August 25, 2014
by John Magsam
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The zombie test

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.

~ Proverbs 21: 31 –

I taught my daughter how to make a lasagna today. We worked together, browning meat, layering cheese, spooning out sauce, wrapping the whole kit and caboodle in foil, and popping it in the oven.

It’s my secret recipe. It has served me well over the years. It’s not complex but it’s good. Both my wife and my daughter love it. As I write this the girl has been back and forth several times wondering when it’s going to be ready.

My daughter and I have worked side-by-side like this since she was pretty small. We’ve changed bike tires, fixed stuff around the house, built chicken houses out of kits, constructed roosts for the same birds, built raised beds, planted gardens, done some minor landscaping, camped, fished and  spent many hours mowing and trimming the yard.

This year she was old enough to help me with the Christmas lights and despite her mother’s trepidation, we crawled up on the roof and did our job. It wasn’t all work; we spent some time sitting companionably on the very top of our house staring out over our neighborhood like we were giants. We were both careful. My daughter was a little scared but overcame her fear and nobody died. It was a good day.

In all of these endeavors she is nearly always helpful and far more often than not, comes up with a better, smarter, easier way to finish the project or do the job.

It’s not unusual for her to say something like, “Dad, wouldn’t it be (better, easier, smarter, safer) for us to do it like this?” Most times she’s right.

She’s a typical kid, so she doesn’t always want to work, can’t say as I blame her. Yesterday she walked into the kitchen heading to her room and asked her mother to bring her a drink. Seriously, like it would be easier for her mother to get up and bring her a drink than do it herself. I was dumbfounded and doing what any good father would do growled, “Get your own drink.”

But, generally speaking, once she’s actually working with me, I’m always happy to have my daughter’s help and her companionship and her insight.

She’s managed to get a few over on me over the years. The chickens were her idea.

She was going to get up every morning and care for them before school. Last winter, as I trudged out to the coop through nearly a foot of snow after spending a fitful night wondering if the birds were going to freeze to death, I looked back at the  house, imagined my daughter still snug in her bed and thought to myself as my ears began to freeze, “I’m a giant sucker.”

Granted, she helped me insulate the coop and helped me wire a lizard light to the place so the birds would be at least a little bit warmer on really cold nights. Still, I was in the  cold and she was snoozing. Yes, giant sucker.

Overall though, I am pretty proud of how she’s turning out. I’m raising a kid who is pretty competent.

She’s a good friend and just as importantly was wise enough to surrounded herself with equally good friends. She’s kind. She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s generally patient. When faced with a problem she can more often than not solve it on her own. If she can’t, she seems to have the knack for asking the right person for help and accepting that help. She didn’t learn that from me, that’s all her mom. I’m horrible about asking anybody for anything.

I have this is my imaginary test for competence. Want to hear it?

I think of a dangerous situation, say, I’m stuck in a car that’s tumbled down a ravine, or I’m lost in the woods, or we’re at the house and there’s a huge flood or a crazy guy is chasing me through a Wal-Mart with an axe.

Then I ask myself, if I could keep my daughter in a force field so she wouldn’t get hurt, would I rather have her there or not? Would I trust her to help me stay alive or would she be more of a hindrance or a downright liability?

Nearly every time, my answer is I’d want her help. Most adults I know wouldn’t make that cut.

The girl just popped out of her room, hungry and ready for a late lunch. As we cut into the lasagna we confirmed we had left a layer of noodles out. So, our lasagna is really, mostly, a big pile of sauce, meat and cheese.

Unlike me, my daughter took this mistake in stride.

“Nobody cares about the noodles anyway,” she said with authority as she shoveled steaming lasagna onto her plate.

I am serious about this competence test though. I think it’s much more important than other measures we parents put out on Facebook   – a more substantive benchmark than a report card or a trophy. It’s one I seriously doubt I would have passed at her age. I’m pretty sure my father figured I was generally useless. I likely was.

But I’m serious. If I was somewhere and was cold, scared, or in danger, and I could somehow manage to have my daughter there to help without her being cold, scared or in danger, I’d want her with me. She’d likely save my life.

I admit it that sometimes, when I’m with a group of people and their children, I wonder to myself, how well we’d survive in a show like, say The Walking Dead. Most times, I think it wouldn’t end well. We’d likely die quickly and in a myriad of horrible ways.

Yes, if I really consider it,  when the zombies come, I could do a lot worse than having my daughter to back me up.  All in all I’d have to say she’s pretty competent. Now, if only I could only get her to clean the litter box without asking 50 times.

August 18, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on Shark Week

Shark Week

shark_jaws_194485An orange life-preserver was tied with a bow around my neck, its little white belt looped through the D-rings at my scrawny waist. I was young – probably no older than 5 – and thin as a stick. I had, in fact, jumped off the boat dock and had the life-preserver completely slip off my body.

We were living in Panama at the time and water was ever-present. Jostling over the waves was sometimes rough enough to lift me entirely off my seat and made me wonder if a particularly big wave might bounce me over the edge of the boat.

Young as I was, I still have lots of memories of Panama. I remember long walks on the beaches searching for shells, having coconut trees in the front yard and the occasional iguana in the car port. I remember swimming in the oceans and Gatun Lake, but I remember one thing more than any of those: sharks.

I clearly remember swimming in the ocean, seeing the shark nets hanging around 50 yards from the shore and wondering if they’d really keep a shark out. I pondered how often nets were inspected to see if they broke or if sharks were smart enough to wiggle their way through the loose, sandy bottom and the net itself.

