Christ is Risen!

John 3:16; Matthew 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:4

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Christ is alive! And, at the appointed time – in the fullness of time — trumpets will sound, choirs will sing their alleluias, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed – the mortal will be clothed with immortality, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! Death swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Romans 6:4 proclaims that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And paraphrasing Ephesians, chapter 2: those who are dead in their sins are given new life as they come to Jesus in faith.

That is the Gospel. That is the gospel truth of Easter, Resurrection Day.

Edward Markquart, pondering the meaning of Easter, muses over what might have been printed if there were newspapers in the first century like those we have today. If there were, an obituary for Jesus might have appeared in the Saturday edition noting His time and place of birth and His lineage. There we might have read about the publicity He’d received because of unusual occurrences associated with Him such as the blind being given sight, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking. The obituary might have noted the rumors about how He radically changed people’s lives and how one day He entered Jerusalem to the loud acclamations of Passover crowds who hailed Him as king.

The piece would likely have gone on to say that those crowds had turned against Him and called for His death and how, succumbing to those crowds, Governor Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire in Jerusalem, sentenced Him to death. And, in that article, we would have learned how Jesus died on a cross at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem. His burial was in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

If that obituary had been printed in the Jerusalem Post or the Nazareth News, everyone would have thought that the Jesus movement had ended. Its leader was dead. His disciples had gone into hiding. This little episode would have become one minor footnote in history. His reputation, His teachings would have faded…if not for the third day. On the third day, the grave was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

The news spread, from the angel to Mary to Peter to the disciples to the 500. And they became a new people. They became a new brand of men and women who were filled with a new power, with resurrection power. They were no longer afraid of living because they were no longer afraid of dying. They had a new passion for life because they had resurrection power within them!

On Easter – all these centuries later – the Church, gathered from every race, every culture, every nation…the Church gathered by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions – the Church…gathered to hear the Resurrection message – to sing the songs and hear the good news, to celebrate new life — Christ has been raised from the dead by the victorious power of God. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This day is not only concerned with God’s victory over physical death; this day is also concerned with God’s victory over spiritual death. God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. God raises spiritually dead people to life all the time, and I’ve seen it again and again. I have seen and heard and experienced real life stories of people who were spiritually dead and God put new life back into them. That’s what Easter is all about.

I’m quite certain there is someone reading this today who is spiritually dead OR who is so close to being spiritually dead, you would never be able to tell the person was alive. Spiritually comatose. Too busy for God.  Too busy running in circles and God is not part of that circle.

The apostle Paul, writing in his epistle to the Ephesians, tells us that we need to put off our old selves and put on the new. We are made new experientially when we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

For someone, your spiritual life is as dehydrated as the dry bones described in the book of Ezekiel. Your life is relatively unaffected by spiritual things. On Good Friday, you didn’t stop for even a moment to recall Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  The study of Scripture and the practice of daily prayer are not on your itinerary. Oh, you may pray when you’re in a jam, like just about everybody else. Oh, you may believe in the “Man Upstairs,” but that daily authentic walk with God is just not part of your life.

Tell me, can a person who is deaf hear the thunder? No. Can a person who is blind see the piercing flash of lightning? No. Neither can a person who is spiritually deaf truly hear the Word of God speaking to them every day, nor can the spiritually blind see the piercing light of God shining on their lives. The spiritually deaf can’t really hear the voice of God and the spiritually blind will not be overjoyed at seeing the beauties of God in Christ. Some are living like the dead dead, rattling around with dry bones like the skeletons described in the book of Ezekiel. … No thunder of God do you hear! No light of God do you see! No delicacies of God do you really taste or eat!

But the Easter message is that the awesome power of God, who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can miraculously take your dead life and mine and make it alive. God can take a person who are spiritually dead and fill that person with resurrection power, vibrant power so that life is lived with a passion for the ways of God. And it’s time. It’s time to wake up, come out from the spiritual coma, be raised up from spiritual lethargy by the power of God.

If you’re reading this today, I believe it is because God wants you to read this so that you might hear afresh or for the first time the Easter promise that God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. Victory over death was won by Jesus Christ.

Let’s recount what God did in Christ so that we might live.

