Tuesday, August 30, 2011

GERMFASK Chap V


The Posse was poised. Each man showed up fifteen minutes early that fair Wednesday morning and without premeditation to their hyper-promptness. It was like no one wanted to miss a word, an introduction or even a succinct observation of the mysterious stranger.

Sharon was nervous as a shadchan just before her chosen couples’ first meeting. She was afraid that Mr. Hans wouldn’t show up . . . but it could be worse if he did show up and turned out to be a nut case or a criminal. She had the clerics’ breakfast order and Arnie already had the omelets on the grill. She was just going around the table pouring coffee from the clear round pot when she heard the big doors squeak open.

She had her back to the entry. Instead of spinning around and looking, she observed intently each of the four seated men’s facial expressions. They kept staring in the direction of the door, so she was convinced that it must be Mr. Hans. She finished pouring Preacher David’s coffee, stood up and looked at the man.

“Good morning Mr. Hans,” She said with a mustered-up enthusiasm and a painted-on smile.

Mr. Hans was more striking than Sharon had remembered. Beside his tall, lanky frame, his hair donned a fresh cut and his beard was cropped about an eighth of an inch.  He had on, for the first time that Sharon could remember, a dress shirt under his usual sports jacket and he had on a hat.  The other oddity was the fact he was carrying a brief case rather than his yellow legal pad . . . which he habitually carried under his left arm.  He smiled, gave a little two-fingered salute and said softly, “Good morning Mrs. Saunders.”

Sharon heard the sound of the legs of one of the wooded chairs scooting across the rough, pine floor. Father Randy was standing and walking towards Mr. Hans as he was walking towards the table.  The two men met and the Father shook his hand vigorously. 

“You must be the Mr. Hans that I’ve been hearing about. I’ve been looking so forward to meeting you.”

Sharon was thinking that Father Randy had that rare gift of making everyone feel like a special guest. About that time she heard more chairs shuffling on the floor and all the men were standing as the father and Mr. Hans arrived at the table. The introductions went clockwise around the circle of men.

“Hello, I’m Pastor Mike Monroe of the Manistique Community Church.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Mr. Hans did a little bow with each introduction.

“Hi, I’m David Smith, the preacher at the M 28 Church of God.”

“It’s a pleasure,” then came his little head bow.

To everyone’s surprise Greg, with his likewise thin, but short frame and white beard grabbed Mr. Hans and gave him a bear hug. “Welcome to the group. I’m Gregory Landis. I was the pastor at the Grand Rapids Riverside Methodist Church for about 28 years.  I sometimes fill in at the Methodist and the Episcopalian Churches up in Ste Saint Marie. I’ve even been a rare substitute in the pulpit at the Unitarian Church in Munising. We are all delighted that you’ve decided to join us. Did I understand that you too are a pastor?”

Everyone, including Mr. Hans, was taken back by that last assumption. Sharon was thinking, “Where did that come from?” But the question was carefully thought up by Greg in order to start the conversation of discovery about the stranger.

As the men took their seats Mr. Hans spoke up, “Oh no I’m not a pastor. I’m more of a scientist or investigative reporter.”

It seemed like once the questions started, it would hard to turn them off.

Mike asked, “Who do you write for?”

“Oh . . . I don’t write professionally, like for a newspaper or magazine.  I’m a reporter for scientific investigation.”

David Smith asked with a serious look on his face, “So who’s underwriting you?”

“Underwriting?  I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Who is paying for this? Is it the University of Michigan or who?”

“Oh, I don’t work for any university.” Mr. Hans paused. “First of all, please, everyone, call me Tom. I’m so grateful for this distinguished group allowing me to come and join you. You don’t realize how important this is to me and my work.  I’ve come here today to ask some questions for my research and I think your combined experiences are invaluable to draw from.”

David persisted, “That’s all very nice but I still don’t understand who you represent.”

Father Randy flashed a quick frown towards David.

David stared at Tom, in anticipation for some explanation.

The stranger paused in a meditative trance.  “Well, gentlemen, if you would be so kind to let my story rest for a while, I would be most grateful. You see, I always speak very candidly and if I told you the complete story of where I’m from, why I’m here and why I want to know what I want to know, then, I’m afraid that you will not trust me.”

So David asked, "So . . . you've got something to hide?"


Tom answered, “I guess I do. But I’m not a criminal or a crazy person.  I promise I will, in time, explain who I am and what I want.”

Greg, to play devil’s advocate a bit asked, “Any chance you are divine, a prophet or even Jesus himself . . . what about an angel?”  He asked the question in the same way you bait deer with cabbage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula . . . to get them out in a clearing . . . where you can nail them with a rifle. If the man had said yes to any of those transcendent occupations the whole group would have known that they were dealing with a lunatic.

Tom chuckles. “No, I promise that I would not attempt to make such a statement, yet, when I do tell you the truth you find it just as incredible.  Now, I think it is my turn to ask you some questions.”

All five men seemed to be in a stare.  It was like a standoff in an old western town, each man with his hand on his holster, a bead in his eyes and trying to play each other’s bluff.


Friday, August 26, 2011

GERMFASK Chap IV


It was almost three weeks before Sharon could match up Mr. Hans with the posse.  She thought it would be more appropriate if she discussed it with one of the pastors first. For reasons she was not sure, the posse didn’t meet that week and Mr. Hans, after appearing each morning for several days, was mysteriously gone the following week.  But during the week of Mr Hans’ absence Sharon did chat with Father Randy and the rest.

The gentle priest had just taken off his long rain coat, laid it over the back of the chair when Sharon appeared. She would have chased him down the minute he walked in the door but she was ringing up a family who were on their out.  She was desperate to talk to the Father quickly, just in case Mr. Hans showed up that morning.

Before he was fully seated Sharon rushed up beside him and sat down at the table.

“Y . . . good morning Mrs. Saunders, how’re you today?”

“I’m good father. We missed you last week.”

He smiled big. “Isn’t it a lovely thing . . . being missed and all?”