Probably didn’t help that I’d seen Jaws.

Nor did it ease my fears when I saw fishermen dragging sharks from the water only a few yards from where the nets ended. They were small sharks. I touched them, running my fingers along their coarse skin.

My fascination grew. I had magazines that talked about shark attacks, complete with photos of stitched-up survivors. In one there was a photo of a woman in a bikini holding a shark in one hand a club she’d beat it to death with in the other. Apparently the small beast swam too close to her child.

I even had a shark necklace. Not just a single tooth on a cord, but a chain necklace holding an entire shark jaw. Over the years that jaw drew blood from many curious fingers.

So any time we were in the water I had a little fear nagging at me.

This particular day we were in the ocean on my dad’s boat. It was a thrill to pump the gas bulb to prime the engine, the smell of gas and exhaust mingling as it revved to life. Walking to the bow barefoot, lying on my stomach, I touched dolphins as they jumped in the bow wave.

But there was no bigger excitement than seeing a shark.

I remember so little of the day because the sight of it seems to have blocked out memory of everything else. I just remember I had my life-preserver on and was facing the back of the boat and there it was.

I think many of us have sharks in our lives in some form. At times they sharks are breathtaking, but I suspect more often than not we lend them more thought than is worthwhile. In religion I see this happening most often with the devil or hell.

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them,” said C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters.

Obviously people don’t disbelieve in sharks, but the recent Shark Week movies about megalodons and the giant great white of urban legend, Submarine, lets me see how people crave a bigger, more fantastic shark than really exists.

Similarly, I’ve grown up in communities were preachers were quick to talk about hell and bring its fire and brimstone to the table constantly. It seems an easy trap to try to instill fear instead of focusing on reality. One of my friends played Dungeons & Dragons and his church saw this activity as someone clearly partaking in satanic practices.

To me it seems absurd a church would make a kid playing a game stand before the congregation and confess that he was under the influence of the devil, lest his family be asked to leave the church, but there it was. His church had created the bigger shark to boost the ratings instead of admiring things for what they were or simply studying what Christ had to say.

And I have faced the biggest shark of all.

Our boat wasn’t large – especially by ocean standards – but the mouth of the shark was wider. I imagine it could have taken in the entire stern in its mouth had it wanted.

I knew instantly it was a whale shark. It never broke the surface, but I could see the unique dotted pattern of its skin.

It was a beautiful sight that I can still see today. A sheet of water ran over its head without the shark ever breaking the surface.

But this big shark was real and I could appreciate it in the moment. It didn’t need any exaggeration or fabrication because it was perfect for what it was. Keep an eye on the devil or hell if you wish, but don’t build it into something that overshadows Christ, for his words are more rooted in the beauty of what’s around us.

August 11, 2014
by John Magsam
2 Comments

Keep calm and drive on

photo(9)For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

 ~ Romans 1: 21

The weather this summer has been wonderful and I thanked God for it as I pulled up into my driveway a few weeks back.

I had driven home from work during the unusual cool of the evening, my windows open not because I wanted to simply feel the wind on my face but for a more practical reason – I have no air conditioning.

I had the AC taken out at the end of summer two years back. At the time, it seemed foolish to spend $800 dollars plus to fix a 1999 Ford Taurus that boasted about 180,000 miles on it. I could suck it up, drive with the windows down and make it all work for as long as possible. Hopefully until my wife’s car was paid off.

I was used to that sort of thing.

The heat hadn’t worked much either in the Taurus for many years. It had just enough juice to keep the windshield defrosted if you scraped it yourself.

I didn’t have it repaired for the same reason – it was going to cost a lot to have the dash pulled out and for somebody to try to figure out what was wrong. It seemed foolish to spend money fixing a car so old and battered. This year’s cold and snowy winter saw me donning insulated hunting coveralls, gloves and a hat when I’d leave work for the chilly drive home. It cracked my co-workers up to no end.

It was a pain but it worked. Every day, the old girl started and got me where I needed to go. It never stranded me or caused me a bit of trouble. When it was cold, I’d bundle up, when it was hot, I’d roll the windows down.

All the while I did my best to be thankful and grateful. Not having an extra car payment over the last few years has been a blessing. We bought my wife’s car new, so she had a solid car that kept her and my daughter safe. We used it for any long trips or simply to run around town.

The Taurus had one job, get me back and forth to work and do it without costing us much, and it did its job admirably.

When I pulled her into my driveway I looked at my gauges and saw all was well. I’ve developed the habit of watching my temperature and oil gauges like a hawk, a reflex developed over years and years of driving beater cars. Feeling happy, I went inside.

I had the house to myself, the girls were down visiting Shan’s folks in central Arkansas, so I checked on the pets, wandered the backyard and spoke to the chickens. Eventually I took the trash out.

And there it was. The big puddle of coolant under my trusty Taurus. I hoped it was simply a matter of adding more but no, she had a leak, a substantial one.

In the morning I filled her with water and limped the Taurus to our mechanic. A guy who has been part of the reason she’s lasted this long. He said he’d look the Taurus over and let me know. I called my boss, let her know I’d be late and one of my coworkers ran over and picked me up.

So, here I was, pretty much afoot. Then I got the news that the radiator was cracked. To replace it would cost me  about $500 in parts and labor.

Ugh.