Jesus had a Last Supper with his disciples and spent an excruciating time waiting in Gethsemane when those disciples couldn’t manage to remain awake with Him as He agonized over His approach to the cross. In a garden, He was betrayed with the Judas kiss and then He was brought before His accusers in a sham of a trial. He suffered the emotional pain of acknowledging the betrayal of yet another beloved disciple.

Then He suffered the physical pain of the scourging – Jesus was struck over and over and over again with a whip constructed of long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead and glass. With each lash, the whip wrapped around His body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body was barely recognizable.

Then a crown of thorns was jammed on His head and He was beaten on the head repeatedly with a staff. They led Him away to be crucified. Jesus – battered and exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

On the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His wrists and feet. And He remained on that cross for six hours until He said the words: “It is finished” and “Father, into You hands, I commit my spirit.” Then He took His last breath.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (John 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (John 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred and the scriptures make clear they were certain He was dead (Matthew 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time.

The stone, they estimated, would have weighed 1½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded by soldiers of the Roman Empire, the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail assigned to Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap and fold neatly the hundred pounds of grave clothes, lift the body and carry it away? Really!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives.

But then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – the scriptures tell us the women who had followed Jesus made their way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found — to her amazement and fear — that the stone had been rolled away and an angel said: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. Just as He said.” He is risen!! Alleluia!

So this day calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow spiritual death, eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the new life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. When we believe this and follow Him, we follow Him to resurrection. We live.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb, knowing that death will not hold us in its grip. We are free to claim the abundant life that Jesus has won for us. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name. Why live like the dead when you can live as the living?

If you are reading this and you have never welcomed Jesus into your life and if you feel a prodding in this moment to do so, I invite you to pray the prayer that follows. If you already know Jesus and want to rededicate yourself to Him, you can use this prayer to do that as well.

Dear Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. I – with all sincerity and with all gratitude – accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of you, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you genuinely – from the depths of your heart and mind and spirit – prayed to welcome Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I hope you will share that good news with me and with any other Christians you may know. You can take your first steps as a Christian reading the gospel of John which you can access via the Bible Gateway link on this website. A next step would be connecting with a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring congregation in your community. You will never be alone again as Jesus will walk with you and His Word (the Bible) will transform you as you read.

Folks who have known Jesus for awhile: I would love to hear how you were introduced to Him and what that relationship has meant in your life.

I wish you well on your journey of faith and pray it may be as transformative and exciting as has been my own!

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians

Saeed Abedini with his sonPhoto by ACLJ (used with permission).
Saeed Abedini with his son
Photo by ACLJ (used with permission)

Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen and ethnic Iranian who returned to Iran, has been imprisoned and tortured there for six months because of his Christian ministry. The prosecutor, in outlining the charges against him, said Abedini had undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches.

“This is a real travesty, a mockery of justice,” said Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been lobbying for the pastor’s release. “From the very beginning Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release. Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights.”

Sekulow said it is deeply troubling that “we have a U.S. citizen who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, now facing eight years in Evin Prison, one of the most brutal prisons in Iran.” He added that the pastor, whose wife Naghmeh and their two small children remain in the United States, will most likely continue to face “life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime — simply because of his Christian faith.”

According to The New American, the Muslim-born, naturalized American citizen Abedini became a Christian after training to be a suicide bomber in his native Iran. “His wife, the American-born Naghmeh, whom he married in 2005, related that Abedini had become very depressed as a result of the training, and that “Christianity saved his life.” Following his Christian conversion, Abedini ultimately became a leader in Iran’s underground church, and before leaving the country, oversaw about 100 churches and 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities. He had returned to Iran to help establish a non-sectarian orphanage.”

Fox News notes that: “On the day he was confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry went farther than his predecessor had in condemning Iran for imprisoning an American citizen . . . Kerry, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, made the statement in response to a written query from fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if Kerry, as Secretary of State, would join the National Security Council’s call for Saeed Abedini’s release.

“’We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,’ Kerry told Rubio. ‘I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him.’”

