10 Years Ordained – The Present (and Beyond?)

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In 2016, I was encouraged to explore chaplaincy and I entered a one-year, educational (CPE) residency.  If you’ve never heard of CPE, look it up here.

As much as I owe to The Rev. Kirk Bish, The Rev. Sandy Kessinger, The Rev. Dr. Richard (Rick) Carlson, and The Rev. Stan Reep, for getting me on the path, the real work/effort is a credit to The Rev. James Pfeiffer and The Rev. Dr. Beth Muehlhausen who jointly walked with me through becoming a Chaplain.

Despite not working in a congregational setting, I am still an ordained Lutheran pastor, serving in the specialized ministry of hospice chaplaincy.  I still have the occasional opportunity to lead worship services and preach, which in all honesty I kinda miss doing regularly, although I am tremendously grateful to have NOT had to navigate the pandemic as a congregational leader.  It’s been “interesting” enough in the healthcare sphere over the past two years and counting.

As I approach the actual 10-year mark, I had the opportunity to renew my ordination vows as part of a Holy Week Mass. In the company of other ordained ministers, the regional bishop and the assembled people of God, I again asserted my intention and promise to uphold the teachings of the Lutheran Christian church in the world.

So, you might be wondering just what those vows might be and/or how/if they are still relevant to me.

Call – Being called is a bit of an abstract idea to me, in the sense that it is an internal sense of being drawn by an unseen force toward a purpose that is then also affirmed and validated externally by the people and institutions one interacts with. My sense of being called to the work I do has wavered pretty regularly. As I mentioned in the earlier post, when I entered seminary, all I wanted was to be a “good” parish pastor. Now, that’s less important. There simply are days that feel less than fulfilling and that I question whether I am offering people anything meaningful. But, right about then or shortly after, I have an experience or two that connects and resonates with me in so many ways, I can’t deny that this is my part in the divine/cosmic puzzle-plan.

Holy Scripture/Lutheran Confessions – Holy Scripture means the historical texts known as “the Bible,” which more narrowly means the Christian church’s accepted sacred texts. After a seminary education and subsequent study, “Holy Scripture” is not such a black/white, clear-cut identifier entity. It IS the source of my basis of reference for my life, as I grew up in the Christian faith tradition and haven’t drifted (too far) from it as a reference point to interpreting faith and life. The Lutheran Confessions are certainly important, but I honestly haven’t given them much consideration over ten years of service to the church, and often take them with a grain of salt. Mostly, even cradle-to-grave Lutherans, and many pastors, don’t seem to know what they are or how they apply, unless they are doctrine-focused. Its not the thing that people bring up in casual conversations when the world is out of sorts, or even when they’re trying to figure out how to be “church” in society. And don’t even get me started on cherry-picking from either source just to be “right” about something. But, sure, OK. I’ll dust off the Book of Concord anyday now and drop some verses to pull people back on board.

Means of Grace, Living Example to all people in all places – This one probably means the most to me, no pun intended. In my/our Lutheran understanding, the Means of Grace is sorta code language for how we hear and experience the consoling promise of “the gospel:” sacraments, preaching, and mutually supportive relationships with friends and family. I’m (ultimately) no better or worse than any other created being. I continue to be stunned and amazed when I recognize God’s ongoing activity in my life (which typically happens in hindsight). Living as an example was a big stressor, at first, and even still has its issues. I am, and won’t be “perfect.” By and large, that’s the point of my life and experience; if God can use ME to do THIS, then we’re all gonna be okay. Sure, there are those who think I should/shouldn’t be doing this or that, but my own “living, daring confidence” in God’s grace is what allows me to be fully ME, whether I have your approval or not. I drink, curse, listen to obnoxious (to some) music, read/watch inapparopriate things, I’m often selfish, etc., but somehow, through it all, I remain assured of God’s love for me, and thus God’s love for everyone else.

The response to each is “I will, and I ask God to help me.” – This is the seeming linchpin to the whole mess. It is my acknowledgement that, I commit myself to these vows, but recognizing that I will ultimately fail, and if anything fruitful comes out of the whole mess its because of God. I used to know a pastoral colleague who would often assert, “If I am good at all, its because God is good in and through me, not because of any goodness on my own.” Yep. It might sound reckless, but I trust God to sort out and “fix.”