The car has a salvage title. It was beaten up in a hail storm right after we purchased my wife’s new car, which was safely in the garage when the storm came up. I was not so lucky and got caught on the way  home.  At the time the insurance payout on the Taurus let us pay an unexpected bill. And I just kept driving.

It likely wasn’t worth the money to repair the Taurus, probably the best thing to do was to have her hauled away as scrap.

But I was stuck.

My wife wouldn’t be home for days. I didn’t want to be a bother to my coworkers hauling me around. We were planning on getting a new car anyway with our other vehicle paid off just a few months ago. Sure, I could rent a car but that would put pressure on us to buy something fast, which is never a good idea.

Why now, I thought. After all this time why quit now?

My wife was calm when I talked to her. We had the money for the repairs, she reasoned. We both didn’t want to rush into a new car purchase. She would be  home in a few days. Just fix the car.

So we did.

Still it stuck in my craw some and I was feeling far from grateful or thankful. I hate being dependent on anyone, having to ask for help. Here I was having to bum rides off one of my coworkers, a young guy who was new to our reporting team.

I was without my car for about three days. My wife returned and I was grateful to tell my co-worker he didn’t have to stop by to pick me up. We went to our mechanic, paid our bill and I crawled behind the wheel of my car and headed to work.

The windows were down, of course, and it felt good to be self-reliant again. As I moved I realized I was being foolish. Sure my car cost me a little cash, but really only a little cash compared to its long years of service. My boss had been understanding. My co-worker was there and cheerfully helped me when I was in a jam. My wife had been smart and helpful.

And my car was still rolling, just like it had rolled and rolled and rolled for me and my family. We bought the Taurus from my wife’s brother, a car dealer, when it was nearly new. We drove my daughter home in it from the hospital over 12 years ago. It took us back and forth to Shan’s parents’ home many a Christmas, or Thanksgiving or Fourth of July.

When it became my work car over five years ago it served me well. Often, very often, I’d say a small prayer of thanks for it as I steered it to work or on my way back home.

I just walked to our front door and stared at her parked in the usual spot. She’s white, with chipped paint and worn tires and over 200,000 on the odometer. Sure you have to roll down the windows when it’s warm or bundle up when its cold but she always starts and hasn’t asked much in return.

That’s a lot to be thankful for.

There she sat in the driveway. A gift from God. What’s the Blue Book value of that?

August 4, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on Finding strength

Finding strength

“Why do you waste your time drawing?” my mom said. “Why can’t you be like Sam and study instead? He makes straight As on his report card. Maybe you’re just not smart enough.”

“Sam has no friends because he has to spend four hours a day studying,” I thought about telling her. “Sam gets paid $100 bucks for each A, but gets threatened with punishment if he makes anything less.” But I didn’t go down those roads because I knew it wouldn’t have made a difference.

I sighed and walked away. It’s how I grew up.

Everything revolved around “Why can’t you?” instead of my accomplishments.

It wasn’t constructive criticism, it was just a barrage of implications that I was not now, nor would I ever be, good enough. If I was playing baseball, there was always another player better. If I was playing music, there was always a better musician. If I was drawing, well, drawing was just a waste of time.

tippyTo prove the point, my mom had me draw Tippy the Turtle. It was a drawing contest. “If you think you’re so good then prove it,” she said. The unstated subtext was “If you don’t get a letter back then quit wasting your time drawing.”

So my drawing of Tippy the Turtle was mailed off and I was hopeful I’d win one of the cash prizes. I checked the mailbox eagerly, but as time passed my hopes faded. Eventually I felt sure my mom was right and must be bad at art too, but I kept drawing anyway because I enjoyed it too much to quit.

My parents could always see the good in other kids without understanding the cost that came with it. With me they never seemed to see the good, or at least to acknowledge it.

It might have been different if I really was a failure, but I wasn’t. I had a shelf full of trophies from sports – division champions in baseball, beating my coach’s score in bowling, second place basketball team – not the gratuitous awards handed out for merely showing up.

I was a professional musician before I turned 10.

Because I never stopped drawing, I won first place in a statewide art competition, earning $1,000 for my school. I graduated with honors, too.

But it wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t the valedictorian and even if I had been, I feel confident my parents would have found fault in it somehow. As far as the $1,000 win, well, I simply never heard anything at all.

They were all little things, but they made me feel like a failure overall.

They made me feel like wanting to give up.

And in many ways I did.

I quit playing sports because they convinced me I was horrible.

I quit playing music, quit worrying about my grades and quit worrying about trying to aspire to anything.

The only thing I didn’t give up on was drawing.

As an adult I can look back on Tippy the Turtle and realize the competition was intended to find prospective students to attend Art Instruction Schools and not to waste their time with the doodles of six-year-old kids. I’m sure my mom realized it too and just wanted to set me up for failure.

Christians always seem to be drawing Tippy the Turtle – not literally, but you get my drift.

Every day there’s so much good that comes from the efforts of churches and individual Christians. They feed the hungry, they help the poor, they fight disease, they hold the hands of the dying and do more good than I could hope to list.

“If you’re so good then why do all of you hate the LGBT community,” I can hear my mom saying. Or if not that, then politicians who are willing to speak for all Christians … or the radical protesters … or the hypocrites … or any number of things.

The criticisms are often isolated. Maybe it’s the guy who insisted you can’t really be saved unless you attended his church. Maybe it’s reading about child abuse that appeared prominently in a certain denomination.

Sometimes they’re locked in history like the crusades, inquisitions or wars the church was associated with.

