By John Rieping | Published 15 Nov. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
If November were a week, I suppose we'd have reached hump day. If it were a year, surely we in North America would be in the season of the Cooldown. However it is dubbed, the middle is upon us.
We tend to be selective in how we celebrate the passage of time, and the ways in which we do so reveal much about our thinking.
In East Asia, a person would traditionally be reckoned one year old on the day of birth, and would add a year of age every new lunar year, which is shorter than our standard solar year. Those who fear the rising tally of years should be grateful to follow the Western system instead. But, as children and teenagers, who wouldn't like at least an extra nine months of "maturity" -- with the freedoms it sometimes brings?
The newest pastor of St. Joachim Catholic Church in Madera, California will cross the symbolic threshold of another year of life Sunday, according to a nosy tattletale known as Facebook. For the curious, Rev. John Warburton shares his birth year with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the National Basketball Association as well as Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
Normally I wouldn't announce the existence milestones of those in Madera. Ultimately that would end in pain and bloodshed for me I fear (it would only be a matter of time). But the anniversary of birth seemed a providential coincidence, because my publisher asked me weeks ago to write an article or column on the subject -- of Warburton, not birthdays.
A gracious hour-long interview followed, duly recorded by an electronic doohickey (not to be confused with a doodad or thingamabob). All that remained was the digestion of the mind and the use of a writer's craft. After diligent laziness and prompt procrastination, the day has finally arrived to... um... ask for more time.
(If leaders of other faiths in Madera would be likewise patient with me, I'd welcome writing of them as well. Visit my website, listed at the tail of every column, to contact me.)
Our life is truly outlined and governed by this intangible ghost we call time. In science, realists who follow the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton consider time as a basic invention of the mind to order and compare what happens -- as well as a dimension of reality itself. Some philosophers, in contrast, view time as completely abstract, unreal, and unmeasurable.
Yet measure it we do, whether by years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes or seconds. We basically do so through the change it brings, and that is the one constant of time, so fickle in our experience.
The late Pope John Paul II pondered the issue of time on June 4, 2000. He remarked: "Time is given to us to use and fill. Well-used time is so valuable because we can give it again as a valuable gift. While the proverb says, 'Time is money,' the Christian answers, 'Time is not paid with money. Time is worth more than gold.'"
Referring to a shapely device once commonly used to track time in centuries long past, he suggested: "The sand that runs from the top to the bottom of the hourglass not only indicates that time goes by. The sand is at the same time a messenger of Christian hope. For it doesn't run into nothingness. In the bottom it is caught and gathered.
"The frame of the hourglass reminds me of God's hands that hold us. In his hands, we can let ourself fall. They collect our time. Time lies in God's good hands.
“Every evening in Night Prayer [as part of the Liturgy of the Hours] we pray, 'Lord, I trust in you, into your hands I place my life.' This petition doesn't apply only to individuals; it is an evening prayer that all people can make their own, if they entrust the success of their daily tasks and work ultimately in God, the Lord of all times."
As we enter the often busy weeks ahead of Thanksgiving Day (U.S.) and the Advent, Christmas, football, and other seasons, let us not be haunted by the specter of time or the ghosts of holidays past, present or future.
For those who believe in God, time is not a taskmaster or a doombringer. It is a gift we open each day. Let us receive it each morning with joy and make the best of what we have been given. In doing so, we re-gift it to God and others. May we fill it with love.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 20 July 2013 in The Madera Tribune
A winged child flees an attack by lions in an apparently controversial metal sculpture at the Iron Bird Lofts in Fresno, California.
I hunted as well on May 27th, but the beauty I wished to catch I had no appetite to harm, though I was no less hungry for it.
Photograph by John Rieping. All rights reserved.
I had parked illegally in Downtown Fresno on Memorial Day, but I hoped a 10-minute stop to hunt urban beauty with my camera would be safe enough. I thought I was just stopping a moment while on my way to the highway, but I would spend my entire afternoon on that spontaneous safari.
I captured the light of many moments outside the Legion of Valor Museum before turning back to my tiny Smart car. But an older bearded man called after me until he had my attention. He left behind his shelter, his belongings, and companion to approach.
