Saturday, December 31, 2016

Out with the old, in with the new....

As I write this, it's hours away from a new year - 2017. I have many of my social media friends lamenting 2016 because of all the celebrities we lost in this past year, notably Alan Rickman, Prince, and most recently, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But for me, 2016 has been a challenging year because of personal loss. And yet, I find myself buoyed in spirit and cheerful, because those days are behind me, and I am looking ahead.

Many of you know that earlier this year my mom passed away. And many of you shared in my grief through this blog and my social media posts. Her passing was difficult - more so than I had thought it would be. But the grief was intensified by another loss in my life: the end of my marriage.

Some of you are aware that Lorrie and I divorced this year, but many of you may not be aware of it. We both have done our best to keep it from being publicized on Facebook, and I have probably been more vocal about it in person than she has. But I have been more vocal because I want to move on, and I had many work and church friends that cared and wanted to be a support to me and the kids. Our marriage ended amicably, and we are dedicated to co-parenting the kids. But I knew as it ended that I would want to move on. And I feel that I have. Oh, sure. There are still remnants of Lorrie here in the house: the decor; her computer is here; and some of her clothes are here. This house still reflects her. Thankfully, I am for the most part comfortable in that, because I do like the decor. It's warm. It's familiar. And for me and the kids (who are still with me, including Justin), it's home. 

But I know it's time to move on. And, it's also time to rediscover myself. I have returned to my passions (singing and photography), and have received a great sense of joy and fulfillment in those activities, just as I felt 20 years ago when they were such a major focus of my life. I have plans for my photography that are measured. I'm not trying to do it all at once. And in a small way I'm involving Colin with it as well. It turns out he has the Prothero love of road trips and seeing things. And so while I do my passions, I can build relationships with the kids.

Part of the rediscovery of myself is learning how to balance work, my time with the kids, my time for my passions, and my time for dating. I have been dating, and find that I'm not ready for a relationship, or the "boyfriend/girlfriend" thing. I find that there are too many women that I wish to go out with. Yes, I'm on a few dating sites, and so far, they've been fruitful. More importantly, though, I realize that I am not wanting to get into a relationship yet, because I need to go through this journey of defining myself not as "Lorrie's husband", but as John. As Colin and Audrey's dad. As the photographer, and as a musician.

So, here's to an unknown but anticipated 2017!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Like riding a bicycle

You know the old saying "It's like riding a bicycle: you never forget." Well, this past weekend for me was like getting back on a bicycle after being off of one for years.

I have shared in many previous posts about my passion for photography, and how I love to be in nature. To me, the two are symbiotic: I go out into nature to be inspired to create images, while at the same time I desire to create images as a means to be out in nature. 

This past weekend I loaded up my Outback and took Colin, my 16-year old son, on a trip to Death Valley. The purpose of the trip was to do some stargazing. But I took the opportunity to take my camera along, just in case I had some time to do some photographs. And the trip rewarded me in three very distinct ways.

First of all, I did take some time to do some photography. In the morning of our first full day, Colin was not quite awake, and it was daybreak, so I headed into the park, stopping at a location that gave me a tremendous view of some hills that soon would be touched with sunlight. I set up the camera and as I did, I felt something. There is, for me, a certain oneness of being out in nature. I don't have these feelings often, and when I do, they are confined to those times when I am free, and out in the open, and setting up the camera or just standing there. But while I'm out there, I feel as if the surroundings speak to me, and try to tell me things. Sometimes I feel like they're voices to help my creativity. Sometimes they're voices that tell me to listen to and trust myself. And often, I feel that they are the voice of God, speaking to me in the stillness of that time and place. And I listen, and I allow the voices to guide me to see and understand. I have, in my photographic travels, been in places of intense quiet, and have felt a presence, which I only can attribute to God. 

The second reward was the realization that even after years of absence from photography, the eye is being fine-tuned to seeing things again. Sure, we all "see" things, but do we really SEE them? One of my favorite things to do is leave the camera on its tripod and walk around, hands behind my back, looking down. I look for various things: colors contrasts between objects on the ground; graphic shapes and forms; juxtaposition of colors and textures; variations of tone and shade. All of these things can be seen by just looking, and as I walked around, I felt myself seeing things, and in seeing them, I did capture some good images. But it was that acknowledgement that I was SEEING again which gave me an intense feeling of joy. I felt I was "back". The old John. The creative John. He had not gone away. 

