Easter Sunrise Services
Much of this blog post had been originally published as an article in The Skinnie published in March 2018. This version has been slightly edited and altered.
Easter Sunday 1982, Old Salem, North Carolina
The wake-up call came at 4:30 AM Sunday morning. I am staying at a hotel right across from Old Salem in present-day Winston Salem. Washing the sleep out of my eyes, I hear the music playing from the street down below. It was been warm when I left home in eastern North Carolina, but a cold snap descended on Saturday. I dress as warmly as possible, pulling on multiple layers. I realize I don’t even have gloves with me.
By 5 AM, I am outside the hotel, walking with strangers, heading to Home Moravian Church. On most street corners, we pass brass quartets playing Easter music, calling people to come. By the time I reached the church, thousands had gathered, waiting in front of the steps of the sanctuary. A cold wind blows and the dark sky spits snow. In the distance, we hear the brass playing. We shuffle around trying to stay warm and waited. The anticipation of the crowd is high as we have all gathered to participate in the second oldest Easter sunrise service in North America. The honor for the oldest sunrise tradition belongs to the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who began holding such services in 1754.
It was still dark when a light comes on inside the church foyer. Then massive wooden doors fly open. The pastor steps out on to the porch. He raises his arms and shouts, “Christ is Risen!” We respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” The Pastor and his assistants step out of the church, and we follow them down Church Street to God’s Acre, the community’s cemetery. God’s Acre is many acres, large enough to hold the thousands who have gathered. We pack in and wait as the sky becomes lighter gray. A few stray flakes of snow still fall.
Then it starts. All those brass quartets unite, and they march in from behind us playing Easter hymns. As they move to the front, we stand and began to sing. The ministers pray and read scripture. The pastor offers a brief message about the hope of the resurrection. Somewhere behind the gray clouds, the sun rises. A new day begins. The benediction is pronounced and we head our separate ways.
Arriving back in the hotel, I stop by the restaurant for breakfast. The place is packed with those coming back from the service. The poor lone waitress is running around trying to serve everyone. Most of us just want hot coffee and are willing to wait to eat as we warm up. She apologizes and says the management had forgotten that it’s Easter Sunday and hadn’t scheduled anyone else to work the shift. Several of us help out, taking turns making and serving coffee as she takes and delivers our orders.
History of the Sunrise Service
The Moravians of Old Salem have been celebrating Easter Sunrise at God’s Acre since 1772, picking up on a practice that begin in Europe in 1732. In the town of Hernhut, which is now in the Czech Republic, the young men of the church gathered in the cemetery during the night and waited for dawn by singing hymns of the faith. The services are simple with hymns, prayers, scripture, and a brief message that is all done to the glory of God. The sunrise service is now an established tradition within the Moravian Church and one that has been adopted by many other Christian denominations.
Of course, those Moravian young men were not the first to be up at sunrise on Easter. That distinction goes to the women described in the gospels who headed out before sunrise to anoint Jesus body before the tomb was sealed. They were shocked to find the grave open and Jesus’ body missing. As the events of that day unfold, they learn of his resurrection, an event that gives hope to Christians to this day.
Easter Sunday, 1975, Wilmington, North Carolina
I first attended an Easter sunrise service as a high school student. It was held in a cemetery off Greenville Sound, east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Unlike the year I was at Old Salem, the skies were clear. And just as the sun broke over the horizon, its rays reflecting off the water and bring warmth to the marsh grass, several ducks took the skies, their calls and the flapping of their wings drowning out the voice of the preacher. Even they celebrated the new day. In the years before seminary, I would attend many such services at a variety of locations. The message was always the same. Christ has risen!
Easter Sunday 1989, Virginia City, Nevada
For obvious reasons, sunrise services seem to be more popular in the American South, but as a seminary student pastor, I brought the tradition to Virginia City, Nevada. There, we gathered on “Boot Hill” on a cold morning. The temperature was in the mid-20s and the wind was blowing hard over Sun Mountain. But we witnessed a glorious sunrise, the rays racing up Six Mile Canyon. Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and warm pastries back at the church.
Easter Sunday 1991, Ellicottville, New York
In my first call to a church in Ellicottville, New York, a community known for skiing, we partnered with Holiday Valley, the local ski resort, to host the service on a deck outside a clubhouse. It was even colder than at Virginia City, but we dressed appropriately, wearing ski bids and parkers. Nicky, a young woman volunteered to provide music on a keyboard. We started with a song and were going to close with the traditional hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” As we began to sing, Nicky missed note after note. I looked over to see what was wrong. The keyboard had frosted over between hymns and her fingers were sticking to the keys. Afterwards, with hot drinks and donuts inside the lodge, we had a laugh over the situation. The next year, she brought a blanket to lay over the keyboard.
Easter Sunday 2020, Skidaway Island, Georgia
When I accepted the called to the Presbyterian Church on Skidaway Island, I saw the perfect opportunity to hold an Easter Sunrise Service in a park next to the marina on the north end of the Island. Starting in 2015, we began holding services. The first year, we had maybe 50 in attendance. It was beautiful as the sun rose over the marsh and the Wilmington River.
In 2016, a heavy rainstorm was ensuing, so about 30 who came out made their way to the church’s fellowship hall where held the service. Afterwards, Thom, a member of the church volunteered to video tape a sunrise in which we could use inside just in case of rain. Over the next several years, we had beautiful weather and our number grew to nearly 200 worshippers.
Then, in 2020, everything shut down because of COVID. The park had been closed and churches were not meeting inside. We decided to to record a sunrise service that involved just a few of us, all maintaining safe distance. After a live stream Maundy Thursday Service (which only had a camera operator, my associate, the organist, a soloist, and myself), we set up a green screen in the sanctuary to record. While the organist played in the background, we all did our parts, stepping in front of the green screen to be recorded. This allowed Thom’s sunrise to play behind us and it appeared as if we were at the marina.
The most precious moment in the service came when Gene, the soloist, sang “Jesus Christ, is Risen Today.” On the tape, the sun rose as birds took to air. A seagull, on the tape, flew toward the camera then turned back and flew out over the water. On the recording, this bird appeared to fly right through Gene’s head. We laughed and laughed and decided not to cut it out. “That alone is worth the price of admission,” Gene said.
We uploaded the sunrise service to YouTube and set it to go live on Easter Sunday morning. That Easter, we all slept in.
Sunrise 2022, Bluemont Church
This year, there will be a sunrise service at Bluemont Presbyterian Church, located along the parkway at milepost #191. The service is outside so you may want to bring a lawn chair and a blanket. The service will begin at 6:45 AM. Afterwards, coffee and a light breakfast will be hosted in the fellowship hall. We hope you will join us.