So, there we have it. Ten years in ordained ministry summed up in a (perhaps) shoddy manner. What will the next 1 – 10 years bring? Literally, only God knows. I doubt, however, that I will return to being solely a congregational pastor. But, again, I NEVER imagined this is where I’d be and what I’d be doing in my weirdest dreams. So, I am often as perplexed by it all as you might be. I do know that I have learned A LOT and have had my mind/opinion/outlook changed on several topics on several occasions over the past decade (or so). While I feel mostly content with who I’ve become and who (and whose) I am, I am certain I can always be and do “better.” I’ll keep trying, and with God’s help, you and I can keep on working together toward better days and times.

Peace be with you, this day and always.

10 Years Ordained – The Past

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June 15, 2012.*

The day I was officially ordained as a pastor (Minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA).

Never would I have imagined this life.

Raised in a church-attending household, with a primary education provided by a religious institution, this never even entered the realm of consideration. Sure, I was an altar boy who grew into a young adult Communion Assistant. I even had just enough musical talent to cover for my Mom as the organist for Mass periodically, as a young child.

But a life in ministry!? GTFO…as some might say.

I wasn’t a rebellious kid, not by any measure. I did things to serve the church. But I remember a nun who had become the organist/choir director of the church, saying something to me about becoming a priest someday. HA! Then, in my mid-twenties, I decided church/religion didn’t hold any value for me. I became what I refer to as “anti-church.” No, I didn’t go vandalizing, protesting, harassing, etc. I simply made my (less than kind) views on church and related issues very clear.

When I met Mrs. P2MP, she was not active in church either despite also growing in a churchgoing environment, so that was good. Eventually, though, she started to express a desire to return to churchgoing for our son’s sake. I was against just going to go, going through the motions as it were, putting on a show that didn’t feel genuine, just for his sake. But, go we did and, after visiting different congregations of different Protestant denominations, we found ourselves in a small Lutheran church that would forever alter my personal faith.

Then, in 2006, during an unrelated job interview for a position in my beloved Pacific Northwest (aka Seattle), the interviewer asked (I think) about my hopes and goals. I remember saying something like, “As long as I have good people to work with…”. His response, completely out of the blue was, “So you wanna be a priest?” Seriously?! WTF kinda response is that? (Spoiler: After they flew me out for an on-site interview, I didn’t get the position)

When I entered seminary, my main desire was to be a good “parish pastor,” to work with people, help them to hear and understand the many ways faith gets imagined, expressed, and enacted in daily life.

Then, after four years in seminary, on June 15, 2012 I became an ordained Lutheran pastor. On that night, I first gave my verbal commitment to uphold and share the gospel for the good of the church and the world.

I served congregations in southwestern PA and eastern Indiana.

I have “baptized, married, and buried” people of the church and their relatives. I have shared in their joys and sorrows, and perhaps have even been the cause of some of each. I have tried to “preach, teach, study, and live” according to the church’s call and my vows. No doubt, I was not always (if ever) successful.

I was grateful for the experience, but the personal aspects and dynamics simply became too much. (No gory details here)

To be continued…

The (Dis)Contentment of Mediocrity

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I can do things. I have no doubt in my mind that you can, too.  How well we do whatever it is we do is quite a subjective minefield.  And to be honest, which is likely obvious, all the things I do are not done at the same level of quality. The strange thing to me is, even the things I think I’m good at, COULD be better, yet I don’t feel the impetus, gumption, or drive to take the necessary steps toward improvement.  I suppose it’s a matter of defining or discerning what my desired outcomes are for these efforts.

At this point in my life, and likely throughout my life thus far, it seems I’ve been quick to settle for mundanity or an acceptable level of mediocrity.  There are times where this annoys and frustrates me; I wish to BE better.  Then there are other times when I’m totally okay with “less than;” I feel like I’m not a total hack/novice.  After all, my aspirations have never been toward fame or notoriety.  But, it still bothers me at times, and I’ve been trying to reflect on why this is so.  Following are a couple of examples where this occurs most often.

Musicality

When I was younger, my parents paid for me to take lessons to play the electric organ.  It made sense, as my two older siblings had also been provided the opportunity, and we had an Hammond organ in a corner of our dining room.  I wasn’t always diligent with practice and eventually stopped the lessons.  We then inherited a restored upright, pedal-pump player piano, and I transferred what I had learned to that instrument.  Of course, as part of all of that, I learned to read music.

Later, in young adulthood, I started to play guitar, in large part due the monthly publication “Guitar for the Practicing Musician” which included several tablature transcriptions of songs.  Tablature is what you use if you don’t already know or learn how to translate conventional sheet music into guitar chords. I can’t say that I ever got to play a complete song, start-to-finish.