The final reward came in seeing Colin's reaction to Death Valley. I have to admit that as we were leaving that morning for the drive to Death Valley, I was concerned about whether he'd enjoy himself or not, or if he'd be bored. But neither of those things happened. Colin has an interest in both geology and astronomy, so seeing these vast expanses of desert, with the fascinating rock strata, volcanic cones and lava flows, and rocks strewn all over the side of the highway, were exciting for him. And as a travel companion, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed his company, because just like I was with my dad, Colin was with me. He didn't speak much (my dad only spoke when he saw something to talk about), and when we'd stop, Colin would get out of the car and explore a bit. I know a return trip is in order, but for me, it was the passing on from one generation to the next of this love of seeing and observing. 

I am glad that, because of life changes, I am returning to my passions. But I'm even more pleased that my kids wish to be a part of this as well. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Journey Continues - Confirmation

Pastor Taylor with Confirmands Andrew, Erika and Aidan, 2016
I must confess that being raised in the Presbyterian church, I missed out on some of the more liturgical aspects of worship, one of them being Confirmation. Oh, sure, when I was a teen and I went to a Youth Orientation Class, being run by our youth pastor, I learned about the basics of the Presbyterian denomination, played some trust games with my fellow teens, and in about 4 weeks, I could join the church as a member, rather than just a kid on my parent's church membership.

But today was Confirmation Sunday in our church, which we choose to observe on Reformation Sunday, making it a celebratory day. And even though both of my kids have gone through Confirmation themselves (Colin was Confirmed in 2014, Audrey in 2015), it wasn't until today that the significance of Confirmation made itself evident to me.

I look back at my own faith at this time, and place it in a shadowbox that was encased by my mother's faith, and held in it as well the faith that my two older brothers had. Church was never forced on us, but we were still expected to attend. Then, when my brother Jim went to college and began to stretch his wings, mom felt he was backsliding. I look at my oldest brother, Donald, who has embraced a life of science to the point where he seems to fight the faith he was raised in. So as I watched these three teenagers today, who stood in the pulpit and made their statements of faith, I realized how important this seemingly innocuous Rite is. And it is called a Rite - the Rite of Confirmation.

You see, my brothers and I never had the chance to stand in front of a group of folk and state what we believed. Oh, sure, we may have had through various youth events to give testimonies, but never in such a public forum. And even though I listened to Colin and Audrey's statements of faith, I never saw it any other way than the perspective of being a proud dad. 

But today I heard something different: I heard three young people publicly state and profess the reason for their faith. These were carefully crafted messages, and even though none of them were over 3 minutes long, they spoke volumnes of the journey these young people have taken, and more importantly, the foundation that has been built to carry them through their continuing journey of faith. But more importantly, I realized that what they were saying was that their faith was now their own. The claimed it from their parents. They are now stewards of that faith. And to me, that is so exciting!

And I thought of my own kids, whom I told that I WANT them to have their own faith, not mine or anyone else's. It's theirs, and theirs alone. I have told all three of the kids that I want them to continue to go to church and then when they're 18, they can do as they please. Because I want them to get that core truth: that solid foundational belief, so as they travel in their own spiritual journeys, they will have that firm set of beliefs to hold them as they face challenges and other belief systems. And, so today, I think of my kids, and the statements they made, and the hope that they choose to take a journey that will lead them to a place where their faith is strong and truth-filled.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, October 21, 2016

Life without regret

Many years ago I took on the life philosophy of having no regrets. Up to that point I had been someone who played it too safe (I still play it safe), but I never took risks or opportunities if they presented themselves to me. This was a major step for me, and led me to both personal and professional growth. But never was it more exemplified than one late afternoon in October, 1994.

It was the last big photo trip that I was to take with my dad. Sure, we did other trips after that, but just short ones that only went to parts of California. This trip took us to Colorado, and then into Utah. We spent a full day in Moab, taking in both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. That afternoon, I decided I wanted to get some sunset photos of the famous Delicate Arch. Dad opted to stay in the room, so I did the drive to the trailhead parking lot, pulled out my big camera bag and hefty tripod, and set out on the trail. 

The trail was a mile-and-a-half long, and for a good half-mile climbed up a gentle slope of slickrock. Now, I had all my camera gear, and even though it was in a backpack, it weighed nearly 30 pounds. The tripod was heavy-duty, and added 10 pounds to the load easily. About half-way up this trail, realizing I didn't know how much further I had to go, I began to think about turning back. The sun was setting quickly (as it does in the fall), and I just felt that I would probably miss the sunset shot and be disappointed. I started to turn back.

But then I thought to myself "Hey! You have never been out here, and you really don't know if you'll ever be here again. Just go for it!". I listened to that voice, repositioned my gear on my back and placed the heavy tripod on my other shoulder, and continued on.

