Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

During our vacation in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, my wife requested I find some interesting sites in the area that intrigued me for us to explore one afternoon, along with our close friend who graciously hosted us in her home for the week. My love for waterfalls led me to pick out a few attractions that advertised that particular element, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found in this sprawling desert city. My favorite was the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden located directly behind the Irish Cultural Center just north of Portland Avenue. The garden covers 3.5 acres and includes a tea garden and tea house. According to the garden’s website, “This tranquil and beautiful setting features more than 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, stone footbridges, lanterns and more than 50 varieties of plants.”

Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

I have written about the value of public gardens before, and this one is definitely on my list of favorites. The idea for the garden began in 1987 by a delegation from Himeji, Japan. Phoenix and Himeji have been sister cities since 1976 and participate in business, governmental, cultural, and educational exchanges that promote international goodwill and understanding. The garden is the shared cultural vision of both cities. The construction of the garden was completed in 2000, and it was opened to the public in 2002. Neither my wife nor our friend, both long-time residents of Phoenix, knew anything about this little treasure. The visit was a treat for all three of us.

Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

In addition to maintaining a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of the city, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility provides educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen East-West relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan. Authentic tea ceremonies for the public are held on the third Saturday of each month from October through June. The ceremonies are presented by Tanko Kai tea group, wearing beautiful kimonos in the Musoan tea house. Guests are met at the entry gate and conducted to the tea house by a docent who explains features in the tea garden and other interesting facts about the tea house itself.

Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

As we strolled around the pond, by the waterfall, and along the garden paths, I was reminded once again how the desert southwest is so often misrepresented as a barren region with little life and no real beauty. True, the Japanese Friendship Garden is an artificial oasis, but there are plenty of natural places just this lush and soothing located throughout Arizona and its neighboring states. The fortunate people who live in the apartment building next to the garden have one of the best views in the city: a luxuriant landscape below combined with desert mountain vistas in the distance. For all visitors to Phoenix, and even for those who call the city their home, I highly recommend a therapeutic retreat to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

The Right to Keep and Bear What Arms?

Pistol
Pistol

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the tipping point.” It’s probably too early to know for certain, but the wide-spread reactions we are witnessing to the February 14, 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, may indeed by a sign of a national opinion shift about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its unofficial but most vehement advocate, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Of course, the Parkland tragedy was only one in a long list of mass shootings in this country, and gun advocates typically point to almost any other solution than more restrictions on private ownership of firearms. “We should enforce the laws that are already on the books,” they say. However, there are cases where a shooter didn’t break the law until he decided to kill multiple people. I don’t think anyone believes that any action taken now will completely stop mass shootings in America, but can they be decreased? Can the number of casualties be reduced? Is it worth trying to include a discussion about restrictions on types of guns and their capacity? I think so.

We can’t exactly shut down all public events in the country, along with movie theaters, malls, parks, nightclubs, and all other places where people gather. We can hope that there are always good guys with guns around who are better trained than the average law enforcement officer, but how effective will that be against a suicidal maniac who wants to take out as many lives as possible before being taken down or blowing his head off? Let’s make it more difficult for them. Let’s make them choose other weapons that aren’t as efficient in closed spaces, at least. Or, we can just throw up our hands and say that no gun laws will ever slow down the murders. But then we are going to have to explain how stronger gun laws in other countries do impact murder rates.

We can no longer interpret our founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, as if we were still living in the 18th century. In truth, we have been re-interpreting these documents for over 200 years, and adding to them because they cannot completely address a society that continues to change with every generation with regard to values, beliefs, and technological advancements. I think we can all agree that the weapons available even to the wealthiest nations in the 18th century cannot compare to what the average American can now have in his closet.

Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the 2nd Amendment is not the only one under scrutiny. There are plenty of restrictions on free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment, that we all accept as a society because doing so makes us safer. Those have developed over time and are still in force. Even now there is serious discussion about how electronic communication creates issues that we have never had to address before but probably will, just as we had to do with broadcasting. The result will most likely be more and newer restrictions to free speech. We impose restraints on religious practice too, and for good reason.