Nowadays, I have my 40-year-old synth/keyboard set up in the basement, and my surviving catalog of sheet music. Some pieces I recall being able to play from memory. Other selections have always been played piecemeal. I’ve got books of practice exercises, too. Yet, when I take the time to “play,” I typically fumble my way through the familiar bits before moving onto something else. I get frustrated that I still stumble over bits I feel I should know, but I don’t have a hard and fast practice regimen either. What should I expect?

Cycling

If you’ve read any of the Lazarus bike saga, this may be more obvious.  Since learning to ride a bike, it was always as a recreational pursuit and the idea of competition of any sort really never occurred to me.  As I grew older and discovered “non-competitive” riding events, they were certainly fun and interesting, but I never really “trained” for them.  There wasn’t a sense of getting “better” at riding; there was just riding, and you struggled through whatever road choices you made.

Over the past few years, the increasing use of technology to record and track efforts HAS created an impulse to improve some stat, whether time, distance, or average speed. But, there still isn’t a “plan.” When I embark on a ride, the primary goal is to return to the starting point safely and without health or mechanical issues. Beyond that, if I get to see some nice scenery along the way, that’s just a bonus.

Could I be a better hill-climber? Probably, given the topography of my riding routes. Could I be a faster “sprinter?” Not likely, nor particularly necessary. I suppose it would be nice to ratchet up the average riding speed, but I might already be near (or past) peak for my age. As above, what should I expect?

And so, I guess the self-reflective, existential question is: Am I lazy or content? If I say I’m lazy, what would it take to motivate me to stick to an improvement plan? If I say I’m content with the state of things, why do I feel frustrated at the state of things? I’m certainly past the point of either of these efforts (or a multitude of others) leaving a blip on the consciousness of the world. A quick internet search certainly has A LOT of negative bent toward mediocrity, particularly under the guise of “self-help.”

Is it possible its not an either/or issue? Should I even be troubling myself about any of this? This is (or seems to be) who I am, so why not just accept it? Ultimately, I am the only one the holds the answer.

Is This Real (Mid-) Life?

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To be honest, I never imagined being this age.  I don’t really know what I expected, but after four years of spending time with aging folks, it seems consistent that aging, and all it’s highs and lows, joys and woes kinda comes as a bit of a surprise.

I began to wonder if the “midlife crisis” was really a thing or just a long-standing fable used to rationalize atypical behaviors.

Do I feel suddenly compelled to blow my 401k on a luxury thing? Am I being instinctually led to a journey of self-discovery?

Definitely not the former, but likely the latter, at least in part.

I have found myself experiencing a bit of reawakening memories and having feelings of longing for past, mudane pursuits (I’ll spare the details).  As briefly observed in the “Worlds of Fantasy” post, these former things hearken back to a day when those were the most pressing concerns, and yet these things seem to rarely, if ever, stand the test of time and often are found to be lacking, by current standards. To be sure, there are no “former glories” or acheivements that I have that I wash to relive or recreate. So why these things, and why now?

Perhaps it is tied to the past two years worth of disrupted life that a longing for a more gentle, dare I say “trouble free” life has been stirred?

I’m honestly not sure. I’m also not sure, as none of us really are, what else lies ahead. I think of Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward” wherein he discusses the first and second halves of life and how (might) we live it and grow our spirituality. Certainly, there is not a hard and fast boundary or parameter to delineates one half from the other. But most days, I feel like I’m in some sort of limbo bewteen the two.

I’m not discontented with my life. In fact, I feel more settled than I have in some time. There is no desire to run to the next, new thing, or away from the things that currently comprise my life. Yet, I just have this overwhelming sense of melancholy, sentimentality, or nostalgia for certain aspects of the former “me.”

So, if this IS what mid-life is, then I guess in the words of either Virgil via Dante or Robert Frost (depending on which Internet site you believe), “The only way out is through.”

Thus, onward I go…

view through an archway looking straight ahead acrossf a wooden suspension bridge over a creek surrounded by green trees
The bridge to the next half? Looks a little shaky…

The Last Period

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Every story has a beginning. And, justifiably, in a “sensible” world, every story has its end. In the few years that I’ve been working in the hospice environment, I have asked for, and been the (partial) keeper of innumerable stories. Most are mundane, but they are never insignificant.

After the recent (expected) death of my Dad, this notion of beginnings and endings really landed with me, and has become somewhat an expression of “meaning making” in my work and life.

During the visitation for my Dad, so many people came and went, some extended family, some friends of siblings, etc. But they all had stories of my Dad. Most were familiar observations, and I certainly have my own interalized library of chapters of life with my Dad.