Sharon just smiled back.

The father continued, “I had a dioceses-wide meeting in Detroit last week and I think Pastor Mike had a commitment. We both knew it would be dangerous to leave David and Greg here by themselves,” and he chuckled.  “Why do you ask?  Did I miss something big in Germfask?”

Sharon looked back over her shoulder when she heard the door open and close. It was the previous customer’s son coming back in for his baseball hat. She smiled at him. He ran in grabbed the hat off the table and was back out the door.

She continued with the smile and looked back at the priest. “I think there is something at least interesting happening in town.”

The priest rubbed his chin in thought while Arnie showed up with a steaming cup of molasses-dark coffee.  “Good morning father.”

“Good morning Mr. Saunders.”

Arnie looks at his wife and winked, “Now don’t let her pull you into her little gossip circle.”

About that time the door opened again and it was Mike Monroe.  He stopped his feet on the rug to dislodge the last drops of water from the late spring rain.

The priest looked at Sharon with raised eyebrows, “I could use a little gossip to spice up my life now and then.”

“It isn’t gossip, but something quite interesting.  You see we have a new visitor to town. He’s living out on the lake but has been coming in for breakfast several mornings a week.”

“Good morning,” says Mike Monroe as he sits down.  Sharon and the Priest smile at him.

Father Randy reaches out and grabs Mike by the wrist and leans over like his wants to whisper, “This nice lady was just about to fill me in on some interesting town gossip . . . are you in?” Then he smiled big.

Mike looked a bit more serious, “That’s okay.  I hear enough gossip during my week.”

“Okay men, this is not gossip, this is an intriguing story of Germfask news.”

Father Randy looked apologetic  “Sorry Sharon, I’m just being silly. So tell me about this stranger.”

“Well, he is an odd-looking fellow. He is tall, dark and thin.  He wants to meet you guys.”

“Us?” protested Mike.

“Yeah. He is from a faraway country, which is a secret. Somehow he’s heard about your little posse meeting here in Germfask.  He asked specifically if he could join you.”

Mike, with a serious look still donning his clean-shaven face, “Is he a man of the cloth or pastor? And how did he hear about us?”

“No. But he is doing research about God . . . or what he calls the creator.”

Father Randy asked, “Research for what?  Is he a reporter or a pilgrim? I mean, is this for his personal spiritual quest or a newspaper?”

“It seems like it is for a book or science or something like that.  But now listen, he is really strange.  He has an accent, very subtle, that I can’t identify.  Also, he is always taking notes on a yellow legal pad. One day he went to the bathroom and I sneaked a peak.”  Then she paused and looked guilty. “Oh forgive me father.”

Father Randy did a quick, and somewhat silly sign of the cross and said, “You’re forgiven my child. Go your way and sin now more. Now tell us what was on it.” Then he laughed out loud.

“Well, it was really odd. On the left side of the paper was column of common but colloquial phrases, like ‘gotta get out of here,’ or  ‘keep em coming’ and on the right side was a column of curvy writing going from right to left. It looked Indian or Arabic.  I think he was writing the words in English and his native tongue.”

Mike remarked, “That doesn’t sound so strange. So he is still learning American English.”

“I thought it was odd. Then on the second page of the tablet . . . “

Father Randy chuckled, “So you turned the page? So you really are curious about this feller.”  

“On the second page were these strange drawings, like mechanical or circuits or something like that.”

Arnie arrived with another cup of joe and hands it to Mike.  Mike looks up with a kind smile, “Thanks.”

Sharon continues, “So, he wants to join the posse to talk about the creator.  I told him I would ask.”

The two men sat in silence and just looked at each other. The door squeaks open and in walks both David and Greg.  Greg shakes out his umbrella and David looks irritated that some of the water splashed on him.

While Sharon was watching the dynamics of the two men, knowing that there was always some tension between them, but not knowing it was because they resided on the opposite ends of the Christian spectrum.  She was startled with Father Randy spoke up.

“Well, I’m not so sure Sharon. You see, this is a friendly gathering of men who share a similar occupation. We don’t come here to discuss theology. As a matter of fact, we have a ground rule that we won’t discuss such matters . . . they're just too divisive.  We just want to be friends and relate around the fact that we must ministry to a lot of people and sometimes we just need to talk on a personal level.  Does this stranger want to just sit with us once or more than that?”

David was shaking his head. “I’m not sure I feel good about this. I mean, a stranger, writing in Arabic, drawing circuits and wanting to meet  the local pastors.”

Father Randy rolls his eyes.

Sharon continued, “It sounds like he wants to be part of the group for a while. He said he had a lot of questions.”

Father Randy blew across the lip of his white coffee cup and sipped  (it was just cool enough to start drinking). “I have a bad feeling about this but not because I think he is a terrorist.” Then he spoke quickly as David and Greg were walking in their direction. “I’m afraid that those two,” nodding at the approaching men, “just might get into it if we started talking theology.  I hate to see a friendship end even if it is just a fragile one.”

Mike was pondering the situation.  In his mind, he hated the thoughts of turning away a pilgrim . . . someone honestly seeking to learn more about the Lord.  But he still felt some unease about the stranger’s intentions. He looked at the priest, “Maybe we should invite him once and see how it goes.”

David asked, “Invite who . . . or whom?”

“Oh, Sharon here has a customer, a regular, who would like to join the group.”

Greg asked, “Is he another pastor?”

Father Randy answered, “No. It sounds like he is just curious . . . maybe a pilgrim.”

Greg smiled, “This could get interesting.”

David immediately spoke up, “I don’t think we have the right to turn anyone down who wants to know more about the Lord. Scripture says in I Peter 3:15 that we should always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us.”

Greg laughed, “But David, you might be hoping that I would shut up if I started talking about my views of the gospel.”

Sharon stood as new customers were coming in the door, “So?”

