Friday, April 25, 2014

Earth Day / "Black Dirt"

Earth Day, April 22, was so close to Easter this year that we weren't able to properly acknowledge it in church. So on Saturday, May 3, we're going to have "Earth Day Morning Prayer," incorporating some of the resources on offer from Earth Ministry. Then we'll proceed outside (weather permitting) to plant the bulbs used to adorn our altars for Easter.

This year's Earth Day got me thinking back again, one of my favorite pastimes.  To the left is an undated picture of the Edge Moor Power Plant, located near Wilmington, Delaware, right on the Delaware River. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s about a mile or so from this bad boy, back in the days when it was coal-fired (in the interest of truth, I should tell you that the parent company announced in 2010 that the plant was converting to natural gas). Practically next-door to it was the Edge Moor Plant, a DuPont facility that made pigment for white paint. That whole part of the riverbank was just industrial heaven, I guess; lots of people were employed there, but both plants spewed out toxins galore into the air and the water. In the 50s and early 60s, of course, nobody cared, even if they knew.

We knew something was in the air, but it never seemed like a big deal. On a mild day, if we opened the windows on the eastern side of the house, the outside windowsills were always covered with what my mother referred to as "black dirt," a coal-black, somewhat greasy, granular powder.  "Look at the black dirt today," she would remark. She blamed it on the pigment plant. I think it was the coal-fired power plant that was really to blame.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch page on the Edge Moor Power Plant, one of the toxins released into the local air we breathed was a soot-like fine particulate:

Fine particle pollution is formed from a combination of soot, acid droplets, and heavy metals formed from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot. Among those particles, the most dangerous are the smallest (smaller than 2.5 microns), which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs. Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease.
Gotta love that soot and acid, not to mention heavy metal.  It only hurts when I inhale. But, all kidding aside,
the same page attributes all kinds of woes to the air pollution produced (along with our electricity) by this single power plant. In fact, there's a handy chart:
Type of ImpactAnnual IncidenceValuation
Heart attacks54$6,000,000
Asthma attacks510$27,000
Hospital admissions25$580,000
Chronic bronchitis19$8,500,000
Asthma ER visits21$8,000

That's 31 deaths per year, if I read the chart correctly.  And that's some serious "black dirt."

Lots of kids I knew had asthma. A few of my friends' dads died early, of heart ailments. My own parents died of lung problems (both were smokers, of course, as were many people then).  But it does make me wonder ...

I want to live in a world with no more "black dirt," I hope that's still possible.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jesus without surfboard

This is not Jesus!
Holy Wednesday.  Many churches will hold Tenebrae services this evening, as it grows dark, to commemorate the encroaching shadow of Good Friday. In my own halting way, I am limping after Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross.

Jesus is the most real for me during Holy Week. I understand pain and loss. I have a notion of what betrayal feels like. Gethsemane might look familiar to me, were I there. Most people have suffered. Most of us have had our Gethsemane moments.Pain and loneliness are known to most of us. We have seen them written on each others' faces.

To the left, in contrast, is a photo of Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Jesus Christ, Superstar. My grandmother had on her dining room wall a painting of Jesus that greatly resembled Mr. Neeley, except that her Jesus's eyes were blue.  This is the image of Jesus I grew up with -- Blond, Gentle Jesus. Jesus who loved the little children. A Jesus who would look perfectly comfortable with either a flock of lambs or a surfboard. Or a bong (no offense to Mr. Neeley, but .... yes).

At some point I either "got over" or outgrew Blond, Gentle Jesus. Not that Jesus wasn't kind and often gentle. But he was so much more.

The Jesus I trudge behind during Holy Week is much different. the Middle-Eastern, only-too-human Jewish prophet, who, if typical of the first century, was probably about 5'1" tall and 115 pounds (I read that somewhere; part of the great fun of getting old is that you can never remember attributions correctly. Let me apologize for filching it). Jesus was more or less homeless, a vagrant. He may have had bad teeth; he may have been undernourished. Nearsighted, probably. Fond of wine and parties. Comfortable with people considered unsavory.