In the aftermath of his funeral service, there was a lag until his interment. Since I no longer live in the immediate vicinity of my parents, and it was the middle of January in Pennsylvania (weather concerns), the possibility that I would not attend his interment existed. Thankfully, everything worked out, and I realized it wasn’t really an option under nearly any circumstance to NOT attend.

You see, at least from MY perspective, this was the last part of my Dad’s story in which he would be physically present, even if contained in a polished wooden box containing his cremated remains. From here on out, everything that would be said about my Dad would be memories, recollections, myth (to a certain extent). But this ritual, on this day, represented “the last period.”

The last period.

Of the last sentence.

Of the last chapter.

On the last page of a story.

There would be nothing more to follow. And it was that very notion that made the effort to be there more critical for me. How could I just “skip” this final moment, this final mark of conclusion to a story that spanned 91+ years?

I certainly realize that everyone’s story, experience, and relationship with a parent is not like mine, but I’m not sure its even about the parental aspect. The stories of the people we love and care for/about will come to an end. We would rarely skip the ending of a good story/movie. While I cherish (and sometimes cringe) at the parts of his story I hold, and I realize there are parts of the story that were only hinted-at vagueries, and others I will simply never know, I just couldn’t leave it “unfinished,” as it were.

It was important to mark “The End,” if only to begin writing the new story of life without him, while still reflecting on his impact and influence on my own story. It is because of his story that I have a story.

Take my word that he was smiling and happier than it visually appears. c. Oct 2021

Faith Seeking Understanding, Ep. 6

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Christian faith asks questions, seeks understanding, both because God is always greater than our ideas of God, and because the public world that faith inhabits confronts it with challenges and contradictions that cannot be ignored. It is my hope to offer some information and insights in response to questions about God, the Bible and faith, that will add to the conversation without offering set, absolute answers.

A Question of Death and Life

In my daily work as a hospice chaplain, a key part of interactions revolves around addressing questions of meaning and purpose in life.  In my brief experience, I’ve been struck by how often these questions seem to have not ever been considered previously.  In some sense, I think it is a more modern (post-modern?) consideration, and previous generations simply don’t have the explicit language to express it.  That’s not to say that their lives didn’t have meaning, but they never had or took time to reflect and contemplate.

Frequently, questions of the afterlife come up, as you might imagine.  Some have a firm vision and expectation, some more nebulous, and still some have no expectation at all.  Its curious to observe how even people who readily define themselves as “non-religious/non-spiritual” have still held onto some notion of an afterlife.

Recently, though, in the course of an ongoing dialogue with someone under my pastoral care, I was presented with a question I had not anticipated, and frankly couldn’t answer, at least not in any sort of satisfactory way.  The question DID, however, provide a new perspective to consider for the work I (and others) do, as well as a larger consideration for how we talk about our mortality and related hopes and fears.

“How will I know when I’m dead?”

It struck me because its something I hadn’t ever considered.  So often, the focus is on whether or not the dying process is going to be fast or slow, peaceful or painful, and what happens afterward, with respect to afterlife expectations (heaven, paradise, nothingness, etc.)  There seems a built in assumption for most that we will be fully aware and competent in the hereafter. People often “leapfrog” the discussion to the expectations of afterlife, because I don’t think the “dying” part is easy to consider or discuss.  But, what about that liminal moment? How can we know whether or not we end up like Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense?”

There are certain, obvious clinical/medical signs that life has ceased. Of course, the sarcastic, smart-ass response to the question is something like, “Well, I don’t know how YOU’LL know, but I know how WE’LL know.” Obviously, that’s not very helpful.

No one whom I have ever encountered wishes for dying to be agonizing and fraught, and for obvious reasons. Generally, the largest majority wants to “go to sleep.” Is that really what it is, or will be, like? A gentle fading into a different state of being or non-being? Still, how will we know?

Worth noting, I think, that I don’t imagine this type of consideration being too applicable too sudden/tragic/violent/traumatic deaths, but also can’t completely rule it out.

Of course, I suppose I could simply delve into the many “near death experiences” that have been asserted, reported, published, movie-fied, and whatever. But, I’m honestly skeptical.

Not to mention, in a bit of a digression, that to my knowledge most of those near-death tales are rooted, framed and interpreted through an exclusively Christian lens/filter. I’m left curious and wondering if adherents of other religious traditions have these experiences and I just haven’t heard about them, or if this is a phenomenon unique to Christian sects. Perhaps, if I can manage the time and effort, I will do some indepedent rsearch and post my findings in a follow-up entry.

