March 22

The Bible & Me

When I was young, I attended my family’s Protestant church. I went to Sunday school for eight years. I learned the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Jesus. My teachers were, without exception, kind and thoughtful men and women. They encouraged me to think of others, and to give of my time, energy, and money to help those in need.

As I became a teenager, I found that what I had learned at church offered little guidance. I struggled with issues of self-identity and the acceptance of my peers. I made a number of bad decisions, and entered a dark period of my life that lasted ten years.

When I began to resurface, I was taught to seek out God. At the time, I knew nothing of God. The lessons of my church seemed to make little sense to a young man living in a complex world. My search for answers took me from a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles to a Catholic church in Thailand. My quest led me to obtain a degree in Theological Studies. But even an intellectual understanding of the Bible was not enough to bring me peace.

I began to read the Bible with one question in mind: “What does this book mean for those of us living in the 21st century?” Finally, the answer began to be revealed.

I don’t believe the Bible can be understood without asking ourselves, “Who was this written for, and what was it intended to say to them?” A passage written for a farmer in 1,200 BC, or an exiled professional in 600 BC, or an impoverished and outcast Christian Jew in 75 AD, projects a message tuned to their time and circumstances. It’s not surprising, for example, that Matthew, who wrote to the Jews, has Jesus preaching the Beatitudes on the mountain, invoking the image of Moses. Luke, on the other hand, who was writing to the Greeks, has Jesus preaching the same sermon on the plain, invoking the image of equality. Both were trying to communicate the same Gospel message to a particular audience. Both chose imagery that would move that audience closer to faith. But the Jews and the Greeks had different frames of reference, so the authors used different imagery. Had Matthew written for us in the 21st century, instead of the Sermon on the Mount we might well be reading the Sermon at Bunker Hill!

If I want to understand the Bible, I must ask myself what it meant to the men and women who wrote it, and what they were telling their audience in its time and situation. Trying to take literally words written for shepherds of 3,000 years ago can lead to absurd results. But the message intended for those shepherds is meant equally for us. To find it, I need to look beyond the wording to the ideas and principles of that message.

In recent years, I have been struck by the increasing anger as people discuss the Bible’s role in our society. Some suggest that it must be taken literally, and should be adopted as a legal foundation. Others suggest it is outdated, fictional, and has no role at all in modern life.

Both views are extreme. I prefer a more middle path, based on what we know about the Bible, and a little common sense. If what I have written offends you, I apologize. My most sincere hope is that this book will bring new understanding to those who, like me, have struggled with what the Bible says and how it can work in our lives.

March 21

Now Mobile-Friendly!

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I don’t know why people would read a blog from their phone.  Their eyes must be better then mine!  Nevertheless, Google wants all sites to be mobile-friendly, and what Google wants, Google gets.  So, as of today, my blog is mobile-friendly.

March 19

Why I’m Going to Write About the Bible

I’m an author, accountant, and until recently, a cheesemaker.  So why am I so passionate about the Bible?

In 1995, I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, having recently spent 18 months in Sri Lanka and two more in India.  I had been studying Buddhism for several years, and had mostly given up on Christianity as nonsensical to me.  Many self-described Christians had tried to convert me.  One of those would-be evangelists also tried to sleep with me.  Another warned me that attending AA meetings would send me to Hell.  But my biggest problem with Christianity was, it didn’t seem to make any sense.  At the time, I understood the Old Testament to describe a vengeful and arbitrary God, while the New Testament described a man got killed for doing good deeds so that his followers could go to heaven simply by claiming His name.

Enter Father Niphot Thienvihan, a Thai priest who was humble in character and generous in spirit.  Much of his ministry consisted of teaching young people about AIDS, which in 1995 was nearing its apogee in Thailand.  Children there got eight years of schooling, and then went from their villages to the cities to earn enough money to start families and take care of their aging parents.  Except there weren’t enough jobs, so many of them ended up working in the sex trade.  Having only an eighth-grade education, they had no idea how AIDS was contracted.  They caught it, and brought it back to the villages with them.  In 1995, an entire generation of young people was dying.

