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AUG. 14, 2019    FIFTY YEARS AGO

I didn't go to Woodstock in August of 1969, but a few members of my college class did make it there.  Can you find them in the crowd?

My latest article quotes Robert Krulwich's recollections about An Hour at Bethel.


AUG. 15, 2009 flashback   CANDLES IN THE RAIN

My apologies to Lord Bulwer-Lytton, but I've heard that it was a dark and stormy night in upstate New York on this date 40 years ago.  Rain poured down as the hour of eleven p.m. approached.

But the rain did not chase away, could not chase away, the half million people sitting in Max Yasgur’s pasture.  They had come to join in “an Aquarian exposition:  three days of peace and music” known as Woodstock.

Ravi Shankar had just finished his sitar performance.  The Incredible String Band was scheduled next, but they didn’t want to play in the rain.  In their place, a relatively unknown performer agreed to go on:  a hippie folk singer with her guitar.

Thomas Ryan wrote, “To walk onstage alone, in front of a city of people who don't know you but are paying rapt attention, can be a harrowing and humbling experience.

“She watched amazed as the hills slowly lit up with thousands upon thousands of candles.”

And the singer sang.

Beautiful people!
You live in the same world as I do,
But somehow I never noticed you before today,
I'm ashamed to say.

Beautiful people!
You look like friends of mine,
And it's about time
That someone said it here and now:
I make a vow
That some time, somehow,
I'll have a meeting.  Invite ev'ryone you know.
I'll pass out buttons to the ones who come, to show

Beautiful people
Never have to be alone,
'Cause there'll always be someone
With the same button on as you.
Include him in ev'rything you do.
He may be sitting right next to you.
He may be beautiful people too.

And if you take care of him, maybe I'll take care of you.

Birthday of the Sun

If I were to hang my head
I'd miss all the rainbows
And I'd drown in raindrops instead

But I'm the one;
I found the birthday of the sun.

And all things change.
And now I'm sure it's the birthday of the rain.

I wrote about Melanie last year; click here for that piece.  It includes a link to a song she wrote later “to capture the spirituality and magic of that moment,” according to Ryan.  “To convey a sense of the warm crowd, she envisioned hundreds of voices joining her on the chorus.”

We were so close, there was no room...
We all sang the songs of peace.
Some came to sing, some came to pray, 
Some came to keep the dark away.

From the movie Taking Woodstock, opening this month

So raise your candles high, 
'Cause if you don't
we could stay black
against the night. 

Oh, raise them higher again, 
'Cause if you do
we could stay dry
against the rain!

[I wrote about Melanie again in 2015.  Click here.]



Fifty years ago on this date, many of my generation abandoned the big cities and camped out for a weekend listening to the music of the cowbells (and guitars) on Max Yasgur's farm.

I wasn't there, but I've heard it was far out!  It was organic, man!

That led me to write an organic article called Carbonstock.  It's actually more about etymology and chemistry.



Eighty years ago tonight, the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, hosted one of the out-of-town premieres of the soon-to-be-classic motion picture The Wizard of Oz.

The movie eventually made it to television in November 1956, the same month that my family finally got a TV set.  That's how most of us have seen it.

My favorite part?  The protagonists are confronted by a disembodied giant face.  Surrounded by bursts of fire, the face loudly proclaims, “I am Oz, the great and powerful!”  They cower.

But later in the movie, Toto realizes the face is just an image on a TV screen.  The little dog pulls back a drape to reveal the perpetrator of the deception.

Actor Frank Morgan is speaking into a microphone while pulling levers to activate the other special effects.  Morgan desperately makes the giant face command, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

I naturally was reminded of the scene in the Bible in which Moses is just walking along when something strange happens.  Out of bursts of fire, he hears the voice, “I am the God of thy father!”

Moses turns aside to get a closer look.  The voice desperately warns him to stay back.  “Draw not nigh hither!  Put off thy shoes from off thy feet!”

It was nearly ten years ago that I peered behind the burning bush to demystify this ancient story.  It's this month's 100 Moons article. 


AUG. 11, 2009 flashback   ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED

Do dogs go to heaven?

In a story I wrote a couple of years ago, a little girl decides they do.  But there’s no real answer.  We might as well inquire into the pay scale for elves at Santa’s workshop, or ask about next year’s enrollment at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Like heaven, the workshop and Hogwarts are fictional places.  Therefore, no details that we dream up about them can be proven wrong.

Do born-again mass murderers go to heaven?

This has been a problem for Christianity ever since the very beginning.  The Gospel proclaims that if we are born again, our sins are forgiven.  “Now,” asks Paul in chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans (J.B. Phillips translation), “what is our response to be?  Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God?  What a ghastly thought!  We, who have died to sin — how could we live in sin a moment longer?”  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to consider God’s promise of forgiveness to be a blank check.

A week ago tonight, George Sodini shot up an exercise class in suburban Pittsburgh, killing three women before taking his own life.  He had been told that Jesus would forgive any and all of his sins.

Found among his writings was a grievance against the non-denominational Tetelestai Church and its pastor, Rick Knapp.  “Guilt and fear kept me there 13 long years until Nov 2006.  I think his crap did the most damage.  ...  This guy teaches (and convinced me) you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.  Ask him.”

A reporter did ask Rev. Knapp.  “That's not anything I have ever said.  ... The message of the word I preach never reflected such a thing.”  (link)

But members of his church weren’t so sure.  Senior deacon Chuck Matone said of Sodini, “Is he in heaven?  Only God and he know.”