Perhaps it’s the Religious Right. The Huffington Post says in an article that the Religious Right has influenced many people to equate Christianity with “intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, exclusion, rigidity, stinginess, lack of compassion–you get the picture.”

The Bible itself doesn’t always help with passages about slavery or human sacrifice or women, such as 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

And I’m sure it makes many Christians want to quit or at least not be vocal about who they follow. So often I find Christians who are apologetic. “I’m Christian, but I’m not one of those kinds of Christians,” they say.

When you add up all the things individuals have done combined with the long, sometimes dark, history of Christianity it can make you feel like being a Christian isn’t such a great thing. It may be more than some individuals can handle without becoming discouraged, but the church will always continue drawing because that’s what it’s compelled to do.

Even though I’m a professional illustrator now, my mom still believes drawing is a waste of time. I think the trick is to stand by one’s convictions and to not yield – even through the name calling, the attempts to discredit and the blows to your self esteem.

I’ve come to realize that even though my folks wanted me to be Sam, I never did. Turns out not even Sam wanted to be who he was. After going through law school and passing the bar exam he took his life in a completely different direction. And just because I don’t always live up to others’ expectations of me, it doesn’t mean my whole life is worthless.

Once you find the real meaning in your life, it’s hard to let others shake you up.

Don’t put down your brush. Don’t close your Bible. Don’t stop reaching out as Christ would.
They don’t win unless you take their words to heart. They don’t win until you quit.

 

July 28, 2014
by John Magsam
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My own sidekick

photo(8)If I had sent one of my long-time friends into the Fayetteville Public Library recently – folks who have not seen my daughter in years, or maybe ever – I still think they could have spotted my kid easily.

There she sat in her Batman t-shirt, a new favorite, with her nose in a comic book, her strawberry-blonde hair peeking out from behind the cover.

I could image one of my  pals from the Society for Creative Anachronism or an old war-gaming or role-playing game buddy pointing right at her and saying, “Yeah, that’s Magsam’s kid.”

The very idea made me stupidly proud.

She’s heavily into a comic phase. Her most recent focus is on the animated TV series, Young Justice, but she’s also been combing the web, looking at art and videos of her favorite heroes and exploring their stories and backgrounds.

She and I have watched superhero shows since she was little. We’ve shared Batman: The Animated Series; Batman Beyond; Justice League; Justice League: Unlimited; Teen Titans and the hilarious Teen Titans: Go!.

What pleases me most is that we’ve shared these shows, watched them side-by-side, talked about them, and joked about them. It reminds me of the limited time I spent watching TV with my father. We shared Johnny Quest. I can still remember sitting with him as we watched the cartoon when it was on prime-time back in the 1960’s.

My wife initially objected to my daughter and I watching the superhero stuff. She didn’t like the violence, the skimpy outfits the women wore, and the sinister nature of most of the plot lines. My wife would always relent in the end though, won over by the fact that my daughter and I watched the shows together. She wasn’t left to sort all those images and issue out on her own. We talked about it – kicked it around like two sports fans chatting about their favorite teams.

It makes me happy my daughter recognizes a guy like Lex Luthor can be both, smart, rich and terribly evil. She understands sometimes its important to risk things to help others; that you don’t have to let tragedy cripple you (though maybe becoming a vigilante is an extreme reaction); that love is possible in the strangest of situations; and that people with differences – different powers, backgrounds, colors, creeds, even those from other planets or galaxies – can find common ground and work for a common cause.

I’m proud she’s a kid that knows what Kryptonite is; why Batman fights crime; or that The Flash isn’t only the fastest man on earth but also one of the kindest. I’m also happy she doesn’t know which Real Housewife is which and never liked Justin Bieber.

In recent years, my daughter has developed her own favorite heroes (She likes Dick Grayson, the original Robin over Batman), found story lines that spoke to her, and explored aspects of the superhero condition all on her own.

Recently, she’s taken to drawing her favorite heroes as if they were cats. She has found independent artists who have taken the characters she likes in different directions. She found an online comic that imagines that Batman’s many sidekicks are really the caped crusader’s children. It’s a bit like a Batman meets the Brady Bunch, only with much better jokes and scenarios that poke fun at the whole genre. You have to understand a genre to enjoy it being spoofed.

And she’s become and informed fan. When, I explained to my wife that Mercy, Lex Luthor’s bodyguard, had managed to turn her arm into a blaster-cannon because she was a robot, she pointed out my error. “Dad, she’s a cyborg,” Laynie corrected.

And it’s not just a one-way street. She influences me too.  She got me watching Gravity Falls.

When she stumbled across Gravity Falls on TV my daughter knew I’d love it, and she was right. The Warner Brothers cartoons could be enjoyed by both adults and kids; Disney’s hit Phineas and Ferb was cut from the same cloth and I enjoyed that as well.

Gravity Falls is unique.

It’s subversive and funny and quirky. It’s like a cartoon version of Twin Peaks without the murder but it has plenty of mystery. The main characters, twins Dipper and Mable, who are spending the summer with their shyster great-uncle, genuinely love each other, nice for a change. The humor is smart, razor-sharp, and rapid fire. There’s a marathon of the Season 1 running in the background as I type. Next week Season 2 starts!

This week, my girls are out of town, so talk concerning Dick Grayson or one of the many other Robins or which Batgirl was which, have been few and far between.

But when I spoke to my daughter on the phone over the weekend, she told me to catch up on episodes of Young Justice Season 2. I promised I would. The three of us, my wife, daughter and I, have been watching several episodes on VUDU every night and I’ve manged to fall behind somehow.