In Christian and Hebrew scriptures, we have accounts of the dead being brought back to life: Elijah and the Zarephath widow’s son (1 Kings 17), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7), Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5, Luke 8) and our dear friend Lazarus (John 11). From the perspective of Christian faith and spirituality, none of these, not even Jesus himself are recorded as having discussed their dying moments. I have to believe they MUST have. But then I wonder, were they even AWARE of what had transpired?

It seems, based on my scope of experiences, that people are self-aware and can recognize that they are actively dying, even if/when they aren’t able to verbally communicate it. But the question of the actual moment of death, and any awareness related therein, seems unanswerable.

Perhaps, I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe, this doesn’t merit even this much attention. But, I haven’t been able to shake the question, since it was asked. But I suppose it is one of the things I will know, when I know.

Worlds of Fantasy

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Recently, I had a day off with not even a personal “to-do” list that HAD to be done. I took the time to finally watch “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” a Netflix series that serves as a prequel to the classic 80’s movie. I had wanted to watch it since it’s release, but hadn’t squeezed it in anywhere, and now I recently learned it has not been renewed. As I watched, I became fascinated at the complexities, not just of the creatures, but of the world and history that had been crafted to support them.

It took me back to my youth when I was a (more) avid reader of Fantasy-genre fiction. I cast a melancholic thought or three to those books and characters that I can recall having read so excitedly. I can’t be 100% certain, but I feel like maybe “The Lord of the Rings” was what really started it off for me. I remember being excited and mesmerized by the 1977-78 film by Ralph Bakshi.

Or perhaps it was the seventh-grade teacher who loaned me a paperback copy ot “The Sword of Shannara” (with full-color, fold-out Hildebrandt Brothers illustration).

Regardless, I entered my high school days with an appetite for stories of swords, magic, elves, dwarves, giants, far-away lands of wonder and danger.  This was certainly helped along by a concurrent interest in Dungeons & Dragons the ONLY (seemingly) fantasy roleplaying game at the time (although I would later discover otherwise).  My first job after graduating high school was at a retail bookstore, Atlantic Bookshops, in downtown Pittsburgh.  It afforded me knowledge and access to a WEALTH of new authors.

Besides the classic Tolkien series and all its offshoots, I immersed myself in the worlds of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Dragonlance, The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, Thieves’ World anthologies, Asprin’s Myth Inc. series, and pretty much everything by Lawrence Watt-Evans. And yet, there were other authors’ series that went unexplored, like Dragonriders of Pern, Piers Anthony’s Xanth, Narnia, Moorcock’s Corum, or any of the Burroughs’ characters.

Later, a good friend who was a few years older than I introduced me to other, older books and authors such as Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, Alan Dean Foster’s “Spellsinger,” “Flying Sorcerors,” “Enchanted Pilgrimage,” “Healer,” “Pastel City,” “The Worm Orobouros,” “Dhalgren,” and the “Gormenghast Trilogy.”

The lingering remnant of days gone by

Other than being a trip down memory lane, though, I find myself at a loss as far as interest in revisiting these fabled places and peoples…and it frustrates me, to say the least.  In some part, I imagine it has to do with personal growth (dare I say maturity?), as I read things in a different way than when I was in my teens and twenties. But another part of me wonders if they were “good” stories to being with.

According to my GoodReads notes, it has already been EIGHT years since I re-read “Lord Foul’s Bane,” the first of the Thomas Covenant books.  And, it was…not enjoyable, actually off-putting for continuing to re-read the rest of the series.  More recently, I re-read “Enchanged Pilgrimage” and was left feeling annoyed by the “kitchen sink” approach to the overall story.  My last re-read of “Flying Sorcerors” was still amusing with regards to the wordplay and its Tuckerization of names, yet its depiction of the primitive people and the treatment of women by men was…awkward, to say the least.

While I relish the days I spent consuming these stories, I can’t help but hesitate to return.  There is a halcyon sentimentality and notstalgia that I am reluctant to risk.  Do these epic tales stand the test of time?  Why does it seem the act of reading through these sagas has become its own arduous journey?

To be honest, my reading habits have wandered far away from the fantasy genre over the years, replaced by other avenues of general fiction and non-fiction. I recently tried to read the first in a contemporary series recommended by my son. While I got through it, it clearly didn’t make me feel the way I used to. This made me disappointed, as my son really enjoyed the series and its setting, among others he has recommended that I have not pursued.

So…can the magic be captured again? Is this another casualty of “growing up?” Are they better left fondly remembered? I honestly miss those days, but it seems like trying to return is a fool’s errand. Dare I risk it? How can I be certain?