For those of you who have never been to the Delicate Arch, but have only seen photos of it, you should go there. The photos do not give you the correct idea of how large the Arch is. You think "oh, maybe it's 10 feet tall." But it is massive, and the natural bowl or amphitheater that you see in front of it is massive as well. 

So, here I was, coming around a corner, seeing this tall arch, and this bowl, not lit brilliantly by the setting sun, but bathed in a soft, pink glow from the clouds to the west. The light on the Arch and the other formations was surreal, and one of the most perfect serendipitous photographic situations I've ever encountered. I set up my camera, and shot a few photos of this wonderful sight, until the light was so dim that my film would not have been able to capture it anymore. 

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, c1994 2016, John Prothero Photographer

As I hiked back to my car in the still darkness, (I did bring along a small flashlight), I realized how important my life philosophy of "no regrets" was to me. Had I listened to that whiny voice, and turned back, I would have regretted it, and have missed one of the most important images in my small library of work. 

And as I go through life, I can say I have NO regrets - well, maybe a few. But they are small regrets, not ones that were life choices regrets. And now, as I return to my passions, I will make choices without regretting anything.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Art of Composition

Having grown up in an artistic family, the basics of composition in a painting, drawing or photography were second-nature. Even the way my dad would landscape the yards we had in Glendale and San Clemente had a basis in design and composition. In photography, the rules of composition apply just as much as they do in other visual art forms. As I return to an art form that I loved so much, I find that those basics of composition are still with me - just as much a part of me as my memories of places, or my mom's singing, or the Sunday dinners at home. 

In photography, using the basics of composition can make the difference between a "meh" picture that you see on Instagram, to one that makes you say "WOW!" and you click the little heart icon to "like" it, or even go so far as to comment on it. And as I have been viewing other photographer's work on Instagram (which is a great platform for serious amateur and professional photographers), I'm seeing many images that COULD be "WOW!", but are just "meh", because the person did not use those rules of composition.

Now, in fairness, many folk who use their smartphones to capture images have never studied art, or the rules of composition, and out of fairness we can't dismiss what they tried to do: capture something that stirred them emotionally. And some of those folk that I see on Instagram may have a natural ability to understand what makes a good image, and they take it without even thinking of it, and select a filter that gives them that emotional feeling they had in that fleeting moment. And, to be fair, even those who MAY know about composition are not going to be successful in every attempt they make to capture the emotional response to what they are seeing.

So, what are the basics of good composition, and since my art is photography, what is good photographic composition?


The first thing that most photographers comment on is the rule of thirds. When I see a perfectly symmetrical image, with the horizon line smack in the middle, or a vertical object that divides the scene perfectly in two, I respond in two ways: either the photographer was intentional in this; or they had no clue about the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that you divide your frame into three horizontal sections, and then three vertical sections, like this:

The four points where those verticals intersect are call the points of interest. So, the goal, especially if you have a subject in your image, like this shell, is to have it at one of the points of interest. Here, it's in the lower right point of interest. But notice too that the horizon is dividing the middle and the upper third of the frame. This is a very strong compositional element, and creates a dynamic image.


Leading lines are important, because they bring the viewer into the image. Having strong leading lines create a sense of depth, which psychologically bring the viewer deeper into the image.  Here's a good example of leading lines taking you in, all the way to the back of the image. Also notice that the vanishing point (where the road disappears in the distance) is near the upper left point of interest. This images invites you to "enter" into it, and experience it, due to the leading lines. 

Taylor Creek Road, 1997, copyright John Prothero 2016


There are basically two types of curves you can use in photographic composition: an S-curve, and a C-curve. Either one are strong compositional elements. I particularly like S-curve, as in this image below taken on a winding road in the central California coastal hills. As with leading lines, S-curve that start at the bottom, or the corner of an image, lead the viewer into the photograph, enticing them to be part of what they see. 

Another strong form of composition is using diagonal lines, which can also be used as leading lines. If you use them to create strong angles at the four points of interest, it creates a powerful image. Triangles as well can be used to create strong interest, particularly around the subject of your image. Here are examples of an S-curve, diagonals and triangles. 


As you can see, using diagonal lines can inherently lead to triangles, so you've used two different compositional techniques to strengthen your image. 


No, we're not talking about something out of a Dan Brown novel. The famed Fibonacci Sequence from "DaVinci Code" was a real sequence of numbers, which is manifested in a strong compositional element as seen here:

Notice how the image has a cluster of something at a starting point, and then the rest of it spirals out. For me, I use this technique quite a bit, yet it's more instinctive. And you can apply it in any orientation in the frame, and within a portrait or landscape orientation.


