Grand Lodge, a downhill biking adventure

I attended the 151st Oregon Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows last week. It was held at a casino, which struck me as ironic since gambling was once grounds for expulsion. I hated the thought that we were supporting a business that was created for the purpose of profiting from greed and stupidity. Like I told Peggy, sure I’ve chased women, done drugs, gotten drunk, am crazier than hell according to the DSM, and never been great at holding a job either; but, by god, I’ve never gambled. If the preachers are right about there being sins of omission versus sins of commission, then it makes sense that virtue runs in the same directions.

I took my new bike to the convention, and rode it during breaks. The first day, I got a kick out of screaming down a hill that overlooked the casino. I passed a cop in a curve, but there was good visibility and no double lines. I then swung through a large truck stop and wove my way among the slow-moving eighteen-wheelers like a fighter plane among bombers. Next came a stop sign, but nothing was coming, so I didn’t slow down. I was traveling too fast to make the first turn into the casino parking lot, so I gracefully arced into the second. Large yellow arrows pointed in the opposite direction, but no one was coming. I biked right up to the doors of the casino and had just wheeled my bike inside when an angry policeman came running in after me. As he outlined my many offenses, I realized that he must be the same cop I had passed, and that he had been trying to catch up with me the whole time. His list grew tedious, and if I had not been in fear of a ticket, I would have asked if he was always so negative. He let me off with a lecture, leaving me to suppose that casino towns must be the opposite of speed traps. Whereas the latter are looking to issue tickets, the former make their money by leniency.

I didn’t enjoy Grand Lodge, but neither did I didn’t hate it the way I did last year when it was held at a grungy Holiday Inn surrounded by freeways and parking lots. Having my bike and being in a small town both made a tremendous difference, because, after several hours among people, I have an urgent need to be alone and stretch my legs. I have but little to contribute to Grand Lodge, but my home lodge keeps sending me, and I keep going.

Oregon’s outgoing Grand Master was the first woman in the United States to serve in such a position. Women were only allowed to join the lodge within the last ten years, so her rise was truly meteoric, and would have been impossible had she not grown up in an Odd Fellow family and worked as an employee in the Grand Lodge office. She was kidded about being the first Grand Master to kiss the brethren on the cheek, but I never heard a serious word against her.

Snaky day

Yesterday was a snaky day—nine to be precise. They were all Northwestern Garter Snakes, and were all sunning nonchalantly on the gated Weyerhaeuser road where we found them. I lay beside one, petting it gently and admiring its intelligent expression. Its tongue was red on top, black underneath, and so soft that I couldn’t feel it touching my fingers.

I biked over another. Peggy spoke to it lovingly, but its back was broken and blood trickled from its mouth. I gently laid it upon a rock and stomped it until it was flat. Even then, the tail twitched spasmodically. I said nothing, but felt much. When we resumed our ride, I asked Peggy what she would have done had she been alone, and she said she would have killed it with a rock. I considered euthanasia the only honorable alternative, but I didn’t know if she would be able to do it.

The secret of uniformity

I went to a Church of Christ with Carl last night, and heard songs that I heard regularly during my first eighteen years, but hadn’t heard at all in the last forty. “This World Is Not My Home,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” and “I’ll Fly Away” came back to me as clearly as if I had sung them yesterday. I was wrecked, absolutely wrecked, by memories of places and people from long ago and from the unparalleled beauty of the songs themselves. I tried valiantly to join in on hymn after hymn, but invariably lost it by the second line. I hid my tears as best I could, but that wasn’t very well, so I’m sure a lot of people wondered what kind of a vile sinner they had in their midst that Christ was working on him so.

The text was Romans 7, and Carl loaned me his leather-bound Bible—with Jesus’ words in red—so I could follow along. I immediately turned to Romans, and chuckled to think that most of my present-day friends would have to look for it in the table of contents. Come to think of it, Peggy would too. Eighteen years of Southern Baptist church services, revivals, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, Vacation Bible Schools, and mid-week prayer meetings; and through them all, she maintained her virginal ignorance of all things Christian. You’re really got to admire such strength of apathy. An ordinary person would have some tiny but flabby pore somewhere in her membranes that would admit at least a little knowledge through osmosis, but not Peggy. She knows scarcely more about Protestantism than she does about Islam, yet she is a far more ethical person than I ever so much as aspired to be. When someone tells me that you have to believe in God to live with integrity, I wonder how well they themselves would measure up against the woman I had the good fortune to marry.

It wasn’t just the songs that hadn’t changed in the Church of Christ. As I looked around, I asked myself what might give the place away as being from 2007 rather than 1967. The balding preacher had a beard, I noted, and he didn’t wear a tie. Also, we were using a twentieth century version of the Bible, and there were two black people in the audience, one of whom was the preacher’s wife. Now, that was really different, but everything else was pretty much the same. The women still couldn’t ask questions or make announcements much less preach; the music was still a cappella; stacks of metal trays still held tiny communion glasses; there was still a baptismal pool in a three-sided room behind the pulpit; and there was still an invitational hymn after the sermon.