Even gun enthusiasts generally agree that fully-automatic weapons don’t belong in the hands of private citizens, and they certainly don’t support individual ownership of advanced weapon systems used by forces around the world. We have a handful of people in this country who are wealthy enough to buy tanks, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles, but no one argues about their right to keep and bear those arms!  Some of our guaranteed rights were never intended to be, nor can they be, absolute rights.

Both 1st and 2nd Amendments are restricted rights. The current debate really comes down to a question of what limitations our society will accept. I have never advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment nor do I, as a gun owner, support taking away all guns from law-abiding, responsible citizens. I hope the country is moving toward finding ways to reduce violence, which may or may not involve more restrictions on firearms. I do maintain that any discussion of reducing violence by people using guns should take into account the type of guns that are made so widely available to individuals.

The Best of Accommodations

Since we started traveling together around the time we married, my wife and I have unpacked our bags in a wide range of quarters. We have stayed in cabins, cottages, Air B&B houses, condos, and any number of hotel and motel rooms. We have even experienced the nightmare of getting “bumped” a couple of times. On one of these occasions we were in a rural area with very few options, so we wound up at a low-rent motor lodge where the price of the room was literally less than the cost of our dinner earlier that evening. There was a loud party in full swing behind the building, and as I discovered later, most of the participants were not paying customers of the establishment. We had to wear ear plugs just to get to sleep, and even so, I heard several guys two doors down as they were setting up their Hibachi grill outside their room at about midnight. Let’s just say the star rating system usually used to measure the quality of motels was not applicable here.

The aforementioned example notwithstanding, we have been quite lucky with our accommodations through the years. From time to time we have really splurged on the price of a room, and a few of those places have been especially luxurious. I have narrowed the list down to five, in no particular order, and highly recommend each one.

Number 1: Old Edward’s Inn in Highlands, North Carolina

Old Edward's Inn, Highlands, NC
Old Edward’s Inn, Highlands, NC

We selected Old Edward’s Inn for a wedding anniversary weekend and opted for one of their cottages with a comfortable bedroom, spacious living area with a gas fireplace, and a beautiful bathroom with heated floors. It rained off and on, but the screened porch was perfect for relaxing and reading while listening to the rainfall. We indulged in a couple’s massage at the spa, which is rated as one of the best in North America. It was our first massage together and was a highlight of the weekend. There are several restaurants in Highlands that are surprisingly good for this small remote town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Number 2: A casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM
Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM

We spent the better part of a week in Santa Fe one summer in a grand casita with generous living spaces inside and a private outdoor courtyard with umbrellas, lounge chairs, gardens, and fire pits. The casita was within easy walking distance of dozens of art galleries and the charming downtown with museums, shops, restaurants, and other attractions. It was so invigorating to head out at sunrise for a brisk walk, explore the downtown area during the day, and relax by the fire under the stars at night.

Number 3: Charlemagne apartment in Paris, France

Charlemagne apartment in Paris
Charlemagne apartment in Paris

I call our apartment in Paris by the name of the street where the building was located, two blocks from the Seine River in historic Le Marais district. It was actually a flat jointly owned by some folks in America and France. Accommodations in Europe are typically cramped with few if any indulgences, which is why we were so pleased to find this fourth-floor spot with a small but adequate kitchen, a respectable bathroom, and a combination sitting, dining, bedroom space with soft lighting and tasteful décor. We were able to keep the windows open to enjoy the cool air and the sounds from the sidewalk café directly below us. As in Santa Fe, we were within walking distance of the finest bistros and bakeries the city has to offer.

