to get us out of that situation.  No, the only option for them was to shut down the entire freeway and push the van (with us in it) off  at the next exit, which was only a quarter mile up the freeway.  I asked the tow truck driver if they had ever done this before and he said yeah, they did it all the time.  So to our amazement, the Highway Patrol showed up and shut down all  five lanes of northbound traffic while the tow truck gave us one big push.  Amazingly, it was enough to get us down the exit where we rolled to a stop on a side street.  They hooked up the van and after we got in the tow trucks, I asked our young driver how often they did this kind of thing.  Hardly ever, he said.
What a great reminder of God's grace and goodness that we survived that day!  Thinking back on it, we were amazed that we got out of that dangerous situation unscathed.  Of course, Su was mad that her van had broken down after we had it checked out.  We had taken it in for a tune up before we left, but after discovering an oil leak we brought it to a place in Tustin to have more work done on it.  Both times they had failed to check the fuel filter, which was clogged up and caused our dilemma on the interstate. 
So we gave up on visiting the sites of LA, and instead left the next day for Fresno.  On the way, we stopped off in Santa Clarita to visit Ann Malm, the sister of Atonement member Sherry Alexakos.  They showed us their beautiful home and treated us to sandwiches and (such great hospitality!) Dr. Pepper.  Our original plan was to drive through Sequoia National Park.  I was looking forward to seeing some California redwoods.  We weren't making the best time that day, so we scrapped that idea and headed straight to our hotel. 
The next day we made up for it by visiting Yosemite National Park.  The van was running a little hot on the way, so we pulled off at a roadside turnout to let it cool off.  Brian and I ventured down a little trail and had our first hiking adventure. We saw the sights inside the park proper, but the redwood sites were all very crowded, so we never did see any California redwoods on our trip.  By evening time we were at our hotel in Lee Vining across from Mono Lake.  An evening walk took us close to the lake, but in the morning we decided to get on to driving rather than do more exploring in this interesting this area.
So we were bound for Las Vegas, but on the way decided to go through Death Valley.  The landscape was spectacular in the opposite way from Yosemite: not lush and majestic but harsh and desolate.  We did stop a few times to let the van cool down, and heeded the warning signs about turning off the AC so as not to overburden our engine.  We stopped in Death Valley Center and saw three wild horses walking through the town.  The temperature was 120 degrees, and even in the shade with a good breeze it felt like standing next to a furnace.
The next two nights we spent at the Luxor hotel in Vegas.  We walked the strip and took in a high wire act at Circus Circus, but were generally unimpressed.  A lady tried to get us to buy tickets to a Cirque Du Soleil performance, but to get her discounted price we'd have to sit through a 2 hour timeshare presentation.  We decided it wasn't worth it, and went exploring inside the hotel instead.
Our next stop was the Grand Canyon.  It was July 22, Brian's birthday, and he'd been wondering why we were going to all that trouble to visit a big hole in the ground.  When we got there and saw the scale and beauty of it, he finally got it.
After a night in Flagstaff on Rt. 66, we were off to Alexandria, TX near Dallas.  We got in after midnight after a long day of driving, including some difficulty navigating detours through the Dallas freeway system.  Another day's driving, and we found ourselves going by the town of Tallulah, LA where our church had sent a group of youth on a mission trip a few years back.  Just for fun, we got off the Interstate and did a quick drive-through of the town.  That evening brought us to Montgomery and we spent two nights at Valerie's.  We celebrated Brian and Scotland's birthdays, saw Valerie's new office downtown, and visited the Hank Williams museum.  Valerie had a plan that we'd visit the Hank Williams gravesite memorial at midnight, but that never panned out.
We made it home on schedule, a little tired of driving but with our heads and hearts full of images and experiences from across this beautiful nation.  There's so much we didn't see and didn't have time to do, which just accentuated the size and variety of our country.  I feel triply blessed after making this excursion: blessed to have had the chance to take this trip, blessed to have made it safely home, and blessed to know that my family now has seen a little more clearly how big and beautiful this world really is.