Father Randy shrugging his shoulders said, “Sure. We’ll give it a try. He can join us next Wednesday . . . is that alright men?”  They shook their heads to the affirmative.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

GERMFASK Chap III


The good citizens of Germfask put people in one of four classifications, not based on any socioeconomic parameters you understand, but according to their connectedness to the town.  They called the year-round residents “Originals.”  While at one time it meant a descendant of the original eight homesteaders, over time it became to mean anyone who had put down roots. Sharon and Arnie were good examples. They were certainly called “Originals” and they had moved up from Chicago only three years earlier.  They had no prior roots in Germfask but simply read a Realtor’s web page listing for the Liberty (which they officially renamed the Jolly Inn and Bar) and moved up and bought it. They wanted to get as far away from the streets of Chicago as they could.

The next, and smallest class, were the “Transients.” Greg Landis was one of those. These were people, often writers, artists and, sometimes criminals, who just wanted to come up and live in the woods for a while.  Some of the Transients, of course over time, evolved into Originals.

One odd group of Transients was the one that Sharon also called the “Hemingways.”  She could recognize them a mile away. They were typically men in their forties or fifties, wearing Filson clothing and speaking quietly. They also had beards. They had driven from LA, Houston, or New York City.  Their secret destination was to retrace Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps in his short story “Big Two-Hearted River.”  In that story, and in his real life, Hemingway got off the train in Seney, just north of Germfask and fly-fished for steelhead on the Two-Hearted River all the way up to Lake Superior.  The funny thing was that each of these “Hemingways” assumed that no one else in the world had thought of recreating the angler’s adventure. Sharon enjoyed bursting their bubble. The Transients would come through the big spring-loaded wooden doors of the Jolly Bar wearing the famous dark green waxed-cloth rain coats and Indiana Jones hat.  Sharon would look at them and smile, “Are you looking for the Two Hearted River?”  Almost without exception the men would blush.

The third, and largest group, were the Seasonals. These were made up of three major subgroups, the summer vacationers, the deer hunters and the snowmobilers.  Each of these groups came year after year, coming virtually the same week and usually stayed one or two weeks and then leaving on a Friday. But because they were repeaters they were like a De facto Original. Everyone knew their names, where their cabin was perched and where they hunted (or snowmobiled).  They were so regular that if they didn’t show up at their given time, Sharon would start to worry about them in the same way people in Angangueo, Mexico would worry if the monarch butterflies didn’t return one year. Sometimes she would call their homes down in Gaylord, Traverse City or Cleveland to see what was wrong.  Sometimes she did find that one had died, been killed, had a nervous breakdown or had run off with their lover since their previous visit.

The “Visitors” were the final class. These were simply people who had wandered off M-28, ten miles north or Highway 2, ten miles south, and came through town like the Apostolic Lutherans with the bonneted women and covey of children. However, most were simply the indecisive travelers who, like the rivers, couldn’t make of their mind which direction to go in or which one of the main two east-west corridors was the best to get them to Marquette.  They often bounced back and forth between them crisscrossing through these small and forgotten villages.

One Monday morning a visitor came through the door. He was an interesting-looking fellow. He was very tall and extremely slim. He didn’t just have a low body fat but his boney structure seemed unusually narrow for a man. Immediately Sharon thought about Abe Lincoln.  If you added and Abe-styled beard and about 20 years to the strangers face, they could have passed for brothers.  His skin was dark as were his eyes and hair, with an Italian or Eastern Mediterranean look.  He was dressed in fashionable blue jeans, dark tee shirt and silk blazer.   With his neatly trimmed, graying-in-the-temples hair, Sharon had the feeling that he was someone special, maybe a writer or from Hollywood.

The visitor was very polite with a warm smile. He ordered a cup of tea, hash brown potatoes and a large bowl of fruit.  As he ate he watched intensely as people entered and left and wrote on a yellow legal pad.  Sharon’s curiosity got the best of her, so she intentionally went over to the table next to the stranger and wiped it down (although she had just wiped it down thirty minutes before and no one had sat there since).

“So, are you just passing through?”

The stranger looked up with a big smile, “Oh, not really. I’m planning on staying for a while.”

“Really,” she said with a big smile as she put the rag down on the table.  “You do know that this is an Inn and we do have two rooms upstairs if you are looking for a bed.”

“Oh, thanks. That would be nice, but I do have a place out on the lake.”

“Which place might that be?”

“Do you know the lake well?”

“Pretty well, especially the western end.”

“Well, my place is easy to find. It is the most northern cabin on West Manistique Lake Road. Just take the Curtis Road, turn north on West Manistique and take it about nine miles to the very end.”

Sharon seems to ponder deeply.  “You’re on the part of the road that’s still dirt?”

“That’s right.”

“I haven’t been out there in a couple of months but I knew they were building a few more cabins on that end.”

“Yes, mine is the very last one.”

“Yours? So you purchased it?”

“I did.  It is brand new. I had it built.”

“So, are you going to be living out here for a while?  Oh, (Seeming to catch herself in a social blunder) I didn’t even introduce myself. I’m Sharon Saunders. My husband over there (pointing towards the kitchen) is Arnie and we own this joint.” She reached out her hand to the stranger.

“Oh, my name is Tom . . . uh Tom Hans.”  He stood up from his chair half-way and shook Sharon’s hand.

“Hans? Now that’s an interesting last name. I don’t think I’ve heard it before.”

Sharon noticed a very subtle accent with the man but she couldn’t put her finger on it.  It was like a soft hum that would come at the end of some words . . . but she hadn’t pick up the pattern yet.

She continued, “So where’re you from?”

He smiled, “I’m from a little country that you haven’t heard of.”

“Try me.  I know my geography pretty well.  I worked for Sprit, you know the phone company, in Chicago and I was always helping people call internationally.  Let me guess, Herzegovina? Kyrgyzstan?”

He chuckled but then said the oddest thing. “I wish I could tell you, and hopefully I can sometime, but for now I prefer to leave my country of origins as a private matter.” Then he smiled big.