Other Holy Week Services along the Blue Ridge Parkway
April 14 Maundy Thursday communion
Mayberry Church at 6 PM
April 15 Good Friday Service
Bluemont Church at noon
April 17 Worship at Mayberry at 9 AM
Worship at Bluemont at 10:30 AM
HopeWords Writers’ Conference
Bluefield, West Virginia
I traveled to Bluefield last Friday to attend the HopeWords Writers’ Conference. I had never been to Bluefield, although I often taken the West Virginia turnpike, I-77, through West Virginia. The turnpike bypasses Bluefield by about ten miles to the north. Known for coal and trains, the Norfolk Southern yard takes up much of the flat land along the valley. The railroad’s shops to maintain engines and cars are on the west side of the tracks and in the middle of the yard, a large coal tipple rises like a village steeple in an English town. There are still a few long coal trains running through the city, but I’m sure not as many as in previous decades with the decline of coal.
The commercial district of Bluefield rises to the east of the tracks, rising up the hill with each road that parallels the tracks gaining more elevation. Like many cities, the downtown suffered greatly over the last few decades. Decay can be seen everywhere. Old houses and abandon buildings became havens for illicit drug use. Many elegant homes that once overlooked the city fell into ruin. Their iron fences and gates rusted and the concrete steps leading up from the street below broken. Thankfully, in recent years there has been an attempt to bring back the downtown. Buildings and homes have been renovated. There are trendy restaurants and funky museums. The old West Virginia hotel is being converted to apartments. Amid this revival is the Granada Theater. Built in 1928, the theater stood abandoned for years. But after a community effort, it has been restored to its previous grandeur and reopened this year. What better place for a writer’s conference focusing on hope?
Bluefield may not be the most likely place for a writer’s conference, but several years ago, Travis Lowe, a city resident, had an idea. Travis, at the time a local pastor, admits he had never been to a writer’s conference but felt that Bluefield was an ideal place for a conference that talked about hope. From this dream, HopeWords was born. This is the fourth conference held, and the first I’ve attended. Kicking off the conference was an hour of wonderful jazz music on Friday evening.
Drawing me to the conference was the Japanese/American artist and author Makoto Fujimura. Last year, I read his book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making and reviewed it in my blog in early in January. He gave a masterful presentation on Friday evening. As he started, he joked how he drove 8 hours from his home Princeton, NJ only to find himself back in Princeton (West Virginia).
Fujimura spoke of art rising out of the brokenness of our lives and world. While we prefer “good news,” he noted that we live in a world that is filled with bad news—hate and fear. But our art and writing can bring healing. He drew on the lives of Herman Melville, Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickerson along with the Japanese art known as Kintsugi, to show how beauty can come out of tragedy. Then he moved to the story of Jesus’ resurrection, suggesting that God is the real Kintsugi Master. He closed with the benediction that is found at the end of his book, Art and Faith, a part of which I’ve copied below:
May we steward well that the Creator King has given us, and accept God’s invitation to sanctify our imagination and creativity, even as we labor hard on this side of eternity.
On Saturday morning, Fujimara was joined by his wife, an attorney in New York. The two of them spoke of their hopeful work within the brothels of India, teaching art to the children and trying to help them find a way out of such improvised lifestyle. During his morning talk, Fujimura mentioned how his conversion to Christianity came through reading William Blake’s epic poem, “Jerusalem.” I found that interesting!
The first speaker on Saturday morning was Hannah Anderson, who lives with her family in Roanoke, Virginia. Hannah is the author of four books, and I have a copy of Humble Roots on order as I did not get to the table to purchase this book before they were sold out. Having grown up in a part of Pennsylvania abandoned by industry, she said she feels right at home in Bluefield.
Anderson spoke of bringing the natural world into our writing, not as a prop or a setting, but as a part of the story. Nature and creation, she said, is telling a story. Nature provides the best example of “showing and not telling.” Nature reveals. Drawing on Psalm 19 and the writing of Annie Dillard, she linked nature back to God in both its glory and terror. “Nature is hopeful and darker than we image,” she said. She concluded with three points about nature in writing:
- Show, don’t tell. Get out of the way.
- Partner with nature. Remember that nature is a metaphor only from our perspective.
- Trust the story nature tells. Jesus used nature in parables not only because he lived in an agrarian world but because such stories are true.
Our next speaker, Winn Collier, recently published the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson and directs the Peterson Center at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I received Peterson’s biography as a Christmas present but have not yet read it. I told him this when he signed my book. He laughed and handing the book back said that now I’ll have to read it.
Soft spoken but profound, Collier began discussing the poetry of Genesis 1 and moving to John 1. Collier commended poetry for helping us understand ourselves, God, and the world I which we live. But we must not forget that God spoke first (although he also quoted Rabbi Abraham Hessel, “God begins where words end”). God, at creation, choose to use words. And God always calls first. This also ties into the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, where holiness and humanity go together. While we don’t do “sacred writing,” our writing becomes sacred when it responds to a God who calls us first.
Calling for bold and fresh words, Collier drew on the work of two authors. The late Jim Harrison (whom I have read and wrote the novella which became the movie “Legends of the Fall”) and the late Brian Doyle (whom I haven’t read, but now have his last book, One Long River of Songs, on my TBR list).
One Thin Dime Museum and Gary Bowlings House of Art
One of the presenters had cancelled, with allowed us to have a longer period for lunch. While there were restaurants nearby, the conference also provided bag lunches. I decided to go the bag lunch option and then use the rest of the time to explore a local history museum (One Thin Dime Museum) and an artist colony (Gary Bowlings House of Art) in the old school three blocks away from the theater. The art was modern, funky, gothic and made more delightful by Gary Bowling welcoming everyone who stopped in to visit.
S. D. Smith
After the lunch break, the conference resumed with Travis Lowe humorously interviewing S. D. Smith. Smith is a West Virginia author from Beckley, who writes fantasy for a young audience. While I haven’t read him, it appears his books are filled with characters like rabbits with swords. Much of the conversation skirted around having children read fairytales. Smith defends the darkness in such stories. After all, they know the world is evil. But the fairytale doesn’t just scare the child with the dragon, but gives them hope in the likes of St. George who slays the dragon. “Write with evil and enemies,” he said, but “also where there is hope.”
Lewis Brogdon a Bluefield native, spoke on “Writing After a Struggle with God.” Brogdon is African American and an Old Testament scholar. He drew heavily on the writings of Walter Brueggmann, another Old Testament scholar who labelled the term “prophetic imagination” to describe the role of the Biblical prophets who “conjured and proposed different futures.” Recalling the works of Habakkuk and Jonah, along with the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, he reminded us that our job as writers is not to look away from needs. It was the Samaritan, not the priest or Levite, who saw a need and did something about it.