U.S. citizens who are persecuted for their faith overseas are not a typical priority for the U.S. Government or the media, human rights lawyer Nina Shea has observed. And it was not until March 22, in a statement issued very late on a Friday, that Secretary of State John Kerry made a proactive call for Abedini’s release. “I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for almost six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry wrote. “I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”

Pastor Saeed is far from alone in suffering persecution for his Christian faith. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year. Deseret News boils the numbers down to a Christian martyred every five minutes – killed because they name Jesus as their Savior.

Open Doors, a non-profit organization working in the world’s most oppressive countries, providing Bibles and literature, media, leadership training, socio-economic development and ensuring prayer, presence and advocacy for persecuted Christians, recently released its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Topping the list are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.

North Korea is described on the Open Doors website as “the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labour camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 Christians alone. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.”

In Saudi Arabia, according to Open Doors, there is no provision for religious freedom in the Islamic kingdom’s constitution. “All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honour killings, and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers. Despite this, converts are responding to Christian TV programmes and to dreams and visions from God.” Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.

Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians who are Dying for Their Faith, by religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall with journalist Lela Gilbert, is one of the most moving books I’ve read on the persecution of Christians. In this, the authors reveal the reality of this present-day horror and offer suggestions on what individuals and churches can do to help those who are suffering.

51IRH56y5RLMarshall, Gilbert, and Shea have also now released a new book on the international torment of Christians called Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson). Their launch was March 27 at the Hudson Institute, where all three are affiliated, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas moderating.

***

Mark Tooley, on the blog site Juicy Ecumenism, shared the following comments from the authors today:

“Churches themselves don’t take notice sometimes,” Nina Shea sadly observed about persecution of Christians. “Not too many people are paying attention.” And “political correctness has grown even in churches.” She contrasted today’s indifference to the wide coalition of the 1990s that rallied for global religious liberty, which led to the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that U.S. foreign policy prioritize the issue. That coalition had been led and cheered on by, among others, evangelical leader Chuck Colson and New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, both now deceased.

The indifference and ignorance even within American churches is compounded by little knowledge that significant Christian communities even exist in majority Muslim countries, Paul Marshall noted, much less that they are increasingly under siege.

***

While the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa – in settings that are often, as noted, extraordinarily oppressive –  it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, fewer than four percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. The situation is even worse in countries like Germany and Sweden where the numbers of professing Christians are now so low as to be almost uncountable.

While people in the United States are hungry for information about God and, while the country still permits open expressions of the Christian faith, Christian pollster George Barna estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question – “What are we trying to do?” – was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list.

Here, where we have the freedom to live out the faith, many Christians are biblically illiterate and rarely share their belief in Christ with those who have never been introduced to Him. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Christianity has been syncretized with everything from (what we used to call) the New Age to Buddhism to secularism.

Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries [in the United States] very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”

We sit on the mission field. What will you do about all that you’ve just read? Brothers and sisters around the world are dying for the faith. The Lord may never place you in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel but we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. What risk will you take for the Lord this Holy Week? Will you take the risk to invite someone to consider Christ? Who will you bring to worship this Sunday? Who will you lift to the Lord in prayer?

To learn more about the persecuted church, you can visit:  http://www.opendoors.comhttp://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/; and  http://www.aclj.org. Tooley’s full story on the release of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians is found at http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/03/28/global-assault-on-christians/.

Featured photograph: Photo of Saeed Abedini with his wife, Naghmeh, and their two children (a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son) by ACLJ (used with permission).

Following Ruskin’s Lead

Roughfolk Falls, Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota
Roughfolk Falls, Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

John Ruskin was a leading English art critic, social thinker and philanthropist of the Victorian era. He was also a watercolorist who lamented that most individuals do not take the time nor make the effort to see what is right before them.

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton notes that Ruskin believed one way to “possess beauty properly was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it . . . [T]he most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.” Ruskin was motivated by a desire to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.”

Ruskin not only sketched but also “word-painted” (writing so as to cement his impressions of beauty). He not only described what he saw but analyzed the effect on himself of what he saw in psychological language (“the grass seemed expansive, the earth timid.”) In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: ” I can never stay long under an Alpine cliff, looking up at its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like a shadow of the one beside it – upright, fixed, not knowing each other. . . All comfortless they stand, yet with such iron will that the rock itself looks bent and shattered beside them – fragile, weak, inconsistent, compared to their dark energy of delicate life and monotony of enchanted pride.”