Sharon smiled too and then returned to the kitchen.  Although she felt a big socially snubbed, she was obsessed with the mystery of the man.   She loved a good novel and this was as close as she could get to the real thing at least this side of Chicago.  Her brief offenses would drift into an obsession by the afternoon.  She just had to know the man’s business. Arnie was scrubbing the grill with a pumice stone. She looked at him and whispered, “That’s strange but that guy won’t even tell me where’s he’s from.”

“Maybe he thinks it’s none of your bees wax.”

“Well it isn’t but he said it in a strange way. He said that he wants to tell me where he is from and hopes he can later but couldn’t right now.”

“That means he is probably a sex offender running from the law.”

Sharon rolled her eyes, “And somehow he can tell us later?”

“Sure, or maybe you find out when he sexually offends you,” Arnie smiled, not being serious at all.

Sharon hit him in the head with her dirty rag.  Then she was startled when Mr. Hans cleared his throat standing at the cash register.  Her face blushed as she hoped that he had not overheard them.

“Oh, are you all done?”

“Yes mam I am. It was a great breakfast, one of the best I’ve had.”

“You should try our omelets, Arnie makes some dandy ones.”

“Hmm . . . I’m not much of an egg man.  I mean, I’ve never have eaten one and I’m not sure want to start now.  But the other things were great.”

“Never eaten an egg . . . are you serious?”

“I am, but that’s a long story.”  He hands her a twenty.

Sharon punches some keys on the register and hands him change.  “So, will we see you again?”

“Oh sure.”  Then he paused.  “Can I ask you some questions?”

Sharon’s eyes lit up, “Certainly. Anyway we can help a newbie to town.”

“Thanks. You see, I’m up here doing some research and writing.  I was wondering . . . where would be a good place to start?  Someone told me that the Inn was where a lot of the locals hang out.”

“Well, I thought you might be a writer.  Are you writing a book about Germfask?”

“No, I’m doing research about Americans in general.  I’m really interested in what they know about their creator.”

“Their what?”

“You know, the great creator?”

Sharon was puzzled by his terminology.  For the first time it dawned on her that the guy might just be nuts . . . or a psychopath.  Then, the way he used the term creator made her think that maybe he was Native American. She had heard Ojibwe’s talk like that.  “Do you mean God?”

“Yes . . . God.”

“Why would you come to Germfask to do research on God?”

“Why not?  It seemed like as good of place as any.”

Arnie is now mopping the kitchen floor and works his way in their direction so he can hear the conversation better.  Now even he has caught stranger-intrigue bug.

Sharon continues, “How can I help you do your research?  I’m not sure what you are asking for.”

“Who are the best people to talk to?  Who in Germfask knows the most about the creator?”

Sharon seemed to move off topic, “Any chance you are from Newberry?”

“Newberry?  Newberry where?  I don’t know what you mean?”

(Newberry, besides being the closes town of any size is was also home to the state mental hospital.  This stranger wouldn’t be the first escapee to come though the Joy Bar.)

Sharon shook her head, “I wasn’t sure. Never mind.”

“You see, I came in here today because someone told me that a group of clergy met here. I just thought that would be a great place to start.”

Sharon couldn’t help herself but laugh out loud. “Oh . . . you’re talking about the Posse! (using Arnie’s term instead of her own.)”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

GERMFASK Chap II







The Jolly Inn was an unremarkable stick framed, clapboard-sided building on the main street of town.  While the white siding looked faded (which Sharon Saunders thought added character) the trim was always freshly painted with the colors altering with Sharon’s mood.  In her latest attempt at creating the atmosphere, she had their son Jason paint it a deep tone of lavender.  One of their regulars--a retired Air Force colonel—accused Sharon and Arnie of “going gay.”  They had to chuckle as the thought of catering to gays, or straights for that matter, had never crossed their minds.  Their customers were so scarce at times that Arnie joked that they would welcome little green men. Yet, the simple change of one hue of the color spectrum of their exterior trim was enough for Colonel Chris to find him another place to drink coffee.  It didn’t matter much. He never talked or tipped or ate off the menu.

The old tavern had well-worn white pine flooring that was so rough that they were never clean even after a through mopping.  The ceiling was tall, maybe fifteen feet, with a pressed-tin covering.  The tin had so many layers of paint that you could not imagine what the original design was supposed to be . . . maybe flowers, or ivy. Arnie thought it was Egyptian Hieroglyphs. A black Casablanca fan hung in the middle of the room, not to bring cool breezes but to circulate the heat from the wood stove in the corner.

Eight small, wooden tables were set in a carefully scattered pattern to give the impression that there was no plan at all.  At one end of the twenty foot by forty foot room was a bar with an ornate oak cabinetry and a large mirror on the wall. Three taps were at one end and three stools stood among the brass rail.  However, the dominate end or the room was the restaurant.  

Next to the large plate-glass window facing north were two of the white tables pushed together as an arrangement for a bigger group. That happened rarely. Maybe when two car loads of tourists, traveling in a caravan stopped for lunch they needed seating for eight.  Then there were the Apostolic Lutherans from the Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the copper country.  They didn’t believe in birth control. Pulling up in old, rusty Chevrolet Suburbans or retired hotel shuttle vans, they would march in with their nine or ten kids. They ate only pasties, which had become part of Sharon’s repertoire of classic Upper Peninsula food items. The Apostolics never tipped nor make conversation with the owners and always seemed bitter.

The other habitual residents of the big table were the “posse,” as Arnie called them. This was a group of men (occasionally a guest woman) who were all men of the cloth.  Sharon fondly called them the “celestial committee” but Arnie didn’t like to mess around with big phrases.  He had been a stutterer as a kid and ever since he had a fear of verbal stumbling. So “posse” worked well for him.  Whatever you want to call them, it was an impromptu gathering of local pastors.  It all started by coincidence about four years earlier.

 Father Randy, a 61 year old Roman Catholic priest and  Mike Monroe, a 41 year old pastor of the Manistique Community Church were ministering to the same family, the Olsens, about three miles from Germfask.  The mother, bless her soul, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma when she was only 34.  She had never been a sun worshiper, nor frequent tanning salons.  What made it seem even more unjust was the fact she had four beautiful little girls, all with their mother’s blue eyes and blond hair.