“The pandemic exposed deep problems we have in the world that we have tried to cover up,” Brogdon said. “God is giving us an opportunity to do better.” He went on to insist that when we fail to show compassion, we lose our humanity. “The pandemic displays our “callous disregard for human life in America,” he said. Brogdon encouraged us to listen to the experiences of others, especially those living poverty. Listening to such stories will help us deepen our faith, for God works in such tensions in society.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was the example Brogdon used of how writing can help us see. While the answers to the problems are not always easy, “the gospel does not call us to do nothing. We can’t fix the world, but we can make it a better place.” Brodgon then moved to the spiritual of Black preaching, which has generally been described as “pastoral, priestly, and prophetic.” He proposed a new model that moves from moral imagination to moral courage to moral intelligence. Then he asked, “what would it mean to write and inspire, to nurture and deepen imagination, courage, and intelligence in our readers?”
As he drew his remarks to a close, Brogdon offered several writing prompts for our journals (he also humorously suggested that anyone who doesn’t keep a journal should just get up and leave, as they don’t belong in a writer’s conference). First is a question to he asked in a recent piece he wrote on in an article titled, “America on the Blink: Musings on Race, Politics, and Religion:” “Is America endangered in losing its soul.”
Brogdon other questions were more general:
- What are you struggling with personally (especially that which intersects with a broken world)?
- What keeps you up at night, or wakes you up?
- What bothers you to the point that you can’t look away?
- What issues are you passionate about?
- Where have you experienced pain?
- What understanding have we gained about the pain in others which can help us tell the truth about racist and sexist things we once laughed about. In the last, he confessed personally about the jokes on homosexuality that used to be regularly laughed over within African American congregation.
Our last speaker was Malcom Guite, a British theologian, Anglican priest, and a poet.
Guite began his talk with a humorous “minor exorcism,” he which he dispelled any demons who challenge us not to write or read poetry. Then, he moved into his presentation on poetry which he centered around a poem titled “The Rain Stick,” by the late Irish poet (and his friend) Seamus Heaney. While using pieces of this poem to make his points, Guite used a real a rain stick (a dead piece of cactus with seeds inside that when tipped over makes the sound of rain) to illustrate what he was saying. Woven into this talk was a discussion about his study of chemistry and his challenge to the scientific demand that one only writes in the 3rd person.
Guite drew on Jesus’ saying about its easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get to heaven. Dismissing ideas to this saying such as there was a “needle gate into the city, he suggested that the poetic answer is the paradox. He linked Jesus’ “eye of a needle” with Heaney’s use of the term “ear of a raindrop.” In these small things, God can be encountered and experienced.
My favorite quote from Guite: “Sometimes we receive packages that says on the outside, “Contents may have settled in shipping. Sometimes I think our churches need to have these warnings on our outside walls.” Then he turned over the rain stick in his hand, and we once again heard the sound!
Next year’s HopeWords Writers’ Conference is scheduled for March 24-25, 2023. Won’t you join me? This year, the conference price was only $95, plus the price of a hotel room (I stayed in Princeton, West Virginia, where there are more hotels along I-77). Registration for 2023 opened today (April 9). Check it out here!
From Bangkok to Siem Reap
A butt-naked boy ran through the crowd. This is the first thing I see as I step into the country, immediately after having my passport stamped. And he wasn’t just a boy, certainly no toddler. He was at least five feet tall and probably 11 or 12 years old. I do not know what was up with him. Thankfully I never saw another kid his age running around in his birthday suit, but he served as a shocking reminder (along with having to learn a new currency and the words for rice and noodles) that I was in another country. Cambodia!
I’d wanted to see Cambodia since a teenager. As a ham radio operator, I remember reading an article in QST (or maybe it was CQ, both amateur radio magazines in the early 1970s) of a trip made to American ham operator to Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge, he met with a few of the operators in the country. The article had photos of the country’s temples. It all looked exotic. A few years later, as the war in Southeast Asia intensified and then came to a horrific conclusion in Cambodia, I wondered what happened to the few amateur radio operators in the country. I’d also heard of some of the temples being destroyed. Now is my chance to find the answer to at least one of my questions.
I was catching the train to the border at Bangkok’s Makkasan Station at 6:20 AM. The train starts at the downtown station at 5:50 AM, but since my hotel was closer to Makkasan, I decided sleep an extra half-hour. But for a while this morning, I wondered if this had been a good idea. I’d asked for a 4:30 AM wake-up call (it came at 5:15, as I was leaving my room).
Leaving the hotel, I venture out into the darkness and (as the Skyway isn’t running yet) meet the cabthe hotel had called. The driver spoke little English. I showed him where I wanted to go. He agreed and suggested what I assumed was a fair price. I tossed by backpacks into the backseat and climbed in.
Two blocks later, something strange happened. A policeman stood in the middle of the road with a blue lighted pointer, indicating for the cab to pull over to the curb. Two other policemen with flashlights shining came over and asked the driver questions as they shined lights into the back of the cab and onto my face and bags. They opened the back door. Pointing at me, he asked in rough English, “where?” Assuming this was where I was heading, I said Cambodia. He looked at me for a moment then, gesturing as if he’s smoking, appeared to ask for cigarettes. I shook my head and said ‘I do not smoke. “Okay,” he said, and waved us on. I had the feeling these Thai policemen wanted to shake me down for a smoke!
My next hurdle was getting to the right station. It turns out there are two Makkasan stations, one for the railroad and one a high-speed rail line only runs to the airport. It was this station that the cab driver insisted must be mine. Having been to the train station to purchase my ticket, I knew it was not the right place. Finally, a Thai man who heard me talking came over and asked in English where I was going. He then gave directions to the cab driver. There were only two dozen or so passengers at Makkasan station, so the cab drivers confusion was justified.
I purchased my ticket for the border a few days earlier. It cost 48 bahts or about $ 1.50. The only option is a non-air-conditioned third-class train for the five-hour trip. At least, early in the morning, the air was damp but cool.
On the station platform, I spot several old steam engines in a yard across the tracks. I walk over to check them out and to see if I could catch photographs. A guard stops me, saying “No photos.” I have no idea why, but it isn’t bright enough yet to get a good photo. On the train, I snap a few photos of the old engines, but with the low light, the photos don’t turn out well. After walking around a bit with my pack, I sat down on the platform to wait for the train. It was still 15 minutes away.
While waiting, a Thai woman came up and began to talk to me. Her name is Niranya. She’s a travel agent whose customers are primarily Indian, so she speaks to them in English. She was heading back to her family home near the Cambodian border where she had to attend to some business. We talked until the train arrived, then sat by each other on the train. She was getting off the stop before me. Traveling with her is enlightening. Having grown up on a farm, she shares about the various crops grown along with showing where fields are being converted from rice and other food crops to fast growing trees used for pulp. These trees harmed the land because they used so much water. Much of the land in eastern Thailand is dependent on the rainy season for water as there is not enough for irrigation. Such trees, she complain, steals water which could be used to grow rice. But the high demand tempts farmers to plant such trees that require less work than keeping up rice paddies. Another crop that is in demand is tapioca, which also tends to rob the soil of nutrients.
I’m amazed at the number of rail lines running into Bangkok from the east. At places, as many as eight set of tracks parallel each other as they run into the city. As it was early morning, the trains coming in were all packed with passengers.