I told my daughter I found a documentary on superheros and the comic book industry on Netflix and had watched it in her absence. She was mad and vowed to watch it with her cousin at first opportunity. Barring that, we decided we would watch it together when she got home.

When I spoke to my wife, she told me she was enjoying our evenings watching Young Justice. She’s come a long way since we started dating. She watches some Star Trek, I’ve got her hooked on Supernatural and Arrow, and now she’s sharing Young Justice with me and our daughter.

Then I found out why I was behind. The two of them had been watching ahead right before they left, enjoying a companionable summer afternoon in the company of superheros.

“I was sitting there watching Young Justice, drinking a cup of hot tea and eating Fig Newtons,” Shan explained. “And I realized, I was becoming you.”

See, I still got it.

July 21, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on Weeds

Weeds

1002115_10201528196996615_641238796_nLast year there was an evil one walking in my garden. It would tear my plants apart, It’s long teeth consuming everything I tried to grow. Worse still, I would occasionally get glimpses of it and it would stare me straight in the eye as if challenging me to try to stop him.

“What’s up, doc?” I envisioned it saying as it casually decimated my lettuce.

During the growing season I believe the bunny ate more of my garden than I did, leaving me only the occasional tidbit

I wrestled with the problem of the rabbit. Living in the city, I couldn’t pull out my rifle and shoot it. Trapping it and releasing it would only make room for another rabbit to take over. It seemed my only recourse would be to fence my garden, but, alas, I nether had fence nor the time to put fencing up.

It reminded me of the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-43. But instead of weeds being planted among the grain it was a rabbit in the middle of my veggies.

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil…” explained Jesus.

And it was easy for me to envision this rabbit as a long-eared, bushy tailed demon. I was the good gardener who tried to bring good into the world and this bunny, well, he was simply a menace.

Jesus went on to say the evildoers would be cast into the fire but the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.

But picturing my devil rabbit eventually getting what it deserved gave me little comfort. I really yearned for something more immediate, like a wandering hunter with his trusty double-barrel to cross his path.

It’s easy to slip into that frame of mind, whether it be satan-bunny vs. gardener, Christian vs. non-Christian or so may other us vs. them situations.

But Matthew vexes me and here’s why: the bunny really isn’t evil.936502_10201469098319185_1659613420_n

Maybe more to the point is recognizing I’m not anywhere near as good or righteous as I should be either.

Life certainly would be simple if there was only good or only evil, but life is rarely like that. That’s not to say there’s a shortage of people who believe themselves to be the good farmer, denouncing this rabbit and that rabbit for all the wrongdoing they’ve done.

Just as righteous as I felt in my crusade against the rabbit, we’re really good at getting on our soap box and pointing fingers, insistent that we’re on the right side.

Matthew rightfully points out that only God can judge this situation, to separate the weeds from the grain, the rabbit from gardener.

I could leave the passage at that.

But I can’t.

I think most people are a mix of the weed and the grain. Life isn’t a black-and-white place filled with people punished for their sin and others who will be forgiven. Is there some sort of tipping point for our souls? Do we eventually  commit enough sins that we turn more evil than good? Is everything ok until we eat the big carrot?

God is generous in his mercy, but I can’t help but to wonder sometimes about the punishment that may await us for the weedy portion of ourselves. Like the weeds in the parable, we can’t remove that part from ourselves.

So this year I’ve put up the fence and try to keep the weeds from my garden. It’s been fruitful and I’m finally getting to eat what I’ve planted, but I keep the eye out for the rabbit. He’s still out there waiting for the breach in the fence.

And that’s what I’m left contemplating: the sin and goodness in us all; the gardener and the rabbit; the weed and the grain.

 

July 14, 2014
by John Magsam
Comments Off on Finding rest for my soul

Finding rest for my soul

photo(7)Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths; ask where the good way is; and walk in it. Travel its path and you will find rest for your souls.”

~ Jeremiah 6:16

I have to admit, my favorite 12th Apostle shirt is Ready to Rock, the one with the verse from The First Book of Samuel about David stepping out to fight Goliath printed on the back.

Putting it on reminds me to step out in faith when it’s often easier for me to remain passive. It makes me feel like a spiritual tough guy even though, truth be told, I’m more  often like  a 98-pound weakling.

But for our recent vacation to Florida, I left my signature shirt at home and brought another.

When I looked out over the ocean at Panama City Beach last week, I was wearing our Crossroads shirt. Granted, the verse on the back from the Book of Jeremiah is really an admonishment to the people of Israel, pointing out that they’ve put aside the tried and true for the quick and simple and left God in the dust.

Still, even though at its core it is a “shape up or ship out” sort of statement from God’s prophet, it has a solid, restful quality to it that suddenly spoke to me more deeply. I felt compelled to bring the shirt and wear it often while I was away on vacation

I really needed this trip.

Don’t get me wrong, my life is pretty much perfect. I have a loving, Godly wife, a smart and funny daughter,  and a good job. We’re all healthy and our extended families are all well.

Still, I needed to see the sea. It’d been years and years since our little family left its familiar haunts and went out in search of the ocean.

Over that time, I had let the thousands of little responsibilities of modern life stack up around me. I had allowed business, one of the true enemies of a relationship with God, to become an idol.