 It all happened very suddenly.  Karen just got sick one night. Her husband thought it was the flu but when her eyes turned yellow he took her the Helen Newberry Hospital’s Emergency Room.  There she was diagnosed with hepatitis and admitted. It wasn’t until the next day the CT scan showed that her liver was full of tumors.  It took to the end of the day to realize that it was the worst case scenario, malignant melanoma.  Her admitting doctor called the oncologist in Marquette, who advised him that there was nothing they could do but comfort care.

Karen’s husband Doug was a man of faith and love . . . love for his wife, and his daughters.  Despite her worsening illness he loaded her up in his Toyota four-wheeled drive pickup and drove her though a blinding blizzard to the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin.  The melanoma specialists there just shook their heads. She was too far gone for even any research medications.

Doug called his mom, who was watching the girls and broke the news.  Doug’s mom called Father Randy as she had raised Doug Catholic and she also called pastor Monroe because Doug and Karen were attending the Bible church.  Both men of the cloth were waiting at six the next morning when Doug pulled in the driveway.  He carried Karen from the truck, wrapped in a blanket, and through the door. The last time he had carried her across the threshold was just ten years earlier . . . and it seemed like was just last week.

Karen died a slow and merciless death over twelve days and eleven hours.  By their side was of course Doug, the girls, Doug’s mother and Karen’s parents had come from Arizona.  Beside them all were both Father Randy and Pastor Monroe.

The two clergy had known each other before, as this was a large but sparsely populated land, but they got to know each other during that week and a half.  They would take a leave from their vigilant watch, but one at a time. They felt like one of them should be present at Karen’s passing and it was hard to know when that would be.  She spent the last five days of her life in a coma.

When Karen was finally gone, and they had ministered to the family and had Karen’s body off to the funeral home, they went out to the Jolly Bar for breakfast.  There the two men needed to minister to each other.  They had held up strong for the family but in the restaurant, over at the large table, looking out the window at the soft snow flakes, they could do much more than eat their eggs and cry.  Father Randy reached out had grabbed Mike’s elbow and held it tight when the two tables started rattling together as Mike held back an all-out sob. They just ate in silence, the whole world in a blur from the tears in their eyes.

That morning, they promised each other that they would come there for breakfast again as soon as the funeral was over, just to see how each other were doing.  Father Randy had no idea of the conflict that Mike felt.  He knew that Father Randy, who had borne this cross with him, was the only one who could understand his pain. Yet, he also knew that many times he had preached from the pulpit that “our dear Catholic friends are on their way to hell unless we help them find the real Jesus.”

The two men’s second breakfast evolved into a weekly meeting.  It was by another coincidence that on their fourth breakfast, David Smith dropped by the Jolly Bar for coffee.  He was the Church of God preacher out on the highway.  He knew Mike well as the two churches sponsored an Awana program together, but David didn’t know any Catholics.  So the twosome soon became a threesome.

Each Wednesday morning the men would meet for Sharon’s “Fancy Omelets” and a coffee that could burn a hole in your stomach. A few months passed and the posse was starting to jell.  David saw the morning as an evangelical outreach, at least that’s how he reported the time on his required pastor’s duty log.  He so reasoned in his mind, that helping a Catholic priest to convert to Jesus would be a real Coup D’├ętat that he could talk about or preach about for years to come.  Mike still felt a very human kinship with Father Randy as when men cry together, there is a bond of tears or sorry, that makes them brothers.

About that time one morning, Sharon came over to their table with a tall gray-haired man and introduced the seated men to Gregory Landis, a retired Methodist minister from Grand Rapids.  He was divorced and lived in a family cabin on Manistique Lake. Sharon, being a mother figure and match-maker, thought that Greg was kind of lonely. He usually came in on Saturday mornings for breakfast alone but she talked him in to coming and meeting some of the other local clergy. She thought they would hit it off and maybe they did.

So the posse of four was complete.  They continued to meet weekly for several years. Only a couple of times did they get into heated arguments. But Father Randy had them agree to a verbal pact that they would not attempt to convert one another to their particular belief system and that they would always be respectful no matter what was shared.  It seemed to work . . . for a while.

GERMFASK Chap I - (A novice look at American Christianity)














It was a land that had been reinvented over many times. In just the previous ephod the ice slid out of Ontario like a giant spatula pushing down the trees and the hills; clearing out the mastodon and chasing away the bear-skinned hunter.  The ice gouged, scored, scraped . . . then ground, abraded and finally polished the granite and ancient basalt bedrock into a perfect and pure outcropping.  An old Algonquian legend told how the land was so smooth and full of colors that the sky became jealous.  In her jealously she poured down a rain of black dirt to cover the refined stone and to hide its magnificence.

In other folktales, it was the seed, born of the wind or the droppings of birds that found its way into the fissures and cracks. There the brief life gave opportunity of the next seed to fare better. Then on and on the cycle played out where a blade of grass gave out to scrubs, brushwood and finally, a million cycles later . . . sparely gathered trees.

By the time of this story, the only trees viable were birch, aspen and a few small pines.  The birch, with their bright, white skins don’t seem natural but like garrisons of soldiers made of cigarettes wearing drab overcoats. In the autumn their coats turn to bight, yellow, accented now and then by orange maples, and are so brilliant that they are the envy of the hardwood forests of New England.

The thin, organic loam lay gently on the polished bedrock like a resting moss.  In the shallow breaks formed creeks and rivers.  Although their waters were as clear as the most transparent crystal, the dark soil made them look like streams of crude oil. The land was so flat that the tributaries were puzzled on which way to flow . . . either south towards Lake Michigan or north to Superior or Huron.  In their uncertainty they coiled and twisted . . . sometimes being so timid that they formed small lakes where they could gather their waters as they contemplated their course.