Fr. Niphot sought to change that – even the the vast majority of these village children were Buddhists, which 98% of Thais are.

Fr. Niphot also ran the novitiate program for priests and nuns.  He insisted that every novitiate spend time in the villages.  “This is not to convert the villagers, but to be converted by them,” he told me.  Fr. Niphot had a great respect for the innate knowledge of God found in those whose life relies on the cycle and connection with the land – regardless of their religion.

I could mention how Fr. Niphot liked frog curry – literally, a whole frog floating in a bowl of curry sauce.  I could mention how he comforted a female novitiate from the city when we dropped her to stay at a farmhouse in a village (which, as Thai farmhouses go, was fairly upscale), and the young woman began screaming (in Thai), “I can’t stay here!  I can’t stay here!”

But the point is, in my weeks of working and traveling with Fr. Niphot, I came to understand the life of Jesus in a way that was meaningful to my own life experience.  I finally felt that, in Fr. Niphot’s work, I had caught a glimpse of the God I had sought.

The following year, I began my studies at Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic school.  My major: Theology.  I was not yet converted, but I wanted to follow the path that began at Fr. Niphot’s door.

In the process, I began to read the Bible in a new way.  It began to make sense to me.  I began to love it and immerse myself in it.

These days, I see the Bible as a a guide for living that, though I may never live up to, I must strive to emulate.  It’s not just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, as I once thought.  It is the heartfelt experience of three millennia of writers about their own experience of God.

If you object to the Bible itself, maybe my writing will give you new insight into it.  Or, just skip those posts.  If you object to my interpretation, please pray for me.  If God wants me to believe something else, that will become clear.

March 17

The Man Behind the Keyboard

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How does a person best describe himself?  I’m 55 years old, six feet tall, with brown hair and brown eyes.  I have a wife, a ten-year-old stepson, and a nine month old son.  I’m an accountant by trade.  And I’m a writer, including my popular novel Ordinary World, which has sold over 3,000 copies.  That’s not a New York Times Bestseller, but it impresses the heck out of me!

But that’s not all there is to me.  If you’ve read Domino Theory, you suspect that I might have some history of drug use.  You’d be correct.  I got clean and sober at the age of 25, when I was a total mess.  I’m nearly thirty years sober today, and that remains a central feature in my life.

I spent ten years making artisan cheese and selling it at farmers markets.  We shut the business down last June, after the baby was born, because we just couldn’t do everything anymore.  For much of that period, we raised goats, and I still miss them from time to time.  I especially love birthing the babies.

I spent seventeen years traveling back and forth to Sri Lanka.  This began in 1993, with an 18-month stay that began with my teaching computer classes, and evolved into my being on a team that tried to bring the civil war to a peaceful end.  Though we failed at our main goal, we did help bring about a four-year cease-fire, the longest in that nation’s three-decade war.

I studied Buddhism for many years, but my degree is in Theology, from a Catholic university.  I belong to the Mennonite church, and my dream is to become a minister.

I love music.  I play guitar, though not well.  I seem to have a mental block that prevents me from learning to read music, but I keep trying.

I love trains, especially the steam trains of the 1920s.  When I had the time and space, I built models.

Politically, I remain unaffiliated.  I object to the two-party system, because it seems impossible to me that there could be only two answers for any serious problem.  Nor could any two parties possibly represent the diversity of this great nation.  I consider myself a conservative, though I have much more in common with the community-oriented conservatism of my New England origins than either the corporate or religious conservatives who dominate the political right these days.

I read tarot cards.

I hate exercise, but I love hiking and kayaking.  I love the wilderness, and strongly support protecting it.  Do they have to build condos and strip malls everywhere?

I love to shoot, and have an appreciation for old rifles, especially from the World War I era.

Most of my writing is based on places and topics I know, or experiences I have had.  Many of them start with a “what if?” question.  For example, what if, before I got sober, I had come out of a blackout next to a murdered man, having no idea how I got there?  What if the economy collapsed, and my family had to survive?