Our train, heading the opposite direction, slowly filled. This was a slow train and we stopped at every station, where an agent would step out dressed like a general or war hero, to meet us. We also stopped at other places requested by passengers. At one of these “nowhere places,” a woman stepped off the train and stepped into the jungle, disappearing as she headed to her home as the train moved on. After a while, we were well into the country. After passing Chachoengsao Junction and Khlong Sipkao Junction, where lines split off heading north and south, we were on a single-track line running through a flat countryside, occasionally pulling over to sidings to wait for east bound trains to pass.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the car became warm, and everyone began to sleep. There was little movement, only the occasional seller passing by with drinks and snacks. At one stop, a bunch of women boarded at one town, coming from the market. They’d taken an earlier train into town and were heading back with baskets of produce and stables like cooking oil. The train was so crowded that there weren’t enough places for people to sit. I offered my seat to a couple of the older women, thinking that standing a bit wouldn’t do me any harm. They refused, but my act of kindness caught the attention of one of the women, who looked to be in her 30s. She asked Niranya, whom she’d seen talking to me, if she was my wife. Of course, I didn’t know what had been said. Niranya laughed, and told her no, that we’d just met that morning while waiting on the train. The woman then asked Niranya if I was available! She said she told her that I was married. This led into a conversation about how Thai women seek out American and Western husbands as a way of escaping the hard life, especially smaller villages. I had certainly seen many Western men with Thai women, generally women that were half their age.
The women coming from the market only rode for about 30 minutes before getting off at a small village. Niranya got off Watthana Nakhon. By then, the train had mostly cleared except for those of us heading to the border. The train was mainly filled with tourist and Cambodians returning home, such as a man who sat across from us and had drank at least a six-pack of beer during the trip that ended around noon! He was coming back home after having surgery done on his nose in Bangkok. The train pulled into Aranyaprathet, at the end of the line, a little after noon, about 30 minutes late. As there are at most places, there were a host of tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take us to the border. The prices quoted was what I was expecting and soon I was whisked away toward the border, feeling like I was in a chariot race with each driver vying to get their passenger there first. The drivers also tried to encourage us to book rooms through them in Siem Reap (they all seemed to have a cousin or brother there), but I’d already had my reservations made.
The border crossing was hassle free (except for seeing more than I’d wanted to see). I had lunch (rice and ginger chicken) and then got on the bus for Siem Reap. The Cambodian countryside appears as flat as a pancake. The occasional hill seems out of place. These are called Phnom (as in Phnom Penh), which is named for the hill upon which it sits. I am surprised by the large sizes of the fields. The road is now modern (a few years ago, I heard this was a rode that would jar the fillings out of one’s teeth) and we moved along in air-conditioned comfort. We stopped once, for a bathroom break and to let the engine cool (while waiting the driver sprayed water on the overheated engine!). The bus needed more fuel and the driver pulled up to a garage looking place and they brought out two 5-gallon jerry cans and dumped them into the fuel tank. From the bus station was on the edge of Siem Reap and I hired a driver to take me to the Golden Banana, where I had reservations for three nights. After seeing the Cambodian countryside, the modern style of Siem Reap appears out of place. In the evening, I head into town and have red curry for dinner. Then, it’s off to bed. I plan to get up early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Other train adventures:
“The International (Butterworth, Malaysia to Bangkok)
The Jungle Train (Singapore to Kota Bharu, Malaysia)
Coming home on the Southwest Chief
I’ve been away (a mostly photo essay)
Two days after Christmas, I headed to Southeastern North Carolina. The 29th was my father’s 85th birthday, and my sister had planned a party that I didn’t want to miss.
The weather for the first five days were incredible. On New Year’s Eve, my dad and I paddled from Trail’s End to the south end of Masonboro Island. My brother brought everyone else along in his boat, so that we might have lunch on the island. My daughter was introducing Apple, her new dog to the ocean (I even gave Apple a ride in the kayak).
Apple trying out the water (It’s hard to believe that it was warm enough to be in the water on New Year’s Eve!)
After an early night on New Year’s Eve, Donna and I headed out to the beach for a New Year’s Sunrise before she and Caroline headed back to the mountains (I was going to stay through January 5). The idea was to watch the first sunrise of the new year, but a fog bank offshore disappointed those waiting for the sunrise along the beach.
On New Year’s Day, the wind picked up, so Dad and I headed inland and did a black water paddle on Rice’s Creek. We paddled upstream several miles, to where the creek becomes just wider than a kayak. I left my sea kayak at home and used a boat of a friend of my dad (that was 12 feet long instead of 18 feet, making it easier to navigate).
A poem written on Rice’s Creek (I’m not sure who’s the one with dark eyes)
The whole world appears in the reflection of the dark waters:
Cypress, tupelo, clumps of mistletoe, puffy clouds and blue sky.
Yet, I cannot see the long just underneath the water,
just as your dark eyes reflect the world while hiding much.
I had planned to either go to Cape Lookout or Masonboro Island to camp for a night or two, but the weather turned rough. We had winds approaching fifty miles an hour on Monday, so we stayed home and I read. On Tuesday, my brother and I went down to scout out an area on the Waccamaw River that he wanted to see about paddling. The weather had turned cold and was freezing, but we dressed warm and covered about 13 miles of the river, starting at Conway, South Carolina to Peachtree Landing. When I lived in Whiteville, in the early 1980s, I had paddled on the Waccamaw several times, between Lake Waccamaw and Pireway. I’d never been on the river in South Carolina.
I came back to the mountains on Wednesday, between two winter storms (one was on Monday and the second on Thursday).
Trains and Karl Barth
I spent last week at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia with a group organized by the Foundation for Reformed Theology. We gather once a year to discuss agreed upon reading of serious theology. We had last meet in early March 2021 in Austin, Texas. That was the last time I’ve been on a plane. When we departed from home that year, the airport appeared to be dying. We knew our world was in a midst of change. It was good to be back together, even though the world hasn’t completely returned to normal.
This year, our major reading was from Karl Barth’s Christology section in his massive work, Church Dogmatics. In seminary, almost 35 years ago, we had to read some selections of Barth’s writings. Since then, I have only read his revised commentary on Romans, where Barth moved away from 19th liberal theology in the years after the First World War. This summer, in addition to reading the Dogmatics, I also read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Barth which I reviewed a few months ago.
At best, I have a love/hate relationship with Barth. A brilliant man, it feels as if he wrote down every word that came into his brain. But amidst all the thoughts and ideas, there are often real jewels of ideas. I imagine reading Barth is a bit like mining diamonds. This time around, I came to appreciate Barth’s footnotes, where he defends his ideas with brilliant exegesis of scripture.