Well, let's look at what I'd say is a poorly composed image.

When you look at this image you see that the seawall is just about in the center of the frame. Thankfully, it's closer to the line that divides the middle third of the image and the bottom third. But what really stands out is that this while tower is smack in the middle of the frame, and is a white tower brightly lit. When viewing this image there is little sense of depth, little sense of movement, and so you don't feel compelled to enter into the image - it doesn't engage you. Bright objects in an image stand out and come out at you. So, by this white tower being in the middle, there is nothing that leads you into the photograph. In fact, the white tower grabs all your viewing attention. It just sits there, sterile. Some ways the photographer could have made this interesting was moving the white tower to one of the vertical lines in the frame. I would have gone closer to the seawall and have used that as a leading line into the tower. Also, this is strongly backlit, which can be problematic. Having a strongly side lit subject is more interesting.


Well, not only did I learn from observing my parents and taking art courses, when I used to do large format photography, you have to rely upon composition in order to make sure the image is going to be worth printing, or for that matter, exposing. Large format film and processing is an expensive venture. But it did force me to look at images from a pure compositional standpoint and even from a lighting standpoint. Let's look at one of my black & white images taken of a sand dune in Death Valley National Park. On the left is the image I printed. On the right is the same image as it appears in the back of a large format camera: upside down and backwards. 

Sand dune, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, 1994, copyright 2016 John Prothero
When I was viewing the scene on the ground glass of the 4x5" camera, I had to look at what drew me into the scene very carefully. I emphasised the foreground, which uses shapes and curves to enhance it's composition, and then I put the sky at the top of the frame because I wanted the viewer to be pulled into the image - I wanted them to be compelled to walk on the dune. Then I did additional work in the darkroom to create the deep shadows. Photography uses the psychology of dark and light - dark recedes, light comes forward. By having a very dark dune at the top, the image now has a sense of depth and distance. 

By using various elements of composition, whether your taking an image with your iPhone, or with a DSLR, or large format, you can create stunning images that have the ability to elicit strong emotions from the viewer, and take your images from "meh" to "WOW!"

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The 8-track of life

I will confess that I am of the age that remembers the 8-track player. Yes, those glory days of taking something it is larger than most cell-phones and inserting it into a slot on your car's dash, just to hear the dulcet tones of your favorite group, broken up by the "kuh-chunk" as it changed direction mid-song. Before the cassette, before the CD, way before the iPod or MP3 player - was the 8-track.

But for me, the 8-track has an additional significance, because it represents a happy part of my life. When I was a pre-teen (maybe what we'd call today a tweener), my family took vacations in our motorhome, and in that motorhome was an 8-track player. And my dad had a very limited selection of 8-track tapes that he'd switch out every-once-in-a-while. He had a Benny Goodman live concert tape, a Glenn Miller tape, a tape of classical guitar played by the incomparable Andres Segovia, and then selected piano tunes played by Roger Williams. 

To this day, when I think of the open highway before us as we drove through Wyoming, or when we crossed the Missouri River, or when we camped out in Death Valley, the music from those few tapes comes back to haunt me with the memories of those trips, and those miles of open road. Eventually, we sold the motorhome, and dad's newer cars went from 8-track to cassette. But those memories and those songs can still be heard.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Oh, the places you can go!

I gotta admit - seeing the Subaru Outback in my driveway makes me think of all the places I've been, and so desperately wish to see again: southwest Colorado; south-central Utah; northern Arizona; all of California; southern Oregon. These are places my dad and I went. Places I went with other photographers. Places I went by myself. The forest service roads off the highway, the dirt and gravel roads of the Utah wilderness, the paved but rough highway in the middle of the Redwoods. I'm thinking of doing the "power weekends" like I used to, where I'd head off early on a Saturday, and drive someplace that I could get to in 4-5 hours. I'd then do photography all afternoon, get up early on Sunday, do more photography, and then jet back home after lunch. 

Road to Kolob Terrace, Zion National Park, Utah
Photo credit unknown
The Outback is just a car. But to me, it's also a symbol. A symbol of something that I had enjoyed at one time. A symbol of something that gave me peace, self-confidence, and a sense of balance. I never can determine if I used to do my photography as an excuse to be out in nature and out on the open road, or if I used the open road and nature as a means to do my photography. They are inexorably linked. And my motivation has changed. 20 years ago, when I was doing major trips around the southwest, my goal was to capture images that I could print and sell as large wall prints. Now, my motivation is to share my images via social media and a website, and if someone wishes to purchase them, well, then, I'd create an online store, maybe even self-publish a book. 