To sum up, I am an accountant-cheesemaker-writer.  I am a liberal conservative (or vice versa).  I am religious, spiritual, and metaphysical.  I am a gun-toting, peacemaking, redneck advocate for social change.

I don’t think it’s easy to put me in a category.  But then, I think we tend to put others in categories far too easily.

March 16

When I Stopped

Today, in church, the pastor asked us to consider whether we had stopped along the way, and if so, when.

The question took me aback.  But the answer was easy.  I stopped when, in 2007, I began making cheese full time.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed making cheese.  People enjoyed eating it.  But it was a detour from my path, which had led me from bedside panels for alcoholics at County General Hospital in Los Angeles, to helping organizations in Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand provide basic needs for the extreme poor, to helping to try to end a war, to studying God and the Bible in college, to helping to build schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Tijuana, Mexico.

In 2007, all that stopped.  I became a full-time accountant in the winter, and a full-time cheesemaker in the summer.  Yes, we occasionally fed someone who needed it, and let someone stay with us who needed it.  But the focus of my life was no longer on serving others, but on serving cheese.

Perhaps it’s coincidental that 2007 is also when my previous marriage began its four-year collapse.  Perhaps it’s coincidental that was the same year I needed a pacemaker.  Perhaps it’s coincidental that my own mental health began to deteriorate.  And perhaps it’s coincidental that the cheese business sucked up all the money we had, and never quite became profitable.

I don’t think so.

I would like to thank my pastor for reminding me what’s important, and of how life was when I made it important.  God willing, I will make some changes in my life, and those things will become important again.

March 14

Vacation – Not Exactly What I Wanted

It’s been a long nine months, so long that I forgot my blog’s username and password, and returned to find 287 spam comments waiting for approval.  But it’s good to be back.

My vacation started, well,  with a vacation.  I took my family to New Hampshire to visit my family of origin.  And I got bronchitis.  (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

After weeks of it not getting better, my doctor put me on Singulair.  But Singulair interacts with a triglyceride medication I was taking.  I didn’t know that.  Neither did my doctor or pharmacist.  The interaction is listed on the FDA website, but apparently not in any of the databases used by health care professionals.  Within two weeks, I had sunk into a suicidal depression and had to be hospitalized.

The hospital prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant.  I let them know I’d had a bad reaction to antidepressants once before, many years ago.  The shrink insisted that this one was different.

It wasn’t that different.  Soon, I was having a full-blown psychotic reaction to the Zoloft.  Eventually, I went back to a different hospital.  There, they gave me other medications that had me not only psychotic, but also aggressive.  Psych meds and I do not get along.

From there, I was able to spend 30 days medication-free in a rehab in Culver City, CA.  My brain finally started to heal.  I am forever grateful for that opportunity, because I think psychiatrists would have either killed me, or left me in a straight jacket in a dark room for the rest of my life.  For whatever reason, they don’t have an answer for me.

I am prone to depression, and I’ve learned that I have to manage it with lifestyle changes.  To be honest, I hadn’t been doing that.  So perhaps the medication interaction only accelerated changes that I would have had to make anyway.  In any case, it’s been a rough road, and I’m glad to be back.

June 15

Country Community

I love living in the country. People care about each other here, and they help each other. This is different from the city. I know: I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. Down there, people don’t know their neighbors, and they don’t really want to. If your car breaks down, you’re as likely to get mugged as helped by a passerby, but you’re more likely to be ignored.

Over the past few days, I got to see the country way of life in action. There are several ranchers who graze cows in my neighborhood. “Neighborhood” may be a bit of an overstatement – it’s mostly empty fields growing a mixture of sagebrush and native grasses. It’s a good place to graze cattle in the spring before the ranchers move the cows up to the mountain for the summer.

Wednesday night about dusk, a herd of cows broke through a fence and were wandering the neighborhood. I didn’t know whose cows they were, but I know Reyes grazes cows out here, so I called him.