I was overwhelmed with thoughts of bills, and hobbies and cars and deadlines, chores around the house I’d left undone, the thousands of things I needed to do but hadn’t even started on, all of which were trivial, nearly meaningless in the big scheme of things. The thoughts represented problems, but they were all minor. It was worry for worry sake, an unproductive behavioral ear-worm of sorts that had me pretty well trapped and feeling weak.

I had let all the chatter in my mind muddle my prayer life. I had ceased listening and prayer had become a one-sided conversation with me – the guy with the least important stuff to say – the one who wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. I rambled. I talked at God, not with Him.

So I sought out the beach and I wore my shirt.

As I waded out into the water, felt the waves slide past my legs, I began to relax. The surf muttered to me and the chatter in my head began to still. It was replaced with familiar memories of time spent by the ocean. The sounds of voices, long forgotten, echoed in my head making me nostalgic and content.

God helped me dump all the clutter. It didn’t happen all at once but it happened.  My daughter’s laughter, my wife’s smile and the wailing song of the seagulls culled away all the junk that had built up over the years.

I’m fair-skinned and nearly every time I stepped out from under our beach umbrella I glanced at the back of the shirt, and pulled it on, trying to be mindful of its message.  It smelled of sea salt and sunshine. When I sat on our balcony, looking over the sand and water, I would put the shirt on the railing to dry and point the words back at me so I’d see them and remember.

It was a grand vacation.

I read science-fiction on the beach. I dozed in the sun. My daughter and I played in the waves. My wife and I held hands while we strolled, the surf kissing our feet. All three of us were plowed under by waves and came up laughing and sputtering. I dug my heels in the sand and watched the sunset as the undertow pulled at me.

I talked to God and more importantly, I listened. And my soul found rest.

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July 7, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on Shovelfuls of dirt

Shovelfuls of dirt

Odin_and_Fenris

Odin and Fenris (1909) by Dorothy Hardy

Every shovelful of dirt is laden with rocks when you’re burying a pet.

Crunch, followed by the scraping noise of my shovel edge on stone.

“Give me a break,” I whispered as the sweat dripped off my arms, flying off my upper lip with each heavy breath. I looked at the pile of rocks already dug up, sprinkled with a few handfuls of dirt here and there.

I didn’t help that our air conditioning was out. I was unable to even hop inside for a glass of tea and cool air.

Crunch. Another shovel of fist-sized rocks.

I sighed, thinking it’s a pretty fitting end for the cat. He was a scrapper from the hot afternoon I found him, just a tiny sack of bones under my car.

“He’ll probably never grow to his full size,” said the vet, holding the gaunt kitten delicately. “Usually when they’re this malnourished at this young of an age it stunts their growth; however, he seems well enough for now.”

And so he got his name: Fenris. It was a joke because the Fenris of mythology was a monstrous wolf and a son of Loki. As my grown cat was named Loki, I thought it would be a little tongue-in-cheek to name a diminutive cat after this enormous beast.

And small and scrawny as he was, he already defended his food bowl from Loki. As he grew, he became considerably larger than Loki and packed a mean pop when he thwacked another animal on the head or snout.

This time it’s not a crunch. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say, staring in disbelief at the cable line I’ve come close to severing with the tip of my shovel.

I’ve never been a cat person, but in my college days I kept cat owner hours. Often I worked two – sometimes three – jobs while carrying a full-time class load. Though I would have preferred a dog, it would have been neglectful.

Fenris and I would grow into a love/hate relationship for nearly 2 decades. Whether it was the rough petting he preferred over gentle pets or chasing him across the house until he was under the bed hissing at me, refusing to let go of the steak he snatched from my plate when I let my guard down for a moment, his life wasn’t that of the stereotypical aloof cat.

Crunch. My sweaty hands are slick on the shovel handle.

Even his high-pitched, soft meow seemed to be at odds with this blocky body and take-no-prisoners disposition. He would bend the will of our dogs and use them as a bed, ignoring their disgruntled growls of protest.

“Screw this,” I said. I went to get my pick from the garage, hoping it would have more success with the rocky ground.

In mythology there are many great and awe-inspiring Fenris is foretold to accomplish, the killing of Odin among them, but in reality he went out like most other creatures, subdued, weak, possibly unaware of what’s happening.

I don’t occupy my thoughts about whether pets are in Heaven. It’s difficult enough for me to decide who I think is in Heaven and whether I believe anyone is going there. The Bible makes far more references to a Heaven-like state on Earth than any talk of people going to Heaven when they die.

Crack. The point of the pick sparks as it scratches along the rocky sides of the hole.

I believe people neither go to Heaven nor to Hell when they die, so to picture my ornery cat frolicking in Heaven, perhaps stealing the steak from some saint’s plate, is pointless. I get a lot of odd looks when this comes up in conversation, but N.T. Wright does a better job of explaining it than I could hope to articulate in his book “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.”

“Here you go daddy,” says my daughter bringing me a glass of iced tea.

“Thank you honey,” I say.

I begin wondering how deep I really need to dig before it’s deep enough. The air is humid and every rock withers my motivation.

I see death for what it is: an unstoppable force of nature. We can no more resist the waves on the ocean or the house-shaking thunder of a storm. But to contemplate death isn’t merely a philosophical stance or idle pondering. I feel giving it thought grows our compassion, heightens our waking moments and gives us time to pause among our jam-packed lives.

My daughter’s seen a few of our pets go over the years. She asks the kinds of questions all kids do. Part of me feels guilty about not making her feel warm and fuzzy with rainbow bridge talk, but I prefer she come to her own conclusions.