One of those streams was the Manistique River.  It was the major drainage for this flat, forgotten plain.  This land was in great need of such bilge because the snows, the same which had given birth to the ice long before, fought each winter to bring the land back under their submission.  While the thin, black soil could be measured in inches, the snows were measured in articulations . . . the ankle depth of one brief, October storm would become knee depth by November, hip by Christmas and neck before spring started the slow taper.  The brief lukewarm summers teetered on such a fine balance, that if there was but one or two degree Fahrenheit change in the average temperature, the snows would not melt before they began again and the sheets of ice would appear once more and reclaim the stone.

As Europeans came to this land, they found riches of iron, copper and towering white pines in the distant western hills.  To access these treasures they build railroads that linked the steamships of the Huron and Superior.  These were arteries of rails which were vital until the locks were opened at Sault Ste Marie.  The locks allowed a single ship to complete the entire journey without the need for land. 

Where the railroad, also known as the Manistique, cross the river of its namesake, a bridge was built and a switch was hammered between the tracks.  The switch directed trains that ran west to the resources, south to the ports on the Michigan and north to the ports on the Huron.  The Manistique RR needed a switch-master so a house was built to accommodate him and his family.  Soon they had a few neighbors to set up a store and to bring supplies to beaver trappers and hunters.  Before long, these eight families inhabited this remote place; the Grants, the Edges, George Robinson, the Meads, The good Doctor French, Ezekiel Ackley, the Sheppards and the Knaggs.  It was the combination of the first letters of their last names of each family that gave the village its odd name.

As time went on, Germfask only grew to a township of half a thousand. The track switch became automatic so the only reason to continue living there was the fact that the people had already homesteaded.  It is difficult to give up a place you have built with your own hands and move on. So they struggled to find a way to live.  The crops could not support them in the brief thaw which they called summer.  The locals did find ways to lure the few tourists off the main highways which ran east and west either north or south of them. 

The Manistique River was also kind enough to pause and ponder just to the east in large lake also called Manistique.  There, vacation homes sprang up and on the west end, Germfask was a reasonable distance to call “town.”  In those homes lived the people from the city who had come to make peace with god’s country.  After all it was this far northern land which had given the city folks their means of living through its gifts of metal and wood. The iron became the steel of the Model T and the Dodge Ram. The dense white pine became the sticks which held up their roofs over the places they reared their children.

Germfask has one restaurant, not counting the hotdog merry-go-round inside the Quick Mart out on the highway.  The restaurant was built by John Sheppard, the great grandson of the original settler Oscar Sheppard.  Finally John got too old to run it and then his daughter tried. But with most of the giant white pine in the west gone, the traffic had slowed and she gave up. The Liberty stood empty for almost a decade during the sixties.  However, just before her decline was irreversible, a chain of retired people came into ownership. They were blessed with the circumstances of running a restaurant out of personal enjoyment and without the necessary of financial sustainability.  The last owners, Arnie and Sharon, moved up from Chicago in the early 90s. 

Arnie had a career as a lineman from the power company. He was electrocuted in 87 at the age of thirty nine.  It wasn’t the shock which disabled him but the fall from a 75 foot tower.  It took him a year and a series of multiple orthopedic procedures to walk again.  Sharon was a nervous woman and after their house was ransacked by robbers, there was nothing more she wanted than to move.  She loved cooking and the Jolly Inn, their new name for the bar and grill, fit her like a glove.  

If America had a back door to its culture, Germfask would be as good of a point of entry as any.  If there was a literal door, through which you could enter our world un-noticed, the front door of the Jolly Inn may have been the best. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

GERMFASK - A Totally Novice Look at Christianity - An Introduction.

Introduction:

A long time ago, I was sitting in Germfask, Michigan and was thinking what a interesting, remote, little town and how it would make an incredible backdrop to a fictional story.  In my mind I've written the story over the past ten years and I thought it might be time to put it down.

I will not give away the major premise of the narrative, however, the point of it was what it would be like if someone, say an outsider, came to modern, American Christianity with absolutely no foreknowledge of it. How would it look to someone with no cultural bias or preconceived ideas but who was very insightful and brilliant?

The only reason I've picked the town of Germfask is because every time I drove though it (and I must have 20 times during my decade of living in Michigan's upper peninsula), I was intrigued.  My point has nothing to do with the nice people of Germfask but the remote and very, very rural setting.  If someone was to visit American culture, being in remote place would be a good place to start.  The only reason I've picked the Jolly Inn, is that it is the only restaurant in the area.

I will give this a try. This story is much longer and more complex than my vignette about the subtle art of spiritual abuse so I may give up on it if it takes too long. I will try, for the behalf of the reader, to be more careful.  I always write in a hurry with my mind many paragraphs ahead of my fingers, so I make silly mistakes such as leaving out the negation (not) which total confuses what I mean, or writing "our" when I mean "or" and "hear" when I meant "here."  I also usually type on a 8 inch screen laptop that fits in my pocket and is almost impossible to read and I type with one hand while I'm ordering coffee.  But I will use my office laptop  (14 inch screen) and try to type when I'm not in a hurry to get to work or when I'm not with someone who is begging me to hurry with each keystroke I make.

So the story is simply called "Germfask."


Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Spiritual Warfare" Revisited


Okay, I'm not attempting to teach some new doctrine here.  Actually, I'm not sure if I'm right at all. But I do want to raise some questions about spiritual warfare and maybe how we have gotten it wrong.
Background

I have a couple of friends who brought this issue of spiritual warfare to my attention over the past year.  One, I will call Bob and the other Paul.  Bob was the pastor of a large church here in the states and Paul and his wife missionaries in Asia.  They each had confined in me about some serious personal struggles.  No one in Paul's church knew the dirty details and no one on Paul's missionary newsletter list knew. On the surface everything looked . . . swell.