"I see people stop and take pictures of that" -- he pointed at the 109-foot Old Fresno Water Tower -- "all the time. I've never been able to figure it out. Why do they do that?" he asked, more or less.
I looked up at the brown-capped tower of white before me with its graceful geometry and decor. A Chicago architect designed the American Romanesque brick tower in 1891, and it had served the city unceasingly until 1963.
"Because it is old," I replied in part. "It is one of the oldest buildings here. It is a landmark here."
His curiosity satisfied, we parted ways.
Down the road, I spotted a proper parking lot and decided to explore what other sights, old and new, Downtown Fresno would present. I began with the oft-forgotten artistry of Fulton Mall, a historic pedestrian-only area covering six blocks of Fulton Street. Dedicated in 1964 as an urban renewal project, Fulton Mall has returned to its depressed roots -- a victim of the ever-so-common downtown flight and blight.
Older buildings have more costly upkeep, society has grown less communal, and shoppers increasingly wanted to minimize outdoor walking. So gradually mainstream consumers and big retailers went elsewhere. Minority and niche businesses were lured in by affordable rent, government offices dominated, and the lovely mall grew ever more marginalized.
I remember visiting Fulton Mall as a child. Or rather, I recall the journey. My grandmother, Carmen Lozano Najar, took me on the public transit system, and I had never been on a bus before. I felt excitement and mystery at the sight of the promenade between shops full of strangers.
Others have different associations. One woman I spoke with associates the mall with feelings of being on the fringes of society, insecure and disrespected. Though she agreed it had pleasing art and ornamentation, it repulses her to this day because of the dark emotional investment it holds for her.
I wandered far beyond the mall along Fulton Street, and to other streets beside. Most striking, perhaps, was the apparently controversial metal sculptures at the Iron Bird Lofts, which show winged humans in distress. In one, a lion devours a cherub while a feline partner leaps after another. In several, cherubs try to escape winged men -- or are being rescued by them.
They're artistic, clever, and impressive, yet disturbing if examined closely. I would hesitate to condemn or commend them, but I wonder what stories lie behind their making.
The aforementioned lofts themselves were appealing and well designed, so much so they almost seemed out of place. I posted photographs of them online and one person asked where I had taken them. He was skeptical it was Fresno.
It seems that we respond to places and sights as much due to our hearts as to appearances. The same can be said of how we interpret much else I suppose. We judge the outlines of life with a crooked eye.
Is there any way to see reality as it is? I believe we can try, and by that effort draw close enough to it to grab hold of truth.
It is not so much that we can possess truth. It is bigger than we are and refuses to fit into our pockets or purses. But we can allow ourselves to better conform to truth, to be changed by truth, and so be possessed by truth.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 11 January 2013 in The Madera Tribune
During my 10th year under the light of the sun, I decided there could be no better age to be. A child no more, I had two proud digits to express the number of my longevity. Without regret, I left the children’s menu behind when ordering food at restaurants. I had reached the pinnacle of my existence.
The seemingly sturdy boat of my being seemed a great seafaring ship compared to the simple and trembling raft of my earlier self. The fickle waves and storms brought by the winds of puberty had not yet wrestled with me, and I had not the sense to fear them.
I kept a diary that year, though not with any faithfulness. I barely filled a handful of pages within the tiny notebook. Yet I sincerely wanted to record summaries of my days. I would be a famous poet and novelist someday, and people would want to know my tale.
With the boldness of innocence, I confided to my diary on July 8, 1984: “Today is Sunday (and) this morning I went to Mass. Today they talked about sainthood and so I am going to try to be a saint. Don’t you tell, okay?”
A spontaneous online reflection of mine on another Sunday, May 13, would unintentionally comment on my progress 23 years later. Still a poet, I responded to a forum discussion: “Every boy dreams himself a hero / and sees his face in every epic life. / Yet what changes within our hearts / that we rise less and less when called?
“The day may come when true heroes unmask / the villainy of the child grown / so selfish now. But wasn’t he always so? / Perhaps he sees what always was.