Of COURSE there is a metal tie-in also, as the catalog of German power-metal band Blind Guardian’s discography contains many fantasy themes, references and inspirations, including an entire album rooted in Tolkien’s “Silmarillion.” Most applicable to the current observation, though, is the title track to “Imaginations From the Other Side,” which offers a similar lament of lost days and stories.

Blind Guardian’s “Nightfall In Middle Earth” inspired by “The Silmarillion”

Perhaps the time has come for my questing days to draw to an end, and there is nothing left but to write the story, ala a certain hobbit who went “there and back again.”

Metal Memories & Musings

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Things were simpler when I was younger.  Heck, I can still remember when vinyl records (78’s, 45’s, 33-1/3’s) were the norm, and you had to take diligent care not to ruin those precious sound discs.  I even remember when there was JUST “heavy metal.”  Of course, even then it was an arguable label often devolving into loud verbal sparring over who was MORE metal, who was just “hard rock,” and who was a downright Poser.

I don’t remember EXACTLY when, but approximately in my Junior year of public high school (mid-80’s), I learned of, and became enamored with heavy metal music.  You learn a lot of things on the school bus ride to 1/2-day vo-tech school away from the high school itself.  Of course, bands like Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Scorpions, Van Halen, etc. already existed, but I simply hadn’t had any deep exposure, beyond FM radio airplay.  MTV was only a few years old, and Headbangers Ball wouldn’t come along until 1987.

But that daily bus ride brought to my ears the strains of Metallica, Megadeth, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Pantera, among many others that slip my mind at the moment.  Coupled with the discovery of Eide’s, one of the best independent record/comics stores in the area at that time on Pittsburgh’s North Side, it was quite the time.

In the ensuing three decades, heavy metal has suffered its knocks (Jethro Tull Grammy award, PMRC and the Judas Priest trial), fads and trends (rap-metal,nu-metal, glam/hair metal), and its fractured factions and sub-genres (WAY too many to list even a sampling).  Nowadays, you have to know at least a little info to be able to discern if you want even a hint of what you’re going to hear.  That assumes you don’t just wildly click random Recommendations on YouTube or streaming services.

I’ll pause the memories and flashbacks for a moment to HIGHLY RECOMMEND checking out the work of filmmaker Sam Dunn’s body of work which took off from 2005’s “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” and grew into an immense resource for documenting the world of heavy metal.  Aside from the original film, Mr. Dunn’s studio produced a series between 2011-2014 entitled “Metal Evolution” that explores the roots and most/many of those pesky subgenres. 

Learn more at Banger Films and BangerTV.

Music connects with so many memories and life experiences, and can often instantly transport us back to that moment in time.  For all the live shows (metal and non-metal) I’ve seen, I wish my memories of some shows were crisper than others, if I can remember them at all. I’ve got a collection of old, faded ticket stubs from many of them.

  • Iron Maiden’s Powerslave/World Slavery Tour
  • Dio’s first Holy Diver Tour
  • Metallica (with Cliff) Master of Puppets Tour (opening for Ozzy)
  • Metallica (with Jason) Justice Tour (as part of Van Halen’s Monsters of Rock package (Dokken, Scorpions also)
  • In Flames playing between Jag Panzer and Iced Earth (and stealing the show)*
  • Opeth Evolution XX Tour in NYC (with Blackwater Park played in its entirety)
  • Demons & Wizards in NYC (pre-insurrection Jon Schaffer)
Artifacts of bygone days

I suppose many musical artists would say their chosen genre has its own attitude, its own swagger.  Not untrue, but for me heavy metal is the style that gets right to my core. So, what’s the appeal of heavy metal for a middle-aged minister?  In lots of ways, it is still a bit dangerous and rebellious, gritty and aggressive.  Even more so when someone sees me in my car, wearing my cleric collar, sneering and snarling along to the likes of Opeth, Anthrax, In Flames, and so on.  There’s a release of energy, or perhaps a transfer of energy that enfolds me and makes me feel…different.

Don’t get me wrong.  Other styles of music have equal value and capacity to move me, inspire me, entertain me.  I’m not like all exclusive “metal or die” like I may have been as a teenager (thankfully). But after 30 years, and having strayed into Pop and Country for extended periods, I never completely quit on Heavy Metal.  I still seek out new bands and recommendations as some old favorites’ newer material may have lost their luster.  I still really enjoy this music. Sure, there are subsets of it that don’t interest me in the slightest, but…there is just something about big, edgy, distorted guitar sounds over thundering drums and bass with passionately delivered vocals that coalesces into something magical in my ears.