I thought it a wonder that the Church of Christ can have no governing body beyond the individual congregation, yet remain so nearly uniform across time and space. Then it struck me that maybe the lack of a governing body is the reason for their uniformity. Governing bodies usually become the object of partisan struggle with the party that wins forcing the party that loses to either go along or get out. Because the Church of Christ lacks a governing body, there can be no large-scale struggle and therefore no mass exodus. Instead of stifling revolutions, centralized governments make them all but inevitable.

“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…. Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner…. What a wretched man I am!”
the Apostle Paul

As was the case with the hymns we sung, I had not heard the verses we read for many a decade. Such passion! Such angst! (Such harmony with the hymn “Amazing Grace” that I so recently criticized.) How little the human condition has changed in two millennia. Whatever it is that a person is fighting, who cannot relate to the above?

The preacher said that when he was a teenager, he would look at the failures of older Christians and wonder why they acted so badly, why it was that they couldn’t get things right after all their years of practicing. He said he now knows that the struggle just keeps getting harder. Yes. At least for me it does, and I don’t even have Christ to back me up. I will never have Christ to back me up. Yet, I enjoyed myself tonight. When the preacher greeted me, I told him that the only thing wrong with his talk was that it ended too soon. His expression said that he didn’t often hear that particular compliment. How odd he would find it if he knew that it probably came from the only person in the building who makes no claim to Christianity.

Carl exhorted me to bring my wife to church some Sunday, and I didn’t even laugh. This was no easy accomplishment, but probably worth the struggle.

Phil's funeral and thoughts about worship

Phil’s funeral was held today, eleven days after he died. It was a corpseless affair—funerals here often are—on a day that was gray throughout. Seven a.m. looked like noon, and both looked like seven p.m.; the whole day being one protracted and depressing affair that neither happened nor knew when to quit.

I was little touched by the words that were spoken, so I had no need of the paper towels that I tucked into my pocket at the last minute. The first songs were country songs that Phil liked. Then came “Rock of Ages” and “Amazing Grace.” Miserable song, “Amazing Grace.” I know that it was written by a slave-trader turned Christian and all that, but describing oneself as a worm and a wretch strikes me as just so much sucking-up. “Abide with Me,” now there’s a song I can get behind. Pretty imagery. Touching sentiments. Mournful tune. Good funeral song. We didn’t sing it.

The elderish Nazarene preacher pushed the microphone aside because “microphones scare me,” and proceeded to drone on in a low monotone for so long that the sermon itself seemed like a metaphor for death. He tried to add authority to his words by quoting chapter and verse, although a good part of the audience didn’t give a rip. Still, if his church weren’t a long bike ride distant, I would visit it because I have more faith in the goodness of inept preachers, and because I miss going to church.

For me, church is a mostly futile endeavor, but, as I said, I miss church. Unlike Peggy, who grew up thinking of it as something she had to endure until the first Sunday she was out of her parents’ house, I loved church. Church MEANT something to me. Church still means something to me, because I have a great and insatiable urge to worship. I can’t worship anyone or anything in particular, because I don’t believe in anyone or anything in particular, but this in no way diminishes my urge to surrender myself to the beauty and wonder—if not the goodness—of the universe.

On the other hand, why subject myself to certain disappointment? Most especially, why go to a fundamentalist church when there are at least three churches nearby that don’t give a rat’s behind if I even believe in God. The answer is that churches that don’t give a rat’s behind are not churches in which there is much worship happening. They are often little more than an intellectual smorgasbord of world religions with Sunday schools that make prayer flags one week, draw the Star of David the next, and celebrate Beltane the week after.

In regard to religion, they are without FOCUS—sort of like an ad hoc committee that can’t come to a conclusion. But in regard to politics, it’s another story, because they are utterly and unapologetically liberal. Sure, they say they’re creedless, but they’re really humanistic with a creed that is as narrow as the Nicene, and they themselves are as intolerant as any fundamentalist.

Optimists versus pessimists--what's the difference?

I just biked to my Masonic Lodge on the right night but the wrong week. Life can be confusing sometimes. I was biking yesterday when I looked at my speedometer and saw that I was going 53.5 miles per hour. I knew this had to be wrong, because I only felt a slight breeze, and because my schnauzer was running alongside.

Yet another example…I was wondering today if an optimist can be depressed, or if he would have to first give up his optimism. I should think that a “depressed optimist” would be an oxymoron: he could be a sad optimist, maybe but not a depressed optimist.

Then I remembered that, in experiments, chronically depressed people rate their abilities and amount of control accurately whereas chronically happy people overrate theirs. I observed this with Phil (God rest his soul) who believed almost until the end that he was going to get well. This led him to neglect doing things he should have done, and now other people must do them.

I have another friend who never saved money, because he figured he would always have enough or, barring that, could easily find a job. He was wrong on both counts, so what did he do? He looked for a pessimist to loan him money. Said pessimist (I won’t name names) agreed to do so in the belief that said optimist had learned his lesson. He too was wrong. Optimists are slow learners.