Ruskin calls us to sketch and word paint, to search into the cause of beauty, to penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. Rather than just walking down a lane, he calls us – on that walk – to look up and observe “how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. . . to see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves. . . to see the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty.”

Should we choose not to see, not to sketch and not to word paint, we may just pass along a green lane, and when we come home again, have nothing to say or think about it but that we went down such and such a lane. Perhaps if we follow Ruskin’s lead, we may begin to find a walk down a green lane, or a moment in the company of a sanderling, or the contemplation of the rain on a windowpane, an adventure. We may begin to truly see, understand and be stirred to love.

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Sanderlings. Topsail Beach, North Carolina. Photo by Donna Hailson
Topsail Beach, North Carolina

The Wild Life: Surprise Encounters in the Natural World

Yellowstone.Photo by Donna Hailson
Elk in Yellowstone

For two years, two months and two days – from late 2010 to the start of this new year – my husband and I traveled across the United States in search of “experiences outside of our experiences.” Now settled for a time, I am preparing a book that traces the spirit-elevating lessons to be found in wayfaring.

In our days on the road, we met many fascinating people from gold panners and a family of wild mushroom pickers in Oregon to a moonshiner in Louisiana, from a mariachi band in Texas to Gullah-Geechee sweetgrass basket weavers in South Carolina. We spent delight-filled days marveling at glorious natural wonders from the majestic Grand Canyon in Arizona to the hoodoo-filled Bryce Amphitheater in Utah, from the lush and soul-soothing Appalachian Mountains in Tennesee to the barren salt flats of Badwater in California’s Death Valley. Along the way we also had a good many surprise encounters with wild animals, many of which we found in new and unanticipated habitats. Our companions: grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorns, mountain goats, alligators, bald eagles, elk, bison, even a band of beggin’ burros. In this entry, I’ll be recounting some of the most magical and memorable of these encounters. Before I do, however, allow me to share a bit of history.

*****

From the time our daughter Brooke was little more than a toddler, through her teen years and even to her adulthood, she and I made regular visits to the Audubon Sanctuary in our hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There we would meander down the woodland paths, climb up the drumlin and esker, and stroll through the meadows to our favorite spot, the Rockery. We would settle ourselves into one of the hideaways by the Rockery Pond to listen to the pickerel frogs and to search for birds, painted turtles and other wild things.

In every moment, we would breathe in and revel in the beauty of the created order. After our sit, we’d scramble up and around the cave-like rock formations near the water and, as we did, we would each unpack our days.

A number of years have passed since those sublime hours in the Rockery. Brooke is now married and has toddlers of her own. Three years ago, she moved with her husband, a Marine, to Japan. And, there they stayed till just a few months ago. While they were all on the other side of the globe – Brooke and I turned to other avenues for our unpacking: Skype, Facebook, email, the post, the telephone.

With my husband Gene retired, with my work as a writer transportable, and with Brooke and her family so far away, Gene and I decided – in the summer of 2010 to launch into a time of wayfaring. We sold or packed away most of our belongings, purchased a truck and an RV and set out on the road.

Over this time, our meanderings have taken us over continuously changing interior and exterior terrains. These days and the lessons gleaned from this “rubber hobo” life are now the subject of a book on which I am at work. I should probably note here that I would define a “rubber hobo” as a free-spirited wayfarer – with no attached-to-the-land home – who travels about the country in a rubber-tired vehicle. A rubber hobo may work at odd jobs along the way but he or she remains unencumbered enough to answer the call of the open road whenever it may come.

As I write this, we are visiting with our daughter and her family in their new home in Surf City, North Carolina. Though today we are far from our much-loved Ipswich with its much-cherished Audubon Sanctuary, we have found new sanctuaries for the mind and heart and spirit and we still venture out each day in search of new rockeries: places of challenge and yearning and searching and learning.

As I reflect, I note that some of the most remarkable moments in my life have come through surprise encounters in the natural world.