“Do you think dogs are in Heaven?” I say.

“Well, God made everything, so why wouldn’t he take it back when they die?”

That’s my girl, I think. Leave it to the logic of a child to cut through the clutter.

I hope she’s going to live her life as a scrapper, like Fenris. Not wiling to yield, not willing to let inevitability keep her from taking great strides forward.

After all, no matter what energy we give to the afterlife, I can’t find a way that makes it more relevant than being in the present.

Fenris is little more than a sack of bones as I lay him in the hole, curling his body in the position he would take on cold nights.

Covering him is easy but I know he’ll continue to agitate me. Making me reconsider my stance on pets, heaven and steak robbery.

June 30, 2014
by John Magsam
Comments Off on Dot, disaster and death: another bird gone

Dot, disaster and death: another bird gone

Chicken collage

I know, I know, you’re all sick of chicken stories but I just have to write this. It seems only fair.

I went out to the chicken coop on Friday morning, as bright and beautiful a day we’ve had in a bright and beautiful summer and found Dot, our boss chicken, our little black bombshell, dead. It was a freak accident. I like to think she didn’t suffer. But, as you can imagine, after our other recent chicken death, I was pretty sad.

We Arkansas Magsams are animal people. We’re not folks who think our pets are our children. We have a child. There is a titanic difference.

Still, my wife, my daughter and I love our animals and feel a certain obligation to them. We’re not folks who get a dog and just keep it out in the yard, untrained and uncared for. Our standard poodle Bijoux is as loved as a pooch can be. My wife and daughter volunteer with the animal shelter dealing with homeless cats, now we have two black felines – Indy and Asia. We have tanks full of fish, have had them since Laynie was small, many of the fish were named and were buried in a fish graveyard when their times came. And we had chickens, three chickens. Now, in less than two weeks, we have one.

I broke the news about Dot to my wife with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer being swung into a China cabinet, because, in retrospect, I was a little stunned. I had never expected this sort of thing.

We let our birds loose in our fenced backyard for most of the day. In the back of my mind I was prepared to lose one to a hawk (even though we live in the city, we’ve had hawks perched on the back fence with the girls raising Cain from the relative safety of our bushy bushes) or a stray dog that dug under the fence or even a gate that was accidentally unlocked and blown open.  Dot’s death by oddball circumstance really sucker-punched me.

I got a good heavy shoebox that my Merrell hikers came in and placed her gently inside, got my pick and shovel from the garage and buried her in the side yard. It’s  a good, green shady spot, on the other side of the big tree from our fish graveyard. Once buried, I covered her with solid stones and marked the spot with a little lantern that has a Japanese feel to it.

I said a few words over her while my wife stood by and sniffed a bit, her eyes still a bit puffy from earlier sobbing. Our daughter was still asleep. In the summer she keeps college student hours. We thought it would be foolish to wake her.

I had warned my boss I would be late due to a chicken death. She was kind, as usual. I showered, drank a quick cup of tea, and like a coward slunk off to work leaving my wife the task of breaking the second chicken death to my daughter.

As I drove in, I wondered how my daughter would take the news. She had a love-hate relationship with Dot. Though Dot was the smallest of our flock, a group my wife liked to call The Three Amigos, Dot asserted herself as top bird early on. Dot was feisty and very brave. She was the chief of our little tribe.

In my favorite movie, The Duelists, Harvey Keitel plays a French Hussar named Feraud  during the Napoleonic Wars. One of his contemporaries says of Feraud, “Now there was a man who would ride straight at anything.” That was Dot.

But she could be mean in unpredictable ways, too – much like Keitel’s Feraud.

She seemed to know my daughter was  bit afraid of her and would peck her viciously when she got the chance. The girl took to carrying a broom when she went in the backyard to fend Dot off.

When Shawna, our gentle chicken was sick, Dot seemed to sense her weakness and would try to attack Shawna even with a full-grown human standing guard over her. One of her attacks was so determined I punted Dot across the yard and had to follow that up with intense chasing and a thrown flip-flop to get her to break off the assault.

My daughter took the news about Dot well. She was sad but nothing like when Shawnna, her sweet chicken, the one she sang to, had died. Shan and I have taken it a bit harder.

We know sometimes you have to have a Dot in the group even if it means you carry a broom now and again.

And, now, with Dot gone, Tessa, our big, beautiful Rhode Island Red is alone. The one who walked and sat next to Shawnna when she was sick and who let out the loudest and most righteous bocks when there was trouble in the yard, like a hawk or a closed door to the run, seems very lonely. And if a chicken can feel such things, confused about where her friends are.

The girl, though she had her reasons to believe that Dot might not have made the cut, is certain Dot and Shawna are together now in the after-life.

“I think Shawna is with Dot now, showing her around Heaven, and teaching her where all the best spots to find bugs are,” she said thoughtfully on Friday evening. “And, I bet, in a bit, Dot is going to peck God.”

She might be right, Lord. Keep an eye out, Dot can be fast. If all else fails, a hurled flip-flop seems to work. Tell Dot we miss her. She was a good bird.

If you want to read a heroic tale featuring Dot, click here. It’s one of my favorites. Hope you enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on A leap of faith

A leap of faith

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” – Blaise Pascal

So there I was, the leg of my jeans flapping crazily in the wind around my shoe, perched on a narrow step outside the airplane. The roar of the engine and the rush of air making anything but shouts into my ear intelligible. Below me was nothing but a vast amount of air and far, far below the muted, hazy colors of the landscape, crisscrossed with roads.