“We find ways to cope with forgotten dreams / and cease to struggle as we slowly numb / to all the gifts we bear and yearn for. / But spare us mirrors about our selves. / We do not wish to see.
“Even so, I pray to God / for mercy on this villain, I, / too weak to stand for long / upon his feet God-given. / Teach me to walk and see / the hero in me.”
Some bristled at my labeling myself as a “villain,” but don’t we all encounter within us at times someone contrary to the hero we’d like to be? As the apostle Paul admitted in a letter to Christians in Rome, “For that which I do I understand not: for what I would do, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” (Romans 7:15)
Moments of ineptitude aside, sometimes we freely choose to act wrongly or to neglect to do what we should, even though we know better. Paul’s answer and my far less inspired response to this self-contradiction are the same: God. For what moral law and conscience fail to achieve in us due to our weakness, “God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh…” (cf. Romans 8:3) So Christians believe.
As a medieval Gregorian chant exclaims, “O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
This unearned gift of divine help -- to love as God loves -- is cause enough for hope.
For Roman Catholics, the Christmas season lingers on the church calendar a few more days. For others it might persist only in memory. But for all Christians the true joy of Christmas, this “marvelous exchange,” should never be far from our hearts.
For that to be so, we must never cease to participate in the exchange it celebrates. We must daily offer to God our all-too-human self as a sincere gift, as completely as we can, and in return we will receive God.
“But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God…” (cf. John 1:12)
“At that time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and Jesus said, ‘Verily I say to you, unless you turn and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3)
It is no accident the festival of Christmas is associated with children. For we who claim to be born of God, the mystery of Christmas is only fulfilled when Christ is born in us.
There is no room at the inn... or at least no space for my weekly religion column in the newspaper this weekend. So there won't be one here either this week. But may God bless you and all your loved ones as the season of Christmas approaches.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published November 24, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
On our national day of thanksgiving, I reluctantly watched a cartoon on the journey of the English émigrés, the pilgrims, who sought religious freedom by settling in North America. While I love cartoons, I am unfamiliar with the newer Peanuts animated television specials and they clash with my nostalgia for the older ones.
Repeatedly the character Linus, who has always been the idealist, responded to the worries of friend Charlie Brown by urging him to “have faith.” After the second or third time, I wondered: have faith in what?
It reminded me of a feel-good song from the 1998 cartoon “Prince of Egypt,” which told the story of Moses (Moshe) and the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. After the movie’s climax, pop stars Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston triumphantly sang, “There can be miracles when you believe.” The other lyrics of the song implied it was belief in one’s self, not God, that mattered.
Even in cartoons about religious people, God seems to be the twin of the fictional villain Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter children’s novel series. It seems God too is “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
For those who don’t know U.S. history, Thanksgiving Day was established by our government as a national holiday to give thanks to You Know Who for the blessings and gifts received throughout the year. Next Sunday marks a time with an even deeper history however. Within a week begins the traditional Christian season of “Advent,” which is from the Latin for “coming” (adventus). The following weeks are a time to remember the long wait of humanity for a promised savior as well as a time to prepare our own hearts to welcome God anew. Let us Christians do so with thankful hearts.
From Oak to Acorn
A local fast food clerk once asked my dad where he was from. My dad replied, “Germany.”
She persisted, “No, what country do you come from?”
My dad repeated, “Germany.”
“Oh,” she said disappointedly, “I thought you were from someplace in Europe.”
My family dates back at least to the 12th century at Vorhelm in western Germany when a forebear sold himself to the local bishop to avoid being drafted for war duty. After the war ended he bought his freedom. In 1812, the Rieping homestead had to quarter French troops because it was on the supply route during Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia.
About 1929 my grandfather Heinrich asked for his inheritance early and moved his young family of four to Klein Karlshoeh in Silesia, now western Poland. There my family suffered again from war when Adolf Hitler followed in France’s footsteps by invading Russia. Drafted into service, my uncle Hugo and his horse stepped on a mine during the attack on Stalingrad in Nov. 1942. He’d turned 19 only days before.