While I’ve been working on the book, an earlier trip came to mind; it’s one I made with friends to Zimbabwe. We were in that country working as journalists but were able to take a few days away from researching and writing to visit Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. We chose as home base for our trip, Hwange Safari Lodge, a 100-room hotel that sits on 33,000 acres abutting the 3.5 million acre national park. Most of the lodge’s rooms and suites overlook a waterhole and savanna bush and all come equipped with mosquito nets.

On our first evening at the lodge, after a buffet of traditional African fare, my friends and I made our way – at sundown – toward the waterhole. There, we spied – silhouetted in the half-light glow – a herd of more than 40 elephants coming in to take an end of the day drink. The adults strode in slowly and their young clung close to their sides. I couldn’t hold back the tears and found myself weeping and weeping, overcome by so many emotions. I felt so privileged to be in their presence. But there was even more to the moment, for behind them – in the distance – I could see herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest racing across the savanna. The images from that night are indelibly stamped on my heart and memory and I find I am – even now – near to tears as I place myself again in that space, in that moment, at Hwange . . . Magic.

The morning after this encounter, one of my companions and I were awakened by a commotion in a neighboring room. Our friend Diane had disregarded the warnings of the hotel staff and had left the sliding glass door to her patio slightly ajar. She’d had quite the rude awakening when she opened her eyes to find a vervet monkey cavorting about her room, somersaulting on her bed! After some loud hand clapping and shouting, the three of us were finally able to shoo the uninvited guest out of doors.

Later that day or, perhaps it was the next, my companions and I stopped for tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. This gracious “grand old lady of the falls,” established in 1904, is set in the midst of lush tropical gardens. It epitomizes the romance of grand travel but it is also a place where – again – we were to be entertained by vervet monkeys. These impish creatures reminded me of the squirrels who frequented my bird feeders in New England; the vervets were just as numerous and just as mischievous.

In another spot on another day, three of these delightful fellows lined up on a log for me in perfectly profiled poses. What a great photo op they presented!

When I was traveling some days later in a Jeep en route somewhere, I spied three young warthogs off the road. I asked the driver to stop and raced into the bush to take some photographs. I was getting some fabulous shots when – suddenly – a question popped into my mind: “Where’s Mummy?” It was right about then, that the foolhardiness of my impromptu mission became apparent to me. A large female warthog seemed to come out of nowhere to face me. I backed away respectfully and, thank God, I was able to make it safely back to the Jeep. I learned a lesson that day and I am truly grateful Mama Warthog left me alive to share it.

Grizzly at Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: Gene Hailson.
Grizzly in Yellowstone

Human beings can behave so foolishly – human beings can abandon all reason, all common sense – when faced with a good photo op in the wild. I’ll never forget a story told to me by Nevada Barr in an interview for my radio show, On the Road with Mac and Molly. Barr, who spent many years as a ranger, is now an award-winning author of mysteries set in the national parks. I nearly keeled over when she recounted that a fellow ranger, who had worked at Yellowstone, had given a man a ticket for smearing ice cream on his daughter’s cheeks. Why the ice cream? Why the ticket? The man had covered his daughter’s face with the cold confection in hopes of luring a grizzly bear over to lick it off. The man was angling for a good picture!

When Gene and I were visiting Yellowstone we were witness to a similar episode of foolhardiness. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched two young men leap from their vehicle to make a mad dash into the woods – tripod and camera in hand – trying to get a close-up photo of a grizzly that we and they had spied some yards off the park road. Gene and I were quite content to remain at a more respectful distance. And, thank God – again – like my Mama Warthog, this grizzly allowed this pair of photogs to live another day.

Yellowstone is the flagship of the National Park Service and, based on our experience, we would say it is THE place in the country to find wildlife. Visitors can view much of the park from the comfort of a vehicle or they may hike the miles and miles of trails to backcountry destinations.

Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at high elevation (above 7,000 feet) in North America.Photo Credit: Donna Hailson.
Yellowstone Lake, is the largest lake at high elevation (above 7,000 feet) in North America

Yellowstone is spread out over 2,219,789 acres, making it larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Seven species of ungulates (bison, moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn); two species of bear (grizzly and black); 67 other species of mammals; 322 species of birds; and 16 species of fish all call the park home. There are more than 1,100 species of native plants, more than 200 species of exotic plants and more than 400 species of thermophiles (microorganisms that grow best at elevated temperatures).