“Do they have tags on them?” he asked me.

“They do,” I told him. “They’re green and yellow.”

“Well, they’re not mine,” he replied. “They might belong to Kim. But I’ll come out and take a look.”

Reyes drove out and checked out the cows, and found that they belonged to Coy. He called Coy, and together they rounded up the cows and put them back in the pasture where they belonged.

Reyes would do that because he knows Coy would do the same for him. Or Kim, or any of the other ranchers. In fact, last night, a bunch of cows got out again. This time, I called Coy.

“I don’t think they’re mine,” Coy told me. “I think they probably belong to Reyes. But I’ll come out and take a look.”

It turns out that they did belong to Coy, and he and one of his sons rounded them up, finishing up about midnight. But if they’d been Reyes’s cows, Coy would have been there helping.

This morning, Reyes and some other men on horses started moving their cows to the mountain. Coy was there, helping.

That’s the kind of community I grew up in back in New Hampshire. Decades in Los Angeles made me think that such communities no longer exist. But they do. This is the kind of community spirit in which people know and respect each other. They help each other. And crime rates are lower, especially violent crime. It seems that crime by definition requires a lack of respect for other people, which is why there’s more of it in the city than in the country.

This is the America I loved as a child. I’m grateful that it hasn’t disappeared.

April 18

Portait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect

Symbria Patterson is an organic farmer.  She and her 19-year-old daughter, Sara, are pillars of the Local Food community in Cedar City, Utah.  They frequently travel to other states to support local food events across the country.  They operate their farm on the Community Supported Agriculture model, and hold several events at their farm each year at which they serve gourmet food procured from local sources.

Over the weekend, Symbria and Sara went to Bunkerville, Nevada, to support the anti-BLM protests there.  I met with her last night to ask her why.

“I am neither a liberal nor a conservative,” she tells me.  “My religion is not my culture.  But I do believe in the proper role of government, based on the principles this country was founded on.  We should have the right to choose.  We should have the right to use our lands.”

Symbria has many objections to how power is used in our country.  For starters, although she grows her food organically, she’s not allowed to say so.  The Federal Government now defines what “organic” means, and in their view, it must include a certification from a Federally-approved organization.  Symbria uses much stricter standards than the government, whose watered-down regulations have made the “organic” designation nearly meaningless.

“The certification is meaningless,” she says.  “How can the government own a word?”

But without that certification, Symbria can’t legally use the word “organic” to describe her produce.

Some years ago, Symbria was invited to a Sheriff Mack convention at a Las Vegas casino.  She didn’t know who Sheriff Mack was, but the organizers asked her to bring raw milk in support of a raw food table, so Symbria agreed.  Crossing state lines with unlicensed raw milk is a federal felony, but she did it because she believes the raw milk ban is wrong.  Other participants had brought raw cheese and ice cream.  But as soon as they started to serve it, the casino shut them down because raw dairy was illegal, and the casino was afraid of getting into trouble.

“That experience opened my eyes,” she says.  “It’s not the government’s place to tell us what we can eat.”

0413141932Later, she helped her best friends, who coincidentally happen to be neighbors of Cliven Bundy, put on a farm-to-fork dinner in Nevada.  They had rented a mobile kitchen for the event, and a gourmet dinner was prepared by a licensed chef.  Authorities shut the dinner down because the meat, eggs, and dairy had been brought from unlicensed producers in Utah, and it had therefore been brought across the state line illegally.  They forced the organizers to destroy an entire gourmet dinner by pouring bleach on it.  Not only could the participants not eat it, they couldn’t even feed it to their pigs!

“I am a supporter of choice,” Symbria says.  “The government is removing our right to choose.”

I asked her why she chose to attend the anti-BLM protests.  “It’s just wrong,” she says.  “We should be able to use those lands.  The Constitution says these lands should be owned by the states.  Bundy tried to pay the State of Nevada for his grazing, because they have jurisdiction.  But they didn’t know what to do with the money and gave it back.”