Traditionally, theologians develop their Christology after outlining the inability of humanity to save itself. Barth flips this idea on its head, first writing about the God who journeyed “into the far country.” Barth wants us to realize that grace always comes before sin. We experience this through Jesus Christ, who Barth also goes into depth to show was God. And God comes and lives among us. When they Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, they were acknowledging the radicalness of this God who comes to us. Barth builds his theology around Jesus Christ. We must take our focus off our selves (and our pride) and find ourselves connected to a God who comes in a small and insignificant manner. Barth’s ideas continue as he discusses judgment, sin, pride, and the fall. This is a brief explanation of 30-some hours of discussion!
Every afternoon, after spending hours talking about Barth, I would take a walk, From the yard signs, you can tell that Decatur is breaking Georgia’s image. Everywhere were signs in support of BLM and civil rights. Even yards that were decorated for Halloween had a message! I also learned that the first ever Waffle House was in the community of Avondale. Now we know who to blame…
Midnight Train to Georgia
Having just driven to Hilton Head, Savannah, then Wilmington, I decided to travel differently. I took the train from Danville, Virginia to Atlanta. This is a section of the route known as the Southern Crescent, which starts in New York and continues to New Orleans. Traveling in a roomette, I boarded the train at 11:20 PM. A waxing moon seemed to hang just outside my window. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking, the faint sound of the engine whistling, and the beeping and flashing lights on the lower guards as we raced through crossings. I woke as the train stopped and looked out the window. We were in Toccoa, Georgia. I had slept through the Carolinas.
Sadly, however, I learned this train no longer has a dining car. It seems that most of the dining cars on the eastern trains have been removed because they were beyond repair. Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.
Once arriving in Atlanta, I walked almost a mile, over to the midtown Marta Station. I had packed everything into a backpack, so I was able to easily navigate around the streets (which were all closed for a citywide race). At Marta, the Atlanta area light rail, I took the train to Five Points, where I caught the east line out to Avondale. While I could have taken a bus to the seminary, I again walked. I was late for church at Columbia Presbyterian, so I spent much of the afternoon walking around the community.
Eating in the Big City
During my week at Columbia, all my big meals of the day were ethnic: Thai (2x), Indian, Korean, Alsace (French), and Vietnamese. On Friday, I met Mike, a friend from Savannah, who was in Atlanta. We spent the afternoon cursing the traffic, walking around Piedmont Park, and eating dinner (Thai), before he dropped me off at the station and headed back south, to home.
Coming back, the train was late. I was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. But there was a problem with my printed ticket. As they were rushing to load the train, the conductor finally told me to get aboard and go to the lounge car (which was empty at 1 AM). It turned out, the conductor when I came down never scanned my ticket (I assumed he had). Then, the system had cancelled my trip. Thankfully, there was a roomette (but the attendant had to remake the room as it had just become available). But by the time the train arrived in Gainesville, our first stop after Atlanta, I was snuggled up in bed.
I arrived back to the mountains in time to see the leaves at their peak.
Catching Up: A Theology Conference and some sailing
This month I’ve been involved with academic travels through the Southeast, intersperse with family and fun activities. I began with a road trip to Hilton Head, where I spent three rainy days as a part of a Theology Matters’ conference held at Providence Presbyterian Church. The church has a massive campus on the south end of the island. Unfortunately, the rain was such that I didn’t even walk from the hotel to the church as I’d done in the past. Thankfully, the last day, the weather cleared long enough for me to take a walk out on the beach. In addition to interesting discussions, it was good to see a number of old friends and to make some new ones.
The conference, “from Generation to Generation,” looked at how we continue to share the gospel to each new generation. It featured stimulating lectures and as always, I came away with a more books on my to-be-read (TBR) pile. Below is a brief introduction to the keynote lecturers and their topics:
James Edwards, professor emeritus of theology of Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington gave two of the keynote speeches. I have always enjoyed listening to Dr. Edwards. His commentaries on Mark and Luke are a stable in my library. He spent much of his time discussing the development of the early church. Edwards hold the view that the concept of God in the early church came from its Jewish roots, not from a marriage between Jewish and Greek thought. Edwards made connection between the early church, existing under the Roman thumb, and the church today. He noted that autocrats are always powerful (and dangerous) during crisis, but that the church is called to be a truthteller in such times. Interestingly, Edwards has recently written a book on the ministry of Ernst Lohmeyer, who was persecuted by the Nazis and later executed by the Soviets shortly after World War II. But it was his newest book that made my TBR list: From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church in Less than a Century (Baker 2021).
Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor of theology at Wheaton College, spoke on the church in exile. Drawing on the current refugee problem along with the refugee issues of the 16th Century, she noted that the refugee crisis impacted the life and work of John Calvin. She also noted how, during the Reformation, being a follower of Jesus could easily lead one into a refugee situation. In Calvin’s commentary on 1st Peter, he reminds us that “children of God are only guest in the world.” However, even though we are exiles on earth, we are called to engage and be in ministry, as opposed to withdrawing from the world. And part of the church’s calling is to “end the suffering of others.” While she drew heavily from Calvin, she also drew from Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, of whom I learned was an accomplished poet. I never knew this about him and will need to learn more. McNutt is author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798. While it sounds interesting, it is expensive. I did pick up a copy of a book she edited, The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.
Jeffrey Bullock, President of Dubuque Theological Seminary titled his lecture, “7 Observations on Theological Education.” While his jumping off point was the seminary, his observations had more to do with the church at large. He told of the church where he came to faith in Jesus Christ (his parents weren’t religious) which closed. They didn’t have to close. They still had significant resources, but they were tired. And to the very end, there was someone taking minutes. We Presbyterians have a way to make sure everything is neat and in order. While maintaining church order, Bullock suggests we have lost the vision. He also had criticism on “too many duds” who come to seminary misfit for ministry and how the church needs competent leadership. Furthermore, he critiqued seminaries for being too much an academy and having no connections with churches. Pastors, while they can gain knowledge in seminary, must be nurtured in the church, according to Bullock. He also believes the “project” of the mainline denomination has come to an end. Once the religion of America became its culture, we lost our identity.
Richard Ray, former professor and currently chairman of the board for the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, NC, picked up on the theme of exiles, reminding us that we’re always safer in exile. When things are going well, it’s harder to experience divine power. The Bible invites us into divine power, which is invisible to many because it is revealed in weakness. Quoting Augustine, “our words are not adequate for what is being portrayed but that is the beauty of it all.” The Bible is about miracles. It’s saying, “You want believe what will happen with Jesus.” Our help is not in our abilities but in God’s power, which is the beauty of Scripture. Like others, Ray pointed to the late 1930s when the danger of totalitarianism in the world was high with the rise of fascism and totalitarian communism. From this era, he recommended the novel Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koetler, which dealt with a Stalinist style government.