Another deacon, Jack Rickard, suggested that Sodini is in fact on his way to glory land, but he won’t enjoy it there.  Apparently God is grudgingly keeping His earlier promise to let Sodini pass through the pearly gates, but there’s no way He’s issuing him a harp.  Rickard said that according to the Bible, “professing a faith in Jesus as savior means you will have complete eternal salvation.  ... We believe in permanent security — once saved, always saved.  ... He'll be in heaven, but he won't have any rewards because he did evil.”

This is a new concept to me, a restricted associate membership in paradise.  Because heaven is imaginary, I suppose we can imagine whatever rules we want.


AUG. 8, 2014   SEARCH ME

Years ago, when I needed to do some research as an Oberlin College student, I walked over the repository of all knowledge on the campus:  Carnegie Library.  There, working back and forth between the card catalogs and the “stacks,” I eventually identified two or three books that contained some information on my subject.  I carried them to a desk and turned the pages.  When I found something I could use, I transcribed it in my notebook.  Eventually these notes became the foundation of my little report.

But now there’s an easily available repository of all knowledge in the world:  the Internet.  And it’s searchable by keyword!  There’s no need to travel to a big library, no need to locate books using a card catalog, and no need to turn their pages.  I can’t get over how much easier this is.

This week, I was preparing an article that will appear on this website Monday.  A small part of it concerns an obscure 19th-century preacher named John Ingersoll.  He couldn’t hold a job.  None of his congregations liked him.  However, I discovered, he was associated with a more famous revivalist named Charles Finney.  And Finney later became the second president of my alma mater, Oberlin College.  I'd discovered a connection with personal relevance!

Consulting the Internet, I opened a lengthy biography of Finney and asked my browser to find all the appearances of the word Ingersoll.  And it did.  Besides confirming his incompetence, the bio mentioned that in 1840 Ingersoll actually lived in Oberlin.  Nothing was said of his activities there — he didn't seem to have a pastorate — but if he was in town, it seemed likely that at some point his friend Finney must have invited him to speak.

So I turned to the Internet again and searched for “John Ingersoll” and “Oberlin.”  As it turns out, Google Books has helpfully indexed a volume buried in the periodicals collection of the University of Minnesota.  The book consists of reprints of a semi-monthly newspaper The Oberlin Evangelist, beginning with the first issue on November 1, 1838.  Google highlighted my search terms.  Oberlin was highlighted on every page, but where was Ingersoll?  Did I have to examine the 224 pages of fine print?  No, I merely refined the search and found he was mentioned exactly once, on page 158.

September 23, 1840:  “ORDINATION.  At an adjourned meeting of the Lorain Association, held at this place on Thursday last, Mr. ROBERT COCHRAN was ordained to the work of the Gospel Ministry.  Sermon by Rev. John Ingersoll, from Jn. 15:6:  ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  Reading the Confession of Faith, by Pres. Mahan.  Ordaining prayer and charge by Prof. Finney.  Right hand of fellowship by Rev. Ira Smith.  At the same time and place, and by the same body, Messrs. E.H. and J.H. Fairchild, members of the Senior Theological Class, were licensed to preach the gospel.”

Quickly checking my 1840 calendar (via an Internet application, of course), I determined that “Thursday last” would have been September 17.  So now I had the exact date of a sermon that Ingersoll preached at Oberlin — in Finney’s presence— as well as the text he used.

It would have been very difficult for me to unearth this nugget of history as a college undergraduate.  We had no Internet access in the library in those days.  We had only one computer, in a basement across the street.  Now I have a home computer, and I can use it to do the research in a few minutes!  I find this marvelous.


AUG. 6, 2009 flashback   TWO SHORT DEBATES

“I cannot believe the earth is billions of years old.”

“Is there anything I could say to change your mind?”

“Impossible.  My faith is firm.”

“You’re locked into your opinions, are you?  I have these scientific studies....”

“I refuse to read them.  They’re the work of the devil.”

“Then further discussion would be a waste of time.  You’ve reached your conclusions without bothering to consider the facts.  You’re prejudiced, you’re unyielding, and your mind is closed.  Goodbye.”

GOP diehards retreat toward Jackson Hole for last stand

“I cannot believe President Obama was born in this country.”

“But there were birth announcements in two newspapers in Hawaii.  And here’s his Certification of Live Birth.”

“That document could be faked.  I demand to see the original Certificate from the hospital.”

“And if you saw the original, you would be satisfied?”

“No, I wouldn’t.  The so-called original could also be a forgery.”

“So no evidence would convince you that Obama is an American?”

“I don’t really want evidence.  I already know the truth.  Obama is an illegitimate president.  He’s not like me.  I want my country back!  I want my country run by white conservatives, as it was in the beginning, should be now, and ever shall be!  World soon will end, amen, amen.”

“Then further discussion would be a waste of time.  You’re prejudiced, you’re unyielding, and your mind is closed.  You’ve earned the right to be ignored.  Goodbye.”



Not that long ago, a politician would firmly grasp a portion of a stranger's anatomy and give it a meaningful squeeze.  And if there was a young girl present, the politician would plant an enthusiastic kiss on the pretty one without even getting her permission, often leaving her in tears.

But now people have started to object to the touchy-feely campaign technique known as “shaking hands and kissing babies.”  (Doing it the other way around has always been objectionable.)


AUG. 2, 2019    NOTHIN' TO LOSE

A Janis Joplin album is being covered this weekend by Jill Simmons and others from the Pittsburgh band theCAUSE.

Included is Kris Kristofferson's classic song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  I finally understand the refrain by first considering both verses.

I loved traveling with Bobby, until one day up near Salinas he went a different direction.  I'd trade all of my tomorrows for a single yesterday.

So, um, do you have a partner now?

No.  Since I lost Bobby, I have nothing.

So I guess you're free.

Free?!  Then the refrain:  Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.