Human, in other words, a real first-century human being, but enlightened in a way that we can only dream about. Jesus understood that life under the heel of Rome was not what God intended for Israel, and who knew that the class distinctions drawn in his own society did not reflect the Kingdom of God. Who acted out, spending time with foreign women, prostitutes, sinners. Who raised hell (in so many ways), and got killed for his trouble.

I am walking in his dust. He moves ahead of me on the road, a dark silhouette in blinding sunlight.

This is my Jesus, the Holy Week Jesus. Jesus of the dirty feet, walking towards Jerusalem, on a mission he suspects will not end happily.

The Resurrected Christ of Easter morning is a mystery I grapple with, sometimes rather unsuccessfully. But Holy Week Jesus? I'm following him.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tree of hope

That's a magnolia tree there, to the left. Not one that I know personally, because we're a little far north here for magnolias. They're a real southern phenomenon -- think Steel Magnolias -- but one of my favorites.

My grandmother, who lived with us when I was little, planted a magnolia tree in the front yard. Why she would do this is anybody's guess. She wasn't from the south, but she did love flowering shrubs. And Granny could be a little ... stubborn.

So there was the poor magnolia, in the center of the front yard, on an east-facing slope in Delaware, about a mile from the Delaware river, exposed to the cold easterly winds blowing in from the river. In those days, April frosts and snow were nothing unusual.

I lived at home for my first twenty years, and I think I saw the magnolia bloom a whole  two or three times.

Most years, the buds would bravely appear and begin to swell in early spring, hoping the warn sunshine would last. Then, on a cold night, the buds would blast and fall -- unopened -- to the ground, like a flowering-shrub stillbirth. The frozen buds formed a carpet beneath the tree, the branches bare above.

"Hmmph!"  Gran would declare, looking out the dining-room window at the devastation. "Silly tree. Maybe next year." She never gave up on it, despite its unpromising performances.

There's a lesson in that, I guess, which I wish I had learned earlier in the child-rearing process. Granny never gave up on me either, even when I managed to disappoint her the most.She always trusted in next year's bloom.

And that magnolia, in years when it did bloom, was magnificent.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

God, the pattern-keeper

I'm thinking a lot about the past during these days of Lent ("That's a typical old-person statement!" my son would say). But it's true that the older we get. the more the past sometimes comes into focus: it's not just a muddy river of flowing time that has washed us up in the present. Memories begin to stand out in sharper relief. Eddies and whirlpools appear in the current. Rocks peek above the flow. Patterns emerge

Our bodies, of course, carry some of our patterns. One of the readings in my book of reflections for Lent, Lent Is Not Rocket Science, discusses genetic patterns. The writer notes that, although the many different types of cells comprising our bodies die and are replaced at varying rates, our most essential physical patterns, encoded in our DNA, remain pretty much the same, preserving our uniqueness. I am short and have gray eyes; these patterns will not change, though the cells in my skeleton and in my eyes will be renewed over time.

People also build their lives according to patterns of beliefs, behaviors, and predilections. My grandparents, for example, loved gardening. Pop-Pop raised absolutely killer tomatoes -- I can still see them, lining the chain-link fence on the sunny side of the backyard, waiting for me to gather them in.  At the top of the slope, he grew peaches, beans, and rhubarb. Granny's thing was flowers: we had lilac bushes in the upper yard, roses in a long bed in the lower yard, and banks of hydrangeas, always stunningly blue, outside the back door.  Peonies, ants and all, graced the sunny side of the house.

My mother, on the other hand, killed plants with a glance. But she could do all types of needlework at an expert level. She also played piano beautifully in her youth. Needlework and piano were part of her pattern.

Dad loved boats and the water. As a young boy, he spent every summer in his little rowboat on the Elk River near Charlestown, Maryland.  After serving in World War II, he was just a year too old for the Merchant Marine Academy, which had been a dream of his. As an older person, he often sat in a park overlooking the Delaware River, observing the freighters going downstream into the bay. He could identify a ship's country of registry with one glimpse of its maritime flag.

These were some of the patterns of my family, which made each person precious and unique, to me and to God. I believe these patterns are preserved somehow, as we pass into the next life. I believe we will recognize each other, though I can't imagine what that will look like.

I believe our patterns are safe with God.