Opeth in Indianapolis, 2017

Over the course of several moves due to changing life and career circumstances, I’ve had to toss out my original vinyl collection AND my stacks upon stacks of cassettes. There are many things that didn’t make the transition to CD or digital, and can’t be replaced. Not that I find myself missing them, but its just that weird sentimentality of bygone days and things.

I think metal, in some from or another, will always remain, sometimes closer to mainstream acceptance, other times hovering at the edge of extinction (if you believe some people’s opinions). I sometimes ponder how odd it might seem to someone if, as I eventually near the end of life, one of my comfort coping mechanisms is heavy metal…and it makes me smile.

Me with Adam D. of Killswitch, Engage, Buffalo, NY (lack of visual clarity credited to an outdated phone at the time)

* It was a recent recollection of a distinct memory from this show that instigated this post.

New Road Bike – Review

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The time had finally come. A purchase of a new bike could no longer be delayed by nickel-and-dime replacement parts (or $20/ea. spokes) for the bike known as Lazarus. The point of “critical mass” as it were is documented here. And for the record, bike shopping/buying during a global pandemic turns out to be the WORST possible time to need to do this.

No “friendly local bike shop” (FLBS from here on out) had any inventory. Nor did they have any expectation of when new inventory would arrive due to the ripple effect in material availability, manufacturing, and delivery caused by the aforementioned pandemic. I was whiling away hours doing online research to narrow down the critical factors of style/component/cost, but couldnt actually see/touch/test ride ANYTHING.

I had narrowed down to a list of (7) prospectives, which then was winnowed down to (4) with further research and conversation with CheapCyclist and phone calls to local shops who were indulgent with my questions. I really kinda had my hopes set on somewhow acquiring a Jamis Allegro or Coda, but after contacting Jamis directly, that just wasn’t an option.

I finally managed to find a shop that had something I could physically see/touch in a size that I needed: Earl’s Bike Shop in Lewisburg, PA. It took over an hour to get there, and when I arrived I was STILL a little undecided on specific models. Earl’s is primarily a Giant brand dealer, although they carry others. But, true to their word…they had inventory! No waiting! I was still working and was dressed in full “business” attire. It was a moment fraught with anxiety and indecision, as I had never imagined spending such an amount of money on a bike. And, believe me, after the research I had done, I know it could have been much worse.

After a quick test-spin (with tie flapping over my shoulder), I decided this was it – a Giant Escape 2. As part of the new bike purchase, the shop offered a discount on accessories bought at the time of purchase. I opted for a water bottle holder, a kickstand (really, this is an optional accessory), and sport fenders (having learned a lesson after all these years). It took the shop hardly any time at all to get things installed and I was ready to. Except for one minor oversight…I did not have my rack mounted on the car to be able to tote the new ride home. Thankfully, I was able to fold down the rear seat and inauspiciously slide the new ride into the car on its side for the journey home.

I’m noticing that’s quite a lengthy intro to a “review,” but every story needs a little (okay a lot?) of context. For various reasons, it took another nearly two weeks to actually get this bike out for a spin. When we finally hit the road, the tl;dr synopsis – it went OK, but due to a unexpected shifting issue skipping between gears 3-4-5, I was a bit frustrated and annoyed. Generally, the bike rode well and felt comfortable, but definitely needed some fine tuning.

First Road Miles

A few days later, after hoisting it onto the repair stand and reviewing some shifting adjustment tutorials, I felt like we were ready to try again. To be fair, “hoisting” is an exaggeration with this bike, but much more appropriate to working with/on Lazarus.

A Better Outing

This was the ride I was looking for! The bike rode so smoothly and quietly. I felt stealthy. The newly tuned shifting was, in a word, remarkable! I had not experienced the wonders of indexed shifting four decades. I just could not believe how quick and efficient the transitions were! The gearing configuration expanded the range beyond what I had with Lazarus, also. It paid big dividends and seemed perfectly suited to the terrain/topography as well as my riding style and needs. I had read gear reviews that expressed disappointment in the shifting system, but as I’m not (nor ever will be) a competitive cyclist, I’ll leave the minutiae to the diehard bike geeks who tend to worry about such things.

I had been cautioned about the differences in braking from Lazarus’ “classic” rim brake to the Escapes disc braking system. There is a definite difference in feel when braking, but I did not have any difficulty assimilating to this.