Bob suffered a tremendous amount of spiritual abuse from his senior pastor/boss. This senior pastor was well known in their denomination and highly esteemed.  Finally Bob's ministry collapsed under his boss' thumb and he created lies to make it sound like Bob had done something horribly wrong.  You will noticed that I drew from this real-life story in my recent writings about the subtle art of spiritual abuse. So Bob lost his calling, his job (he remains unemployed), his reputation and his friends. This last straw was that his wife (a deeply religious woman who was the daughter of a pastor ) told him that she didn't respect him anymore as a spiritual leader, thus she was filing for divorce. He was in total shock. If there was any vindication in Bob's story was the the fact that the dominating senior pastor has since been caught in a scandal and has been fired, but that came too late to help Bob.

Paul likewise was under the thumb of a dominating and merciless missionary boss. He had been so for years.  He only told me because we have been close friends for a long time. Even with me he was hesitant to speak openly  about his boss, but when he started to open up about it, you could see the emotions starting to bubble up through his soul. But that was just the start of it. In their host country, Paul's teenage daughter was raped, then they were robbed, they had huge issues among the national pastoral staff (stealing, incest, adultery and you name it).  Then Paul and his wife, each, had huge problems going on with their families back in the states including, in a span of months, two suicides of sibling, the deaths of three of the four parents, big financial losses and etc.

My point here is what happened next. 

Both Bob and Paul have suddenly become very sick, physically. Their illnesses are a mystery to the medical establishment but have rendered both men totally incapacitated.  Fortunately for Paul, his wife has remained his major support but she too is not well and they, as a family, have left the mission field on medical leave.  Both Paul and Bob have since said the same thing to me. They feel that they were under demonic attacks, thus their medical problems (as well as some of the crap they've lived through recently). 


So, look at the passage, Ephesians six, that the men were drawing from:
The Armor of God 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Now, I know what the men were saying. It is the normal way of looking at life. Basically, in the invisible world of spirits Satanic forces are causing all the bad things to happen, then they are causing physical illness (in the Job syndrome).  Maybe it is just a part of testing.


Let me share a possible different possible perspective.


Somatization disorders are quite common.  Under that broad umbrella are the old terms of conversion disorders and its little sister hypochondria.


A word about somatization disorders.  I see patients with somatization disorders everyday. What I mean by this is the patient really believing that they are ill . . . but they really are not.  They look ill but all their tests come back negative.  Just Friday I was examining a patient and she had a full-blown "seizure," which had already been diagnosed, without question, of being pseudo-seizures.  These are pretend seizures.  Most patients don't plan on having an episode, but it is a function of their subconscious.  So, you never tell these patients to "stop it!"  They really believe the spells are real.


So, I honestly believe that Bob and Paul are experiencing somatization disorders.  This is different than developing ulcers because of stress. In the case of Bob and Paul, it is where you feel sick, when there is absolutely nothing wrong with your body. It is all imagined sickness, being imagined by your subconscious.  A lot of faith-healers' success is where they tell one of these people that they have been healed, and then they are (their subconscious stops creating the fake illness).


At the time scripture was written, no one was aware of the physical brain and what it did. The human body was divided between the physical, joints, skin, lungs and etc. and the spiritual, what we now know as the emotions and etc. Certainly the subconscious would have been considered the spiritual.


Now, I'm not trying to dismiss the supernatural.  When I look at the world as a monist, and once again quoting from Einstein, I see everything as a miracle. If God hadn't acted, then nothing would be here.  He made the brain and the subconscious and it is all supernatural.


Going back to the somatization disorders, they are caused by several factors. One common one is where someone did not get the nurturing that they deserved as a child. Maybe they were even seriously abused. Now that they are adults, they have a serious nurturing deficit. The only socially accepted way for an adult to get parent-child type of nurturing, is for the adult to be seriously sick.


All the patients, whom have somatization disorders, usually have a spouse, sister, mother or friend who is with them.  That family member hauls them around where ever they need to go. That family member feeds them, makes decisions for them and the list goes no.


In the case of people like Bob and Paul, it is more complicated. I assumed that they had a decent amount of nurturing as children (none of us have what God intended), but it was these prolonged periods of stress and aggravation that makes their subconscious react this way.  But the results are the same. When you are very ill, you don't have to preach anymore . . . or go back to the mission field. So many of the requirements go out the window.


Please don't take me wrong. I'm not blaming my friends at all. They are past their breaking point and getting sick is the only way they have of coping and succeeding.


So, could this passage be saying that our struggle isn't in fistfights or real disease of our bodies. Our struggle is spiritual/mental.  It is there that the very intelligent Satan is most effective. I think it is very naive, somewhat on the level of kindergarten, to see our troubles from the angle that the devil is moving around, like on the Exorcist casting back-luck spells on us. No, it is far more sinister.


Okay, this is getting too long and I will have to come back.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Boundaries of Emotional Pain - Revisited


In my adventures though good fiction, I stumbled this week onto The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published first in 1910.  I have to say I cheated. I didn't read it but listened to it via MP3 format.

I started it last Saturday when I was running my first foot race, a half marathon.  I knew that my body would be hurting so badly that I needed something to draw me up into a fantasy world, far removed from the physical pain.  That's what my ear-buds did, like a vacuum, sucking my brain through my ears and into a world of peace an intoxicating narrative where the sharp pains in my knees and caves were only a faint memory left behind by my transcendent escape.  This morning I finished the "book" during my 7 1/2 mile run to the coffee shop.

I've been thinking about emotional pain a lot lately, and I'm not sure why but I do want to throw out some questions to challenge the status quo, at least when it comes to Christian thinking.

I must first explain the connection between the Secret Garden and this question about the boundaries of pain.  While there are many characters and metaphors within this book, I want to focus on one simple one, the plight of master Arichibald Craven and his grief over loosing his wife.  This was a wealthy man who managed a large estate in Yorkshire. His wife fell from a tree swing in one of the many gardens and died. At her death, Mr. Craven's world also died.  He locked up the garden, where she had taken her last breath, left his infant son, whom he assumed was an invalid, and walked the beautiful places of Europe in deep depression for . . . a decade.