Yellowstone boasts 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers. It has one of the world’s largest petrified forests and more than 290 waterfalls. There are nine visitor centers and twelve campgrounds (with a combined total of 2,000 campsites).

Yellowstone was the first national park established in the world and it should be the first park on any list of places to visit. Yellowstone is, as I said, THE place to see wildlife. Hints at that truth became immediately evident to us upon our arrival at the park. As we passed through Yellowstone’s south entrance, we were greeted by buffalo butt. We drove along for quite a distance looking at the backside of this bull that just took his sweet, sweet time strolling down the road, unperturbed by and seemingly oblivious to the vehicles inching along behind him.

Bison at the Mud Volcano.Photo Credit: Donna Hailson.
Bison at the Mud Volcano

Some days later, I’d see another bull, planted next to the park’s Mud Volcano, showing a similar disinterest in all the folks eagerly clamoring and clustering around him trying to get the best photo. He’d plopped down for an afternoon sit and that was that. On the walk up to the Mud Volcano, could also be seen a jackrabbit placidly sunning herself just a few inches away from a snake that was moving in her direction.

One is certain to come across a good many “bear jams” – traffic delays – throughout Yellowstone as folks stop in their tracks – in their vehicles or on foot – whenever one of the park’s denizens comes into view. And, just before sunset, great numbers of folk compete for the best parking spots adjacent to Hayden Valley which has come to be thought of as America’s Serengeti. The soil in this former lakebed permits little tree growth and the shrub and grassland valley plants are frequented by grazing animals – from rodents to large ungulates like elk, moose and bison – and they, in turn, attract predators: bears, coyotes and wolves. Folks pick a hillside, cop a squat, pull out the binoculars and cameras with their mega, mega telephoto lenses, and marvel.

Home base for our stay at Yellowstone was Fishing Bridge, a campground that – apparently – sits in bear central. Here, only hard-sided camping units are allowed and the rules regarding bears are given to visitors verbally and in writing and bear spray, a specially designed-to-repel-bears pepper spray, is available at retail outlets in and surrounding the park.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota

When you’re visiting Yellowstone, you’re warned to be alert for tracks, warned to stay away from carcasses (as bears will defend them), and you’re warned to stay at least 100 yards away from not only bears but wolves as well. You’re wise to give other animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes – at least 25 yards of breathing room. Bison are especially unpredictable and dangerous; they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can sprint 30 miles an hour. We did see quite a number of bison at Yellowstone but, I might note here, that the largest concentrations of this creature that we’ve seen to date are found in Custer State Park in South Dakota.

In Yellowstone, we came upon great numbers of elk (even quite a few hanging about at park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs). We also spied black bears, ospreys, trumpeter swans, moose, and mule deer.

Bighorn Sheep in Estes Park, Colorado.
Bighorn sheep in Estes Park, Colorado

As we’ve been traveling about the country, one thing that’s particularly struck me is that we have often seen large animals – white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, mountain goat…even bighorn sheep  – in the middle of densely-populated neighborhoods. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, we met two deer walking up the steps of the post office. In Estes Park, Colorado – we came across at least a dozen young elk grazing in a field adjacent to a retail complex. Not far from there, we saw another dozen or more bighorn sheep scrambling up a hillside in a residential neighborhood. It was also in Colorado, where we found a mountain goat lounging on the lawn of a bed and breakfast.

White-tailed deer in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
White-tailed deer in Manitou Springs, Colorado

Scholarly papers have been written in recent years detailing the effects of residential development on wildlife in the Rocky Mountain states. One paper noted that white-tailed deer display a high adaptability to human activity. Studies suggest that deer often select high quality forage near residential structures and benefit from the reduced number of predators found there. Elk, however, initially respond to the presence of humans with increased vigilance and flight. Large developments, such as ski areas, are altering elk distributions during sensitive periods such as fawning and this is leading to a decrease in their populations. But, now, elk are beginning to move to areas that have restrictions against hunting such as private lands. As hunter-friendly ranches are increasingly being transformed into subdivisions, more land is becoming available as a refuge for elk during hunting seasons. Bighorn Sheep are also now wandering about populated areas searching for food and safety. Humans are crowding them out and wise decisions will need to be made in the years ahead to equitably address these new realities.