My father Josef, the eighth of 11 children, had a mischievous streak like myself. At age 6, he found a naturally hollowed tree in the woods near his home. Discovering the inside resembled a chimney, he lit a fire within. Nazi soldiers spied the smoke and, suspecting the worst, soon arrived. Josef fled and evaded the soldiers in the woods for hours before escaping home late that night.
When Josef returned home, he expected to be punished for extreme lateness. But after hearing the truth my strict grandfather proudly praised him and made sure he ate before going to bed. At the time my dad was confused at this unusual leniency. He later realized my grandparents feared to openly criticize the Nazi government, which encouraged children to report their parents to school authorities and punished dissenters harshly.
Around 1945, Russian soldiers came asking for my grandfather Heinrich. My grandmother Helene used the excuse that she was washing dishes to send my 8-year-old father to lead the soldiers to her husband, who was in the fields raking hay. My dad obeyed, and the soldiers took Heinrich away to a prison camp. As a large landowner, my grandfather was guilty of being influential in a tiny community.
That summer, at the urging of a Catholic priest, Helene fled west with her eight children; the youngest was only 3. Josef turned 9 during the trek. After bribing a border guard not to shoot for five minutes, the family made it across a kilometer-wide “no man’s land.” The story of my family would continue, and would lead across an ocean and a continent to California.
How do you compress an oak tree into an acorn? God does it every autumn, and in the same way the sum of a family’s history is written in you and I. All of us are a product of the past, and that is why history is important.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/25/12 in The Madera Tribune
Many Christians will celebrate the birthday of their religion this Sunday, better known as Pentecost. Appropriately, this holy day has a Jewish origin and a Greek name.
Before taking a new meaning for followers of Jesus, it was a harvest festival that recalled when God dictated laws for the 12 tribes of Israel at Mount Sinai (aka Horeb). Foremost of these laws are the 10 Commandments, basic moral laws long revered by Jews and Christians alike. The festival received its ancient Greek name from the timing of that historic occasion, which scripture recorded as on “the 50th” day after the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew it is known as the Festival of Weeks (Hag ha Shavuot).
Christians tend to forget all of that, however. For us, Pentecost evokes images of supernatural fire, wind, and preaching, which are key elements of the day’s description in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
On Shavuot in Jerusalem less than two millennia ago, a clamor like that of a tornado filled a place where perhaps as many as 120 devotees of Jesus were seated. Next, flames appeared to fall on each, resting gently without causing harm. Then, scripture says, they were filled with the spirit of God and began to speak of divine matters in a variety of languages they had never learned.
Such a spectacle drew a diverse crowd in the metropolis, which had many expatriates from across the ancient world for the Festival of Weeks. What these visitors heard initially and the preaching that followed — all expressed in their own native tongues — caused the idle spectators to embrace this new religion, a sect of Judaism that quickly expanded beyond it to reach peoples of every nation, ethnicity, and — fittingly enough — tongue.
The memoirs of the physician Luke only share a relatively small excerpt of the words voiced that day (Acts 2:14-40), but unsurprisingly they center on the “good news” (aka gospel) revealed by God.
This gospel is summed up perfectly and fully in Jesus.
In my lifetime, many have tried to express it in easily memorized phrases or citations (such as the ever-popular scripture reference at sporting events, “John 3:16”). But I hesitate to attempt the same, because the task of abridging the gospel daunts me. There is so much to divine revelation, both truth and mystery.
I also wonder if sometimes such pithy attempts can lose sight of one of the lessons of Christian Pentecost: what first impressed the onlookers in Jerusalem so long ago was that the Christians talked of God in a language each individual listener could understand.
Rather than catchphrases, the hearers needed a personal explanation, and more than that: an introduction to the person of Jesus. This was accomplished by following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God, not a script.
That said, imagine a world without shared terms, definitions, formulas, songs, and so on. Life would become a never-ending labor of re-invention and potential errors. Perhaps the ideal is as Augustine — an ancient bishop of Hippo, Africa — once advised: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things ‘charity’ (supernatural love).”
His last point is a vital one, because without love for others how could Christians ever reveal God to anyone? Surely the Christians at Pentecost were not only filled with the Spirit of God but supernatural love as well. As John, the cherished disciple of Jesus, wrote in a letter, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
With or without words, God surely touches our head and heart. Like us, our minds and hearts are unique, even when the same truth fills them.