Steve Crocco, recently retired as the librarian at the Yale Divinity School, titled his talk, “Running Toward the Sound of Gunfire. He spoke about how we era now ending a new era after the end of Christendom. Noting that ministry has always been difficult, we now have new challenges that the church has never faced. Quoting Karl Barth’s famous saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another, he joked that it was a shame no one asked Barth which newspaper. Today, there are no consensus on which news source to trust. His advice was to focus on the letter to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation. There, the church is praised for its truth, but condemned for having lost its first love. The love of Jesus compels the church into the danger. He noted how many in the Nazis era, were too scared to speak out. But there were a few like Bonhoeffer, who “ran back toward the sound of gunfire” when he left his comfortable position in New York to return to Germany as war loomed. Of course, Bonhoeffer the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer.
After his talk, I had lunch with Steve. It was good to catch up. We hadn’t seen each other in over 30 years. In my first year of seminary, he was hired as a new PhD to be the librarian at Pittsburgh Seminary. We played some ball together, as that first year he lived in a student apartment with his family as he attended the University of Pittsburgh to earn a Master’s in Library Science (a requirement for his job). Steve left Pittsburgh after nearly 10 years. He would go on to serve as head librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Army War College, and then Yale Divinity School.
Joseph Small, retired director for the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA, encouraged us to ask the burning question of those in the church, “Is it true?” He went on encourage deep theological thinking while suggesting there are four basic theological questions: 1. Who is God really, 2. Who are we, who am I, 3. What does God have to do with us? And 4. What do we have to do with each other? Then Small cheated a bit and suggested a fifth question, “What am I going to do now?” Small encouraged us to read at least one significant theological book a month and to read it in a community of others with whom you could discuss our reading. His book recommendation was Douglas John Hall’s Lighten Our Darkness.
Todd Billings teaches Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Unfortunately, at the last minute, his doctors encouraged him not to travel as he has been struggling with terminal cancer. So, he sent a recorded his talk titled, “A Surprising Hope: Bearing Wounds.” Billings first focused on the pandemic. He lamented how our culture trains us to deal with emergencies by finding someone else to blame (we act as if our ideological opponents are always wrong). In too many ways, our public dialogue is much like the pharisee in Matthew 18, who gives thanks in his prayers that he’s not like others. But Jesus was critical of this pharisee. Instead, new need to present a genuine faithfulness to the world, one that shows we serve a God who can bring water into the desert. He notes how Paul refers to our body as a temple. We need to remember that the temple does not make God active, but thinking of our body as a temple reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves. Furthermore, no temple is holy. Only the God who resides there is holy. If we think we are holy, we will be disappointed and not have a hope with which we can pass on to a new generation. Billings’ memoir (of him and his family struggling with cancer and his mortal limits) is titled The End of Christian Life. It has jumped to the top of my TBR pile.
After three days on Hilton Head, I drove down to Savannah with the plans to sail on Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday brought too little wind and way too much rain. But I did get a long sail in on a J24 with some friends from the Landings Sail Club on Saturday morning and early afternoon. Then, I drove to Wilmington, NC and spent a couple of nights with my father, before heading back to the mountains.
A Day (and part of a night) on the Fox River
The story below comes from 2007 and appeared in a slightly less edited version in a previous blog. In 2007, I spent a week paddling and fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When living in Michigan, I was up in the UP almost every summer. This was before I switched to digital cameras and, sadly, have no photos. The photo below is of me paddling on the Two-Hearted River, the year before.
Reaching out into the dark waters with his paddle, drawing it toward the boat, Joe pulls the bow out into the river. For a moment, I hold the stern fast against the bank, allowing the current to catch the bow and spin us around and into the fast-flowing stream. It’s almost noon. And hot, Too hot for being this far north. At first, we don’t fish much and make good time, crossing under the highway bridge at Seney. A few minutes later we paddle under the rusty trestle of the Soo Lines. In 1919, when Hemingway visited this river, the line from the ferry at St Ignace on the northern side of the Mackinaw Straits ran all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. Today, the rusty rails of light iron have been severely amputated and stretch only from the main line at Trout Lake to Munising. There’s not much rail traffic left, mostly logs and shipments to and from a paper mill.
Continuing to paddle, we enter “The Spreads” about a mile below the tracks. Trees disappear and like an artery leaving the heart for the body, the river splits into smaller branches, cutting numerous deep channels cutting through tall grass. The channels are lined with shrubs, mostly tag elders, providing shade over the deep holes. We dig out the rods. At one of the bends, Joe, being in the front, pulls a small brook trout out of a hole. I continue to navigate the canoe, getting an occasional chance to fish, but with no luck. After a mile or so, the river comes back together, and the banks rise higher. We’re making good time. Tammarks, hemlocks and jack pines first appear. But as the stream draws us deeper into the northwoods, maples dominate the shoreline standing as sentries at guard. Others have fallen prey to the forces of water, creating log dams along the river providing us with both an obstacle to navigate and an opportunity for good fishing.
This is the country Hemingway describes in his short story, “The Big Two-hearted River.” High wooded ridges overlook a river filled with log dams under which deep holes are carved out. Trout hid in these holes. At first, instead of cursing the obstacles, we seize the opportunity. Approaching a jam, we beach the boat upstream in order not to spook the fish, jump out and fish the holes before portaging the boat over the logs and continuing downstream. This works well and by mid-afternoon, we’re approaching our limit of Brook Trout, a small but tasty native fish.
It’s still hot at six o’clock. Joe and I have caught our limit and, being good friends, offer to help the other two catch theirs. They’ve spent most of the day behind us, often forgoing fishing for swimming. However, we are also beginning to realize that these log dams are slowing our progress. They are now at most every bind. We begin to pass up some good holes to make up time.
At seven, we stop fishing. We’re still pulling over log dams. We haven’t reached the confluence with the East Branch. The deerflies are nasty, swarming around our heads. I zip the legs onto my pants and pull on a long sleeve shirt. A few minutes later, I pull the mosquito netting down over my face. It makes it difficult to see, especially obstacles right below the water line, but the netting provides relief from these deer flies that seem to have an immunity to DEET. Only my hands are exposed and for the next hour, I chum the river with dead deer flies, on one occasion killing four gnawing flies on one hand with a single slap. We’re making good time, having perfected the art of portaging over the log dam. But the East Branch remains elusive. We know we’ll have a good four or five mile paddling from the confluences.
In the summer, this far north and west in the time zone, the sun sets at 9:30 P.M. I begin to wonder at what point it will be prudent to pull over and make camp for the evening. I decide not to bring the subject up until after the sun is down, knowing that we’d still have a good half hour to gather firewood, clean fish for dinner, and to make as comfortable of a camp as possible. If we camp then, we’d only have six or seven hours of night, and we could get back on the river at first light. We finally pass the East Branch right around sunset and the water level rises and pace quickens. Yet, we still have a lot of river to cover before we reach Germfask, where we’ve dropped a vehicle. I pitch the idea of camping overnight on the bank, informing everyone that I do have some extra food and a lighter stashed away, but no one wants to quit. I’m concerned that in the dark it will be easy to tip a canoe and although I don’t think we have to worry about drowning, I worry about losing equipment, maybe even boats, in the dark.