Sometimes, human beings decide to let animals alone to just be in their habitats. Humans adjust their patterns so as to co-exist alongside other species. In Louisiana, near New Orleans, we were warned not to walk Mac and Molly by a lake on a campground because the alligators that live therein are particularly fond of dog.

Alligator at Forever Florida
Alligator at Forever Florida

While ziplining at Forever Florida, in St. Cloud, over pine flatwoods and forested wetlands, I was surprised when I looked down and saw an alligator looking back up at me. I was comforted by the knowledge that I was 68 feet in the air and traveling at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

On my arrival at Forever Florida, which is a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation center, I was greeted by a muster of peacocks and peahens. While riding there in an all-terrain safari coach, I was especially intrigued by our guide’s commentary on the Cracker cattle, Cracker oxen and Cracker horses that all call the adjacent Crescent J Ranch home. It turns out the animals trace their ancestry – in direct line – back to those first brought to Florida in the 1500s by Ponce de Leon.

On the other side of the country – in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, we found some relatives of those Spanish Cracker Horses: burros. Burros – and the name comes from the Spanish word for donkey – most likely derive from the African wild ass, which survives in the semi-arid scrub and grasslands of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

This charismatic relative of the horse, long of ear and muzzle, might have been domesticated a continent away, but it now spends its days on the prairies and pine savannas of South Dakota’s Custer State Park.

"Beggin' Burros" on Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop Road approaching our vehicle
“Beggin’ Burros” on Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road approaching our vehicle

At the park, the burros are feral. They were introduced into the area by humans and have reverted to a wild or semi-wild state. More specifically, the park’s donkey squad descends from pack animals once used for treks to the Harney Peak summit. Now naturalized, they often plead for food from park tourists in places like the Wildlife Loop Road where they – quite frequently – cause traffic jams. Their boldness is such that they are now referred to as the “beggin’ burros.”

One of the "Beggin' Burros" at my window looking for a handout
One of the “Beggin’ Burros” at my window looking for a handout

Gene and I – and our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs, Mac and Molly – were stunned and then fascinated to find the burros poking their heads into our vehicle looking for a handout. This band of beggin’ burros – which, word has it, especially crave crackers – has quite the racket going.

Well, if we can co-exist with other species, preserve the heritage of other species, and let the tamed of other species loose to be feral, perhaps, we might also do what we can to ensure that still other species are protected so that they may continue to exist at all.

Years ago, when Gene and I made our first trek across the country in an RV, we were amused and captivated by the antics of the very social, black-tailed prairie dogs whose communities we encountered while hiking near the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

It broke my heart to hear that these little creatures have now contracted the bubonic plague. Plague has been especially active in their populations in the northern Great Plains only within the last decade but the plague was actually discovered among them as far back as 40 or more years ago. The disease appears to be spreading to encompass the entire range of the species. Some environmentalists – and the National Wildlife Federation in particular – are convinced the prairie dog has become an endangered species even though millions still roam the Great Plains.

Some of the research suggests that the numbers of prairie dogs have been reduced by 98% since 1900 (reduced through plague, hunting and other factors). And there are concerns about protecting the prairie dogs that go beyond their numbers. Prairie dog colonies are associated with sustaining more than 170 other species. “In excavating their elaborate burrow system, prairie dogs change the soil chemistry, making it more porous to rain, and increasing the amount of organic materials that nourish it; they are like rototillers adding organic compost to the ground. [In imbuing the soil with such life, prairie dogs contribute to] the vibrancy of those crawling, scurrying and flying overhead. So, take out the prairie dog, and you start by losing that one species. Then add to it all the species in the soil you lose as a result, and then the impoverishment of the vegetation that results.” (Source: The Spine of the Continent)

Sign in Interior, South Dakota
Road sign in Interior, South Dakota

As I recall the comical squeaks of the prairie dogs, I think how sad it would be to “hear” those voices silenced. When Gene and I were camping in Death Valley, California, I realized one night that I was hearing not one sound. Not an insect. Not a bit of running water. Not a single creature stirring. Not an engine purring, not a cell phone ringing. Dead silence. I looked up to find a night sky – unblemished by light pollution – and  I stood awestruck beneath the most spectacular stellar display it has ever been my privilege to behold. As I strove to take it in, I found myself, as in that moment with the elephants of Hwange, weeping. I was profoundly moved in that silence, under that star-spangled sky, and, as I recall those moments now, I seek the lessons in them.