There is a strong theme of the book that has a Christian Science connection, specifically how the living things of nature are healing. But that's not my point here.  My point is that Arichibald was a decent man. He didn't intend to be a neglecting father, after all he bought the best care he could for his sick son. But my point is, despite Arichibald's traveling to the most beautiful places, such as Norway, Switzerland and Italy's lake country, he was totally enveloped in a dark depression after his loss.  His depression wasn't self-willed. It was because he loved his wife dearly, and lost her. It was intrusive and irresistible.

Here is where I take this thought to the debate between he dualist and monist.  In Evangelical dualism, like with many forms of pantheism, this world is seen as a weight and what is wrong.  It is seen as intrinsically evil. To succeed, as a good Christian, it is thought that one must transcend, like I did the physical pain of my runs, but into a spiritual realm.  Once you reside there, as a godly person, the losses of this world grow dim and less meaningful.

It is in this mindset I watched as the most disciplined, self-proclaimed godly man I had ever known (the one who trained me in a Navigator training center) as he did not shed a tear when his 16 year old son was decapitated in a horrible accident. I remember how hard I tried to emulate this father who was so spiritual the he saw the accident as simple God carrying out his loving will, and to cry was to doubt God.

But my view now is that emotional pain is real, very real, more real than we have previously known. It is also self-determined, meaning it can not be halted until it runs its course.  It can be denied in this strange mental gymnastics (as my Nav leader did). It is the same type of emotional denial that fringes on the schizophrenics' world, of being totally disconnected from reality.  It isn't a healthly thing in my opinion. Anytime you remove yourself from reality, part of your soul also dies.  Yes, you can finish your life with your eyes open, a soft smile on your face, but the denial of your pain so intense that you are nothing more than a walking corpse.  Your skin becomes cold to the touch.

I know that many great minds in psychology have pondered this question, about what are the natural, and healthy boundaries of pain?  When does pain run its course?  For Achibald it was a decade.  For that time, he was consumed with his pain as a drowning man is with water.  Then finally, and who knows why, while sleeping on the shores of beautiful Lake Como, he once again realizes that he is still breathing, the sun is still shining and that he still has a son who needs him. But his time of mourning was not captured in minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months . . . but a full decade, almost to the day.  But that was only the darkest point of his pain. I'm sure, if he were a real character, that he carried the pain of his loss to his own real grave.

Of course pain can take us captive in an unhealthy way, where we never recover enough to function again. So, juxtaposed to the walking corpse of denial, is the similar walking corpse of eternal despondency.  I've seen both so many times.

In the latter case, it is what can be called in psychological terms as "prolonged bereavement."  But what is prolonged? I think that denial happens just as often as prolongement, and maybe even much more in Christian circles.

I must go and will come back to continue this idea. But I will say, it took me over a decade to recover from a failed missionary experience. I don't think there was anything I could have done to have shortened it. It had to work its way through and out the back side of my soul like a toxic acid. It took me five years to recover from another great loss a number of years ago.  But still, deep within my soul, I can hear echos of losses from childhood, high school and college.  I think we are all made of the same mortal stuff.  Pure grief must have its season and there is no stopping it. You can choose to take the blue pill of denial or the red pill of the agony of reality, but there is no balm that takes away the pain overnight.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lessons I've Learned from Coco

Okay, Coco is my dog an it's not the best photo in the world, but it is the only one I can find right now.

I've been a Saint Bernard fan since I was a little kid. Coco is my fifth. She's getting old, about 10 (that's 70 in dog years).  It is rare for Saint Bernards to live this long and I will truly miss her when she is gone.

I have come to the conclusion that dogs and all animals have souls and will be part of the new heaven and earth. Like us, God has created them, thus they deserve respect and love. Yes, we stand alone in being in God's complete image, but animals are unique in their own right and bear some ressemblence to the character of God. This view wasn't always true in Christian history. Some, with more dualistic ways of thinking, saw animals as the nasty beast that were part of this evil world. I will stop at that but to say that I loved the image created by Lewis of a dog flying up a water fall going into the new earth.  My dog coco has taught me many powerful lessons about life and I wanted to share a few.  I'm sure I'm not the first to do so.

1) Coco does not hide her emotions and couldn't care less about what other people think when she expresses them. She greets me like she hasn't seen me in a decade, if only I went to the store. She is not embarrassed to wear her emotions on her sleeves.  She doesn't care if she looks silly or vulnerable.

2) She is not bashful about how much she enjoys the good things God has given her, like meat, and meat, more meat, ear rubs and cool toilet water.

3) She loves all people unconditionally.  She loves even strangers. She loves me even if I yell at her . . . for getting in the garbage . . . looking for meat. She loves me and runs to me for comfort even if I'm the one who caused her pain, like stepping on her tail.  Her forgiveness is complete and instant.

4) She understands that I still love her, even if she has rolled in poop. I will help clean her up, I will fuss at her, but then I will love her exactly the same because I know that is the nature of dogs . . . rolling in poop. She knows that I know it is dog's nature to want to smell bad.

5) Because of # 4, she does not carry guilt.  Once she is cleaned up, she knows that I love her the same.

6) She has no predetermined way to behave according to her age. She behaves accordingly to how she feels. She is 70 years old now, and behaves exactly the same as when she was 5 years old (dog years). She runs, jumps and plays like an attacker (nipping but not biting). She plays, "catch me if you can" the same way she did as a pup.

7) She never pretends anything she is not. She is scared of thunder, fireworks and gunfire and she makes no pretense to be brave.

8) She loves company.  If you work outside, she must be in physical touch at all times.  She sleeps against our bedroom door only because we don't allow her to sleep in our bedroom, or our bed.

9) She assumes that she is equal to us. So she is puzzled when we tell her that she can't sleep on the leather couch, while we sit on it all the time. She is puzzled each night when we put her out of our bedroom and she whines to come back into our bedroom with the first noise we make. After 3650 nights, she is still surprised the we will not allow her to sleep in the same room where we sleep. She has an eternal hope that she is our peer.