A half mile past the East Branch, we join up with the Manistique. The river widens and there are fewer obstacles. We paddle furiously. The canoe guidebook suggested this should have be a five or six hour trip, with the author bragging that he made it in 4 ½. I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy. As the light fades, we continue to paddle, but drop our speed to be extra careful. Right before dark, Joe and I split a energy bar. We haven’t eaten since lunch, nearly seven hours earlier, and I’m still not hungry, but need the energy. A few stars begin to appear. We keep close to one another, staying mostly in the middle of the channel. When my paddle hits the bottom of the river, I realize that it has changed from sand to rock. Occasionally we shoot across a rock garden with small waves splashing on the boat. I spot the pinchers of the constellation Scorpios just above the trees on the southern horizon.
At a little after eleven, we spot a fire up on the bank. It’s surrounded by a group of campers. We hail them and they’re surprised. Someone shines a flashlight at a spot where we can easily get the boats to shore. After pulling the boats on shore, we walk over to their campfire and ask if one of them would be willing to drive us to the car. “I’d love to, man,” one of them said, “but we’re all shit-faced, we’ve been drinking all day.” Looking around, it’s evident he’s telling the truth. Only a few of them are awake, several more are asleep, or more likely passed out, lying next to the fire. Since B’s vehicle is at the bridge, I suggest he and I hike back to get the car. “Maybe we’ll get a ride,” I suggest. We start walking up to the highway and through the town of Germfask. Only two cars pass us, but no one stops. Coming back, we clock it at 1.7 miles from the bridge to the campground. We quickly load the boats onto B’s trailer and drive back into Seney. It’s now midnight.
Not feeling up to cooking up fish, we head to the Seney Bar, the only place open in town. A few patrons sit at the bar, another couple are shooting a game of pool. We asked the bartender if we could get something to eat as we’d just come off the river. He confides that the cook left at 10 but offers to bake us some frozen pizzas. We ordered a couple and some beers. Hearing that we’d just gotten off the river, everyone in the joint begins to ask us about our trip while Joe hustles a few games of pool. One guy suggests he’d allow at least 12 hours for paddling the stretch we did. Someone else digs out a fishing guidebook, whose author suggested to allow 11 hours for just paddling and that if one wanted to fish, to make it a two-day trip. We agreed with that estimation and long to ring the neck of the author of the canoeing guidebook. Now that we’re safe, we laugh and enjoy another beer.
About 1 AM, we head back to the campground north of town. The others sleep in their vehicles. I quickly throw up my bivy tent, crawl in and crash. Five hours later, at 6 AM, I wake to the crash of close lightning. The wind is howling, breaking off limbs, and the clouds open, sending a deluge of rain. I debate making a run for my truck but decided to stay. I was warm and if a bolt hit the tree under which I was sleeping, I’d never know it. I watch the spectacular lightning show for a few moments, then fall back asleep thinking that it was good we didn’t spend the night on the river.
Reflections on my time away
It was great to get away and it’s good now to be back home. Most of my time away was spent reading and relaxing. Daily, I would take long walks, enjoy coffee on the porch with a book and an eye out for freighters. In the evening, after returning from a walk I would do the same with a bourbon. The air remained mostly cool and even the days of rain felt good. I preached twice at the Union Presbyterian Church in Detour Village.
Reading while away
My reading varied greatly. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and a couple commentaries on Daniel in preparation for preaching on the book this fall. I finished reading a wonderful book on reading and writing poetry (Gregory Orr’s, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry). This book had many exercises, some of which I did, leaving notes in my journal such as the poem I printed below.
I also enjoyed Casey Tygrett’s As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life. Like Orr’s book on poetry, this book had many exercises, of which I did most as a way to ponder memories. Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, was eye opening. Thurman was a classmate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr’s father and this short book written in the 1940s captures the meaning of the gospel for those who lived in a segregated world with many opportunities denied. Another book that I just finished yesterday is Christiane Tiez’s Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Victoria Burnett translator). Barth, probably the most influential 20th Century theologian, best known for his opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, provides an insight into how the church should behave when oppressed. This reading fed into my thoughts that arose from my study of Daniel.
I also read some poetry along with the first half of Richard Lischer’s memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery.
Traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and around the area gave me plenty of time to listen to books on Audible. I began with Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, John Ketchmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean; Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, and Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season. Having read many of Larson’s books, Isaac’s Storm lived up to my expectation as he captured both the event of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 along with providing insight into those involved in the storm and into how such storms are created. Ketchmer’s book is a first. I enjoyed it and it provided me with a refresher before sailing. Hiassen is another favorite author. I have read or listened to eight of his books. This was his first novel and while not as funny as some of his later ones (Skinny Dip remains my favorite), it’s still good and has humorous moments.
Sightseeing and other activities
I spent two days sailing with a friend in Grand Traverse Bay. We left out of Northport harbor on the Leelanau Peninsula. The first day was rough with 20 knot winds. It was scary when I couldn’t get the main reefed quickly as the lines were dry rotted. Finally, I was able to get it secured and we sailed for a bit that afternoon before enjoying a good meal on the town. On the second day, it was lovely with winds in the 10 to 12 knot range. We sailed out passed Mission Point and up the east side of the bay toward Leelanau Point before coming back to the marina.
While in the UP, I spent one day on Drummond Island. There, I enjoyed a morning hike in Maxton Plains. The plains are an “alvar” landscape, which consist of flat limestone pavement with little soil to provide growth for plants. In the cracks are many different species of grass and flowers along with paper birch and spruce trees. Next time I visit here, I need to bring a bicycle so I can explore more of the plains. After lunch and a visit to the island’s museum, I enjoyed a shorter but refreshing walk under the beech trees of Clyde and Martha Williams Nature Preserve. To reach to Drummond Island, I took the ferry which was just a block from where I was staying.
I also took another trip to Whitefish Point, a place that many know about from Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
Leaving the UP, I visited friends from Skidaway on Mullet Lake, then old friends in Grand Rapids and Hastings. There’s never enough time to see everyone.
A poem I wrote in the UP
rides low in the water
its screws pushing 70,000 tons of ore
southbound toward Gary or Cleveland.
Behind the stern trail
angry ripples of water,
a turmoil of whirlpools
and danger for small boats that cut behind too close.
There are people like the freighter,
those who churn the air
and leave a path of emotional distraction.
Like the ship,
they’re best given a wide berth.
A 1000 foot freighter heading south (go here to see a photo of an older style freighter)
The Magpie Crags
Last week, I wrote about my last day in Korea. This week, I’m resurrecting another story about that wonderful trip. I had taken a bus from Seoul to Wonju early on Sunday morning. Seung Hwan met me at the bus station. I preached to his congregation at the medical college in Wonju, then we spent the afternoon with a number of clergy in the area. One, I remember, was much older than us and had fled from the north before the Korean War. That evening I stayed in a retreat center east of Wonju.