It was eye-opening, it was instructive, to hear the soundlessness. I was led to think of the sounds of nature I would miss if I could never hear them again: the chirp of a robin; the chatter of a monkey; the rustle of the pronghorn moving through the grassland; the powerful clambering steps of the bighorn as it makes its way up a stony hillside; the trumpet of an elephant; the call of a humpback whale; the groan of a walrus; the whinny of a horse; the bray or a burro; the clicks of a dolphin; the barks of a prairie dog, the barks of our own Mac and Molly.

How precious is this world which we call home and how blessed we are to share that home with creatures that crawl and swim and fly, creatures that amble and arc and strut and slither. I hope you’ll make time today to get out into the natural world, listening for, looking out for, and celebrating the wonderful creatures that so enhance and enrich our lives.

Photo of the Grizzly Bear by Gene Hailson. All other photos by Donna Hailson.

Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

King James Version of Bible, first edition, title page - 1611
King James Version of the Bible, first edition title page

Over the last couple of days, self-identifying Atheist Facebookers (not necessarily “card-carrying members,” just folks) have been reposting a slam against Christians and the Bible from The Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. Referring to the King James version of the New Testament, the piece asserts that “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be lost letters written in the 1st century. That’s not faith. That’s insanity.”

Coincidental with this posting was a recent debate at the University of Cambridge between Prof. Dawkins, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The debate proposition that “religion has no place in the 21st Century” lost by 324 votes to 136.

The London Telegraph reported that, in stressing his central concern as simply whether religion is true, Dawkins summed up his argument by describing religion as a “cop-out,” “a betrayal of the intellect,” “a pernicious charlatan” and a peddler of “false expectations.” Interestingly enough however, early in his address, Dawkins described himself as a ”cultural Anglican.” One is left to wonder if the author of The God Delusion was so roundly beaten because he hadn’t done his homework, had betrayed what he claims to be his own guiding principles, and is struggling with his own self-identity.

The self-stated mission of Dawkins’ foundation is: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” From the aforementioned FB posting and the summary of the comments made by Dawkins at the Jan. 31 debate, one might easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins is desirous of replacing what he perceives as religious fundamentalism with a secular fundamentalism that eschews scholarly inquiry, shuts down respectful debate, and preaches intolerance of other perspectives on the subject of religion. As the Urban Dictionary notes, such anti-religious ideology often “militantly ridicules, mocks, scorns and satirizes the idea of the existence of a deity or deities and or religion . . . [and employs] propaganda, bullying and insults as tactics to push adherents to abandon their professed beliefs and or convert them into like-minded individuals.”

But, you know, I’m beginning to think there may be a chink in Dawkins’ anti-religion armor. We may be watching an ethologist kicking against the goads.

In a public dialogue with Williams on the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at Oxford in February of 2012,  there was surprise when Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator. The London Telegraph reported that “the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: ‘Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?’ Prof Dawkins answered that he did. An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: ‘You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.’ Prof Dawkins said that he was ‘6.9 out of seven’ sure of his beliefs.”

As Dawkins has begun to accept the possibility that God exists, he might – from this point – begin to question whether that God could have conveyed truths about the God-self through human instruments who put that revelation in words that Christians have received as “The Word.” Who knows where Dawkins might end up if he gave the study of theology the same level of attention he has given to science?

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath offers this succinct assessment of Dawkins: His “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate . . . His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.” Many have listened to Dawkins over the years because he’s achieved so much in science but theology, while a companion discipline to science, is just as rich and detailed and just as demanding of rigorous attention and inquiry.

Literary scholar and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton passes similar comment in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

For those willing to admit that there just might be a God, for those interested in the truth about the origins of the Bible, perhaps you might consider doing some research before rejecting, out of hand, that which Christians call “The Word of God.” You might start here: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html