Number 4: Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Due to my struggles with a malady called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (post travel vertigo), I avoid cruise ships like gas station sushi. However, I love the concept of all-inclusive resorts. There are very few in the states at all, but they are abundant in the Caribbean. We found an adult-only version in Montego Bay, Jamaica that was magnificent. Our room had a large bathroom with a separate spa tub and shower. The bed was heavenly and looked directly out the sliding glass doors onto the large balcony, which featured cut-above-the-rest plush lounging furniture. The view from that perch of the expansive pool complex, swim-up bar, and the ocean was absolutely stunning.

Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The Hyatt Zilara is located directly adjacent to the family resort, the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, and both places share bars, restaurants, shops, recreational facilities, and some beach activities. We enjoyed our share of good meals and creative cocktails (the dirty banana was a perennial favorite) while also spending hours just basking in the sun by the pool. One of the highlights of the trip was yet another couple’s massage, but this time in a white-curtained cabana on the beach, just a few yards from the crashing waves — bliss.

Number 5: Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA
Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA

I know, the name conjures up visions of a roadside stucco-style row of rooms that are rented out by the hour. In reality, Tickle Pink Inn is rated as one of the top ten hotels for romance in the U.S. by TripAdvisor and voted one of the top 500 hotels in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine. Our room was easily the most luxurious place we have ever stayed, even if it was for only one night. We were greeted with a chilled bottle of champagne next to our grand four-post bed. Our room had a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Pacific and a wood-burning fireplace. Combined with one of the best dining experiences I have ever had in the village of Carmel, our stay at Tickle Pink Inn ranks as one of my all-time favorite travel memories.

Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

My Introduction to Los Angeles

A professional conference this year gave me an occasion to visit Los Angeles for the first time. Although I have been to California twice, I never traveled farther south than Big Sur. I arrived in L.A. two days before my conference began to take in a bit of sightseeing. Like Las Vegas and New York, Los Angeles is an iconic city that is closely tied to the uninhibited side of America, where everything is out of the cage and off the pavement. It attracts huge money, which is shamelessly exhibited in fast cars, flashy clothes, ostentatious jewelry, and mansions that could easily command their own zip codes. Usually we associate the “La-La Land” factor of the city with some of the more affluent sections and suburbs: Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, Burbank, Hidden Hills, and Bel Air. However, there is more to Los Angeles than glitter and gold.

The afternoon I arrived, I rented a car and made the short drive down to Huntington Beach, the place where Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing in the 1920s and graced the town with the title “Surf City.” The wind was especially strong while I was there, so walking out to the end of the long pier to circle Ruby’s Surf City Diner was rather brutal. The reward was witnessing first-hand the largest waves I have ever seen — much higher than those on the Florida coast to which I am accustomed. My visit was capped off perfectly with a few cocktails at the Barefoot Bar of Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant while I watched the Pacific sun set, a spectacle that never gets old.

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Sunset at Huntington Beach

 

View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory
View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory

Early the next morning, I drove to the hills just north of Los Angeles to check out the Griffith Observatory. Whenever I travel, I am always in search of vantage points that will offer jaw-dropping vistas, which led me to this location. I was not disappointed. In addition to a close-up view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, the hill-top site provides near-360-degree scenery featuring the nearby green hillsides, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the skyline of the city in the distance. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the Observatory itself, which serves as a museum of astronomy. From the Fresco painted ceiling above the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance to the wonderful exhibits featuring the sun, other stars, the moon, and planets, the Griffith Observatory is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the mysteries of space. I was particularly impressed to see that a theater in the Observatory is named after the late Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who portrayed Mr. Spock from the Star Trek television series and movies. He and his wife, actress Susan Bay-Nimoy, made a generous gift for the expansion and renovation of the Observatory. I always liked Nimoy as an actor and an artist, but learning about his philanthropy made me admire him even more.

Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory
Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory

My next stop was the place that most vividly puts the tinsel in this town. Still recognized by many as the shrine of the entertainment industry, Hollywood covers three and a half square miles of prime commercial real estate in central L.A. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard is an experience that can be recreated nowhere else in the country. The star-studded Walk of Fame stretches for fifteen blocks and is likely the most dangerous sidewalk in California because most people are looking at the ground the whole time they’re strolling along. Tourists also have near collisions with each other in front of the famous Chinese Theatre, where legends of film and television have literally left their mark with hand and footprints in the large cement blocks in the forecourt. Hollywood & Highland Center is a busy multi-story shopping complex that includes the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Of course, there are plenty of retailers, restaurants, specialty shops, and tourism stands up and down the street. Most impressive to me were the historic facades of the classic old theaters along both sides of the Boulevard — El Capitan, Egyptian, Pantages, and Pacific — they recall the golden age of film from the early to mid-20th century. It is easy to imagine what a glamorous time it must have been. Yes, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be classified as a tourist trap, but how can you visit L.A. for the first time and skip this legendary feature of the city?

Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood Boulevard
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center

My last stop of the day was the Getty Center of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Situated on a 24-acre hill-top campus, the Getty Center is a remarkable combination of art, architecture, and nature overlooking greater metropolitan Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay. The views of the city and the ocean from the various porticoes, terraces, and gardens are unbelievable. The collection, changing exhibitions, and outdoor art on view at the Getty Center reach across European and American history—from medieval times to the present. I was particularly delighted by the central garden, which boasts more than 500 species. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway. A stream that winds through a variety of plants gradually descends to a plaza where bougainvillea arbors explode into bloom. I rushed through several of the galleries in the complex of buildings but was only able to get a taste of this astonishing cultural wonder. I hope to return to the Getty again someday to enjoy much more of what it has to offer, and when I do, I am sure there will be plenty of other treasures to explore in “The town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula” — The City of Angels.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center
Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center

Sometimes You Just Have To Be There

Travel is stimulating. Visiting new places outside our own environs infuses so many of us with a sense of wonder and renewal. Travel literature goes back at least to the 2nd century with the Greek geographer Pausanias. In the modern era essayists, journalists, and even novelists have treated readers to highly-descriptive narratives that feed the imagination and make us feel like we have actually visited places we have never even seen. Writers like Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Robert Louis Stevenson were gifted with keen perception and carefully-crafted language, combined with illustrations, that gave their readers a sense of “being there.” The introduction of photography enhanced the experience, and one could argue that publications like National Geographic served as travel literature in serial form.

Beginning in the 20th century, film and television added a whole new dimension to the genre, which required less imagination but awarded viewers with essentially a reproduction of the sights and sounds a traveler would enjoy. There are numerous television channels across the globe devoted to providing this type of content around the clock. The Internet has now made it possible for both professionals and amateurs to share their travel adventures through personal and hosted websites, blogs, social media, and photo and video sharing sites.

For those who are unable to travel for any number of reasons, the opportunities to see the world vicariously through the content provided by others is almost endless, which is quite wonderful. However, and this is the sad truth, when it comes to truly absorbing the magnificence of many locations on the planet, there is no real substitute for literally being there. One of the times this realization was made abundantly clear to me was when my wife and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona in 2008.

View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim
View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim

A video of this impressive geological feature, as much as 18 miles wide in some places, will give the viewer a sense of its massive size, beautiful colors, varied textures, and even the sounds of the wind as it rushes through its 4,000-foot depths. What a video cannot recreate is the tingle down your spine when you stand at the rim’s edge as your mind and body react to the overwhelming expanse and the dangers presented by the chasm before you. It is also difficult for a flat screen to depict the depth and breadth of the canyon that the eye perceives.  The video cannot provide you with the brush of the wind against your skin and the smells all around you. The audio can record many of the sounds you would hear, but it cannot accurately reproduce that low, soft “wwwwwhhhhh” created by the air swirling in this enormous space that your ears detect. Obviously, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it either. There are several places we have visited, and I am sure many more we haven’t, that a book or video simply cannot do justice. Sometimes you just have to be there, and that’s why we travel.