At this point there was no going back. It was a moment of faith.

My body bowed forward. I was hypnotized by the ground, unable to discern what was what from this altitude. I waited. I felt a tingling of excitement in my chest, knowing that when the word was given I’d be tumbling away from the plane, plummeting at 300 miles per hour toward the ground below.

“I’d never jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” people told me, “Why would you do such a thing?”

It’s a valid question. Jumping out of a plane was never on my bucket list, but a close friend of mine went through a rough divorce and this was part of his healing process. Each month he vowed to do at least one thing to improve himself or get himself outside his comfort zone. So when he asked, how could I turn him down? I can almost hear a chorus of voices saying “easily.”

But some things aren’t so easy to turn away from. It’s easy to say, “Yes, this is the right thing to do,” but frequently harder to actually do the right thing. For me there was no hesitation. I was all in for anything that could help my friend.

Then there I was, months later, in a harness being ratcheted tight enough to force me to walk bow-legged. My daughter was on the sidelines. She knew jumping out of a plane could lead to a very flat daddy and was a little nervous, occasionally asking the “what if” questions about chutes not opening, planes running out of gas and birds attacking like some Hitchcock scene.

I wasn’t nervous at all. To my minds eye I envisioned something akin to sailing like a kite, only windier. Watching others come down before me seemed to bolster this naive view of a gentle glide back down to earth. If only I’d know how wrong my perception was.

I had no reservations when the small, yellow plane was ready for us to board. My friend and his diving guide sardined their way into the back. Tall as I am, it was decided I would jump first. It meant I was seated facing the tail of the plane, my back pressed against the instrument panel.

We took off. I’d been in smaller planes; I’d been in planes that had to have their doors duct taped shut going over the ocean; I’d been in big jets for trans-oceanic flights; but with each creeping moment I never felt so uncomfortable as I did now. My legs were cramped and conversation was limited to shouting over the drone of the engine. I’d occasionally have to bob my head so the pilot could adjust the controls. It seemed like the 20-minute ascent would never end.

Finally, the pilot gave a thumbs up and my guide and I locked hands so he could pull me forward but I was stuck. It was very hard to hear, but I could have sworn he said “Lean back, your harness is pulling on the fuel dump handle.” And that was when I first felt nervous.

Disentangled, I had the dubious task of rolling onto my knees, which seemed about as probable as putting on a shoe three sizes too small. So there I crouched, waiting for the door to open. I was finally being able to see out the plane window at the ground far below. I put my goggles on. Yet still I waited for the door to open, feeling confident my legs were going to fall asleep.

I was sweating, partly from the temperature in the small cabin, partly from the strain of the confined quarters, partly because I felt like my legs really would fall asleep and they’d have to do some emergency tossing me out the plane (a routine I began playing out in my mind that involved my numb body kicked out of the plane by everyone else trapped inside).

Ultimately the door opened. For a brief second I couldn’t get my leg through the opening. “Oh, here it goes,” I thought, but then jerked my knee over the threshold and stepped outside onto the narrow step.

The wind felt wonderful on my sweaty forehead. Much to my surprise, I was happy to be outside, free of the yellow prison and its knobs and gauges that had dug into my back. And there I stood, watching the patchwork of earth far below me, waiting for the word to be given.

And then it was.

And the next few seconds isn’t really a memory. I don’t remember actually separating from the plane. I don’t remember if we turned over during our exit or if we remained flat. Mostly I remember every fiber of my being saying “What the heck are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” It’s as though some animal instinct quickly pushed my brain aside, trying to figure out if there was some way to claw my way back inside the plane and avoid this misstep my rational side had doomed us to.

But then I was back, feeling the air rush over my arms, through my fingers. I was aware of my guide making sure my body was in the proper position. I panned my head to the horizon, looking as far as I could all around me.

And we fell, and we fell.

And we fell more.

And I began to wonder when the chute was supposed to open.

And still we fell. And that nervousness began to creep back.

“Would he try to tell me,” I thought, “if we were really falling to our death or would he stay silent to keep me as calm as possible until I realized what must be going on?”

And we fell further.10173581_10203633945479011_3057783369050387004_n

But then there was the mighty drag slowing us down rapidly. The air around us went from a roar to a breeze and I removed my goggles. I could hear the panicked part of my brain start to say “Well, heck, this is kind of fun.” And, indeed, it was.

Moments later my guide handed me the ropes and I controlled us both as we turned and spun around with the force of a carnival ride. Later, when I reflected on the experience, it was the most similar to an exhilarating roller coaster ride. The buildup as the cars clack and ratchet their way up the first, massive hill and then the impossible twisting and turning drop at breakneck speed.10268565_10203633945079001_374479918635732595_n

After sliding on my butt to a safe but grass-stained landing I turned to see my friend was also safely landing. Minutes later my daughter was gleefully racing across the tarmac to jump into my arms.

Some of my friends still look at the experience like it’s the equivalent playing chicken with a train – as though it’s just a matter of when it’ll kill you. But in the months that have passed I’ve found myself considering the nature of faith and this experience was no more a blind leap than most of our encounters with faith. Uncertainty, the possibility of being wrong and misguided confidence can all steer things astray.

I suppose in the end it comes down to what you believe and whether it limits what you do or broadens your life. Personally, I think I found my answer when my daughter said “How old do I have to be before I can skydive?”