The most noticeable difference with the Escape is the riding position. I had been so used to Lazarus’ drop bars and resting my hands on the brake hoods that the more upright position and flat bars felt a little unnatural. It actually caused some significant discomfort in my shoulders that I never had when riding in the past. I also noticed, after this and subsequent rides, that my average speed had dropped. That didn’t make sense to me, as this bike is considerably lighter than Lazarus’ steel heft.

I (and CheapCyclist) chalked it up to needing a bit of a break-in period for me and the Escape.

Things were going pretty well. I was alternating rides with Lazarus and the Escape. Then, quite unexpectedly, with less than 150 miles on the bike, it suffered a pedal failure mid-ride. I was less than a mile from home, on a familiar course, when my left pedal just fell away mid-downstroke! With no tools on-board, I attempted to thread the pedal back on by hand just to make it home, but no such luck. The pedal gave way again in the first couple of turns. So, I ended up walking this new bike back home.

I’ll spare you the details surrounding the correction of this issue, and simply say some LBSs are friendlier than others.

It is now early October, and my riding time and frequency have been diminished by a back/leg strain and subsequent physical therapy. The road miles I have put on this new vehicle up to this point continue to affirm my choice. I’m still impressed by the shifting and “quick” feeling in this bike, like it just WANTS to leap forward. After missing the first in-person Bikes & Beers event in two years this past July at Victory Brewing, the Escape 2 made its organized ride debut at the Troegs Brewing Bikes & Beers event in September. The 15-mile road course provided a good challenge and the “New Bike” performed solidly and smoothly, as expected.

I have finally entered a new age of riding, and it feels good and satisfying. Lazarus continues to lurk in the basement shadows just waiting for another chance.

Gorge-ing Ourselves

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Of course the last 18-20 months have been an absolute mess in nearly every aspect.  Having not had a legitimate, get-away, overnight vacation since May 2019, things were really getting stretched thin.  Mrs. P2MP and I began planning early for an appropriately safe and fun time for some PTO.  Like many others, we had hoped the pandemic situation would have been better by this time rather than worse, but…[shrug] what can you do.

We initially discussed and envisioned being away for a few days to do some bike trail riding on the Virginia Creeper. Seventeen miles of scenic downhill coasting? Sounded delightful!  We were looking at a 6+ hour car ride to get there, but it definitely seemed worth it. As time wore on, and Mrs. continued to read and research others’ experiences, it seemed this was not our best choice, at least at this time.  So, we scrambled together to come up with another option.

Thanks in large part to a biking/hiking FB group she follows, we discovered a similar opportunity closer to home (less than 2 hours!) and with a few other regional interests.  We made our way to Jim Thorpe, PA and explored the wonders of the Lehigh Valley Gorge.  While there are many ways to experience this area, I want to focus on the D&L rail-trail that runs along the Lehigh River.

We vetoed the idea of taking our own bikes and connected with Pocono Biking who, among other things, offers bike rental (Trek and Jamis brands!) and shuttle service to trail access points.  There were different lengths available to ride.  Since I was still recovering/rehabilitating a back strain injury, we opted for just the “Lower Gorge” 15-miler.  We had made reservations over the phone a couple of days prior to our trip. It was quite an easy process. Upon arrival, the shop sized us up for bikes, loaded them on the trailer, and took us to the trailhead at Rockport. 

While the trail back toward Jim Thorpe is generally downhill (1-2% avg. grade), the folks at Pocono Biking suggested taking the time to go “up-trail” for less than 1/2-mile to see Buttermilk Falls, which would be missed if we simply set out on the Lower Gorge trail.  And so, we did.

The trail surface is fine gravel. It is a true rail trail having been rehabilitated from the former Delaware & Lehigh (D&L) rail system. It runs along the western edge of the Lehigh River/Gorge and is directly adjacent to the Lehigh Scenic Railway. The weather was absolutely beautiful with light overcast sky that made for cool temps starting out in the shade of the upper part of the trail. Later the trail opened up and more sunlight got through. Every now and then, we got glimpses and heard the excited shrieks of whitewater rafters heading downriver.

Dual purpose bridge – trains to the right, bikes to the left
A quick break to take in the scenery
End of the Line (for us) on the southern end of town, the Mansion House Bridge
A last look from the Mansion House Bridge

Pocono Biking suggests allotting 2-3 hours for cruising down the trail. I’m pretty sure it took us close to four, because quite honestly, we weren’t in a hurry. We only stopped a couple of times for water and photos. We returned our bikes to the shop and enjoyed a nice post-ride dinner on the outdoor covered deck at Molly Maguires.

This trip, and particularly this activity, “checked all the boxes” for us.