English poet, novelist, and decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) romanced both sexes after World War I. Yet despite many relationships he spent his last two decades alone, and converted to Catholicism before his death.
In his poem “A Prayer at Pentecost,” Sassoon depicted his relationship with God as a two-part performance to be completed not by words but by quiet transformation:
“Master musician, I have overheard you, / Labouring in litanies of heart to word you. / Be noteless now. Our duologue is done. / Spirit, who speak'st by silences, remake me: / To light of unresistant faith awake me, / That with resolved requiem I be one.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/06/12 in The Madera Tribune
From noon onwards, dark clouds from the Mediterranean Sea had blanketed the metropolis of Jerusalem. For those crammed within the city, bustling with pilgrims, it was a bit cold but tolerably so. For those outside the walls, it must have felt far chillier.
Then there were the condemned criminals who hung from crosses on the roadside hill of Golgotha, north of the capital. They were naked except for perhaps an improvised loincloth, the former veil of a mother now grieving for her child. Even the hard justice of Rome could tolerate a mother’s compassion to that extent.
This was the first Good Friday.
By Jewish reckoning it was probably the 16th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan in the year 3791. It was also the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The sabbath would begin at nightfall.
Using the Julian calendar, Romans would have marked that date as the 7th of Aprilis in the 783rd year after the founding of the city of Rome and the 16th year of Roman Emperor Tiberius’ reign. But the only Romans in Jerusalem were occupiers of a foreign land.
About four decades later, Jerusalem would be sacked after a siege by Roman soldiers in retaliation for the Great Jewish Revolt. But for now many in the city were making final preparations for the oncoming sabbath. So many visitors were there for the religious festival, the Passover. Those who were poor came in large groups to ease the burdens of the trip.
Yet the practical concerns fell especially on women, so it was likely that mostly men had the time and inclination to attend the spectacle of Roman justice that morning at the open air stone platform outside the Praetorium, the equivalent of Jerusalem’s city hall under Roman rule.
At the time, justice under Rome was personified by the aristocrat Pontius Pilatus, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. According to the ancient Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, he was insensitive to Jewish customs, stubborn, a taker of bribes, cruel, and had a fiery vindictive temper.
Pilatus once spent money from the treasury of the rebuilt Temple of Solomon to build an aqueduct, according to ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Such funds were meant for the needs and upkeep of the lavish Jewish temple and its ministers. When a group of Jews protested, Pilatus had soldiers hidden within the crowd beat and kill random members of it to silence them all.
In about a half dozen years, Pilatus would be recalled to Rome to respond to a charge that he had suppressed a Samaritan rebellion with excessive brutality. So I expect it wasn’t a complete shock when locals heard he scourged and condemned the popular rabbi Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) to death for the treason of claiming to be a king.
Less than a week before, many in the city had heralded Jesus as a messiah with joy, but now the mood had shifted and grown as dark as the afternoon sky above. On the path through the narrow city streets to execution, mockery dominated, and it persisted to the end.
Many men may have watched his trial, but it was his female devotees who remained with Jesus on that cold hill for the agonizing three hours before his death, his mother among them. As for his dozen apostles who had journeyed with him for years of ministry, only John — the youngest — could be seen.
Compared to most victims, Jesus died quickly. Most of the crucified died after losing days of battles against suffocation, unable to maintain adequate breathing on a cross and tormented by spectators, thirst, and hungry birds. But Jesus had already been severely weakened by his abuse at the hands of soldiers already.
At 3 p.m. he died and the earth trembled.
Yet on that tragic Good Friday we Christians believe Jesus died not merely as a blameless man but as God incarnate, and that he sacrificed himself in the place of each and every human who has and ever will live.
We all have the potential for moral evil, aka sin, and sins are destructive to our own selves, each other, and our relationship with God. Nothing we can do alone can make perfect amends for even the least evil we willingly do. So God, acting as our surrogate, offered himself in the flesh for our sakes.
By doing so, Jesus won for us true forgiveness and healing — if we will embrace it. Do we?