During the roundup, Symbria tells me, bulldozers were used to destroy watering holes so the cattle would look for water elsewhere.  Some of those watering holes had been built a hundred years ago, long before the BLM even existed.  They were built of concrete, and maintained by the ranchers.

0413141928“Bundy used to pay his grazing fees,” she tells me.  “The BLM was supposed to help him manage the land.  But they didn’t manage it.  The BLM, which was supposed to be helping him, instead made it impossible for him to make a living.  He stopped paying his fees to the BLM because his ‘partner’ was putting him out of business.”

“Did you ever wonder how Cliven Bundy came to owe a million dollars in grazing fees?” she asks.  “The grazing fees aren’t that much.  It’s the penalties for not paying them.”

She sees Bundy’s situation as representative of the problems many people have with government.

“You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night,” Symbria continues.  “So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded.  Then the government took it away.  One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”

Symbria and her daughter returned from the protest site Friday night so they could sell their produce at a farmers market on Saturday.  When the market was over, they drove back to Nevada.  Everyone knew that would be the day of the showdown between BLM agents and protesters.  There were fears that violence might erupt.

“I wanted to support them,” she says.

At the climax of the day, forty unarmed horsemen gathered under a bridge and prepared to approach the heavily-armed BLM agents.  Symbria tells me that she spoke with one of the women in the group afterward.

“They were all alone,” she tells me.  “Forty unarmed people against the federal agents’ firepower.  They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this.  Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died.”

The horsemen approached the BLM agents slowly.  As they came out from under the bridge, more protesters on foot came down from the hill to join them.  The BLM began to back up.  One BLM agent came out to negotiate, and the protesters told them they wanted the County Sheriff to take over, because legally the Sheriff had jurisdiction over the BLM.  The sheriffs took control, and they ordered the BLM back.  The sheriffs then allowed the Bundys to approach the corrals and open the gates to release the cattle.

“Would I have joined those people under that bridge, knowing that my daughter and I might be killed?” Symbria wonders.   “But I was driving my car into that situation knowing there might be shooting, so I guess I would have.”

At this point, Sara chimes in.  She milks the family cow, as well as several goats, and says she was appalled at how the cattle were treated by the BLM.  “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting,” she says.  “There was no water.  There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers.  The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves.  Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.”

0413141929aSymbria notes that the protests brought together a diverse group of people: ranchers, farmers, small business owners, militia, and retired people.  “I grew up in Los Angeles,” she says.  “I’m afraid of guns.  It was strange to be rubbing elbows with men who were carrying guns openly.”

Yet that diversity demonstrates how many people are concerned about government overreach.  Symbria tells me, “I don’t understand why so many people don’t support Cliven Bundy.  Some of my friends are mad at me for supporting the Bundys.  I don’t understand that.  Many of them are angry at the government for not allowing raw food, and failing to regulate GMOs.  They seem to think this is different.  It’s not different.  It’s the government abusing its power.”

I ask Symbria what she thinks the protests accomplished.

“It saved the cattle, at least for the time being,” she notes.  “But I think the BLM will come back later.

“What’s more important is that this started a conversation about the role of government.  I hope it will change people’s minds.  I know people can change their minds, because I changed mine.  I attended private schools and college in California, and I never learned about any of this.  I never even voted until ten years ago.”

I ask Symbria about the role of nonviolence in getting the BLM to back off.  She thinks for a moment before answering.

“There were people there who seem to believe we can’t get our freedom back without bloodshed,” she says.  I ask her if she believes that.  She pauses, and says, “I hope not.”

Symbria believes that violence is doomed to fail.  The government has air power, surveillance, and lots of technology.  “This isn’t like it was in the American Revolution,” she says.  “They could slaughter us.”

She instead uses the examples of the horsemen who confronted the BLM.

“I asked them if they didn’t have guns,” she tells me.  “One man said, ‘Oh, we have guns, we just chose not to bring them.’”

That, she says, is why the protest succeeded.