Monday morning, 4 AM
The sounds of the bell tolling down off the mountainside wake me. I turn on my flashlight. It’s 4 A.M. For a few moments, I lay on my back, the warmth of the floor soothing my body. Seung Hwan had told me the floor would stay warm throughout the night. I had my doubts, but it’s still warm even though when I sit up, the air above me is quite chilly. The caretaker had built a small fire with just a half dozen pieces of split wood in the hearth under the flooring late yesterday afternoon. And now, 12 hours later, long after the coals have died out, the floor retains the heat.
I pull on socks and my pants and thrown on a coat. Stepping out of the sleeping room, I slide on my boots in the bathroom. I don’t lace them up. While I don’t plan to be gone long, I want to be outdoors. The air is cold. My breath, when I exhale, appears as smoke. I walk over to a ledge in front the lodge, hoping my movement will ward off the chill. In the distance I hear a train making its way through the valley. Wonju lies to the west, still sleeping. The sky is clear, the rain and snow of the day before has moved out.
Orion stands, perched high above Wonju, just above the western horizon. I make out several other winter constellations setting in the west before I turn and look toward where the sound from where the bell tolled. The mountain is dark; it’s a couple of hours to dawn. I imagine the priest at the temple, in the cold darkness of morning, getting up daily for their prayers. I, on the other hand, am ready to get back in my warm bed. Sleeping on the floor has never been this good. My bed is on the floor, on top of a rice matt and between two thick quilts. I crawl in. It’s still warm. Immediately, I fall back asleep, only to awake when the sun pierces through a small window.
In Wonju, Korea
I am on a two-week trip through South Korea. Yesterday, I had preached in Seung Hwan’s church at the Medical College.
He’d arranged for me to stay in this retreat lodge located just out of town, up in the foothills of the mountains. He’d given me the option of staying in a western hotel or traditional style lodging. I chose the traditional.
There are only a few others staying here, and none of them seems to speak English. We’re each assigned our own quarters consisting of a small bathroom with a toilet and sink attached a raised sleeping room. There are showers in the main lodge. There are no beds. The raised room has low ceilings, barely six feet high. The walls are mud. The floor is also mud with, I presume, slate or some kind of rock underneath. In the front of each sleeping chamber is a hearth. The fire in this hearth, which runs under the sleeping room, heats the floor. Once warm, the floor maintains its heat through the night.
Catching a bit of the Superbowl
Seung Hwan arrives shortly after daybreak. We have breakfast. It’s Monday morning and as we eat, we catch a bit of the Superbowl being played back in the States. St. Louis is playing Tennessee at the Georgia Dome. I try to explain the game to him. When it is over, we head out. We have a long climb ahead in Ch’iaksan National Park. We drive to the south end of the park, leave the car behind. Our packs contain heavy coats and crampons.
We begin our climb on a dirt two track road. While the cities have modernized, rural Korea doesn’t appear to have changed much in centuries. We pass several small farms. Chickens run loose and dogs are penned behind the homes. After a few kilometers, the dirt road ends. We begin climbing a small path up into the mountains. The climb is steep, and we often have to stop and catch our breaths. Soon, the dirt and mud give way to packed snow and ice. We strap crampons onto our boots and continue climbing. It’s a long way up. Occasionally we hear trains making their way through the valley. There is a circle tunnel just south of us where the train makes a loop as it climbs into the mountains. There are few birds, but its winter. Although these are the Magpie Crags, I don’t see any magpies.
We take a break and eat lunch at a spring located below Sangwona Temple. Seung Hwan explains that pilgrims stopped here to bath and purify themselves before going to the temple to pray. The water is cold and refreshing. The wind comes up. We both pull on heavy coats, keeping in them on for the final climb.
The temple appears to be deserted, although it’s well-kept. We see only one monk, walking away. The most notable feature of the grounds is the bell. Cast out of bronze, it’s as tall as me and mounted on the side of a ledge that looks out to the South. A large log, suspended from two chains, is used to strike the bell. The monks have taken precautions and have padlocked the bell so that tourist like us won’t ring it at an inappropriate time. I ask Seung Hwan if this is the bell I heard in the morning. “Probably not,” he said. “There are many temples in these mountains.” The bell I heard most likely was from the Ipsoksa Temple, located on the flanks of Mount Pinobong.
We take our shoes off and go inside the temple area. Several beautifully cast statues of Buddha are on display. Although we’re both Presbyterian, we are respectful and reverent. There is a holy aura about the place. I could stay here a long time, but we don’t want to be caught out in the dark.. Going down is easy. The spikes on our boots hold our feet on the icy spots. As we walk, I ask Seung Hwan about the temple and its bell. This is rugged country; it took a Herculean effort to build such a temple. I can’t imagine hauling the statues and wonderful bell up this incline.
The Legend of the Magpies
Seung Hwan tells me the temple was built late in the Shilla Dynasty, at a time when Confucianism was taking root in Korea. Soon thereafter, under the Yi Dynasty, Buddhism was seen as an enemy of the people. Many of the temples were closed due to the lack of priests. Then he tells me a story.
Once Confucianism became entrenched in Korea, anyone desiring in a government position had to take a national exam at the capital. One day, a man passed along the mountains in which we’d been climbing, heading to take the exam. A kind man, as he made his through the valley in the shadow of the mountain we’d been climbing, he heard a bird cry for help. Looking around, he saw a snake squeezing the bird that would soon be its dinner. Feeling compassion for the bird, the man shot an arrow into the snake, killing it but freeing the bird.
Shortly afterwards, as it was getting late, the man came to a home. He knocked on the door and a beautiful woman answered. He asked for lodging and she agreed. She even prepared him a wonderful dinner. But after dinner, the woman turned into a snake and wrapped herself around the man, telling him that he’d killed her husband and now she was going to do the same to him. He begged for his life and the snake, playing with the man, said that if the bell rings three times before dawn, he’ll be spared. Otherwise, she’ll kill him in the morning.
This was a cruel reprieve. Both the snake and the man knew there were no monks living in the mountains to ring the bell. So, the man spent the night embraced by the snake, waiting for a fateful sunrise. But right before dawn, the man and the snake were surprised to hear the bell ring. The first time, it was very loud. Then it rang a second time, a bit weaker. Then they heard a very weak third ring.
The snake kept her word and allowed the man to go free. Instead of heading on the capital, he decided to climb the mountain and to see who it was that rang the bell. Sure enough, the temple was empty. But there under the bell was the bird that he’d saved the day before, its beak shattered from having flown into the bell three times. To this day, the bell is known as the “Compassion Bell.”
Another restful night
That night, back at the retreat house, a light breeze jingles the wind chimes along the porch. Tired and sore after climbing in the mountains, I immediately fall asleep upon the warm floor. Again, I wake at 4 AM with the toll of the bell. It’s more muffled than the morning before. I’m surprised I’m not sore from the climb. This sleeping arrangement is magical. And again, as with the morning before, I get up and go outside. A light snow falls, dusting the ground.