But the real motivation now is to get out there. Just to be out there. One of my favorite remembrances of traveling with my dad was the miles and miles and hours and hours of silence. It wasn't that we didn't have anything to say to each other, or that we were uncomfortable talking with each other. It was that we both appreciated the road, and the scenery that we saw as we drove. And when we'd stop, we'd grab our camera bags and head off in different directions. We both allowed the landscape to speak to us in its own language, and it was a language that we both understood. 

Coastal Drive, Prairie Creek Redwoods, California
Photo credit unknown
For you see, Nature is a constant work of art, and in and of itself is the inspiration for all artists, be they visual or aural. When you're schooled in the basic rules of artistic composition (rule of 3rds, perspective, lines and curves), then you find yourself attuned to Nature and the brilliant natural compositions she shares with us. Sometimes we see these gifts easily. More often, we have to look for them. And sometimes, we don't have to look for them because we are so sensitive to what Nature provides us, that we respond effortlessly. 

And so, for me, the Outback is calling me to take it - out there. To see what I haven't seen yet, to find what I found a long time ago. And to listen to what Nature has to tell me.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Laws of Attraction

I love the days when an idea for a blog post lands on my lap. I was thinking today about attractiveness: what we as a society call "attractive", and what really is attractive. Some of us might think someone like Kendall Jenner or Chris Pine as the "ultimate" in physical attractiveness. Yet, I would argue that sometimes, people who spend time trying to BE attractive on the outside do so because they have little attractiveness that comes from within them. It's almost narcissistic when you see someone who spends so much time to make themselves look good. Granted, the celebrities I've listed thrive and literally survive on their looks. Chris Pine may be a good actor, but Kendall Jenner? What has she done? Reality TV? 

I find that while eye candy like this can be good to look at, it's like eating Pez candy - it dissolves quickly and leaves you far less than satisfied. 

Last night I was at a choral concert, and I watched people as they walked into the concert, and I found myself feeling "attracted" to some of them. Now, these attractive people were of both genders, and they sometimes were not what I'd consider stunningly beautiful: they may have had a few extra pounds or missing some hair. But they were attractive. They were people who exuded warmth, and they were permeated with what I call authenticism: they were real. And I find that it's THOSE type of people that I am drawn to, and attracted to.

And it makes me think about something I've written about before: the nature of the personality of Jesus. I think we look at modern Christianity, with its focus on anti-this and anti-that, that we forget about the Man whom this religion was based on. Now, we don't know what Jesus looked like. There's been thousands of paintings, illustrations, photo recreations and cartoons of what we THINK he looked like. I tend to like one that shows a humble, almost ugly man. It's based on the physical attributes of the people of the eastern Mediterranean at that time. And when you see it, you are almost repulsed. I mean, THIS Jesus is ugly. Or at least, unattractive. 

But that's by our Chris Pine Kendall Jenner George Clooney Jennifer Garner attitudes of today. And, most likely, even standards of that day. I'm sure there were more than a handful of young Jewish women who secretly idolized some tribune or leader of the Roman occupation forces - secretly, of course - due to the physical appearance of that Roman person.

And yet, Jesus WAS attractive! Take a look at the stories in scripture. The children who seemingly surround Jesus, even to the point that the disciples found them annoying and wanted to remove them. I know many came to Jesus because of his miracles, but you have to think that there was more to it than just that. Jesus exuded joy, pure joy. He must've - he HAD to have been someone with a hearty and genuine laugh. He probably was what we'd call "touchy-feely", giving of affectionate touches to children, women, and even men. When he saw someone, even someone that was not in his "posse", he had to have greeted them with warmth. 

And THAT is the attractiveness that I try to be in myself, and find myself pulled to. Because it's that honest and genuine attractiveness that creates lasting bonds of friendship and appreciation. And it's that kind of attractiveness that is purely of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Still Dreaming

Funny, but almost exactly two years ago I wrote a blog post about dreaming. And here I am again, sitting down to write about dreaming again.  

Now, I'm not talking about dreaming that one does when we're asleep. I'm talking about the kind of dreams that really are fantasies, or desires, or wishes - the kind of dreams we have about a different or better life. Dreams about being more financially secure, or even well-off. Dreams about being other places, or even other lives. For example, I often dream of a life being more involved in choral music as a choir director. Sometimes my dreams are not totally unreachable. Those dreams might take more time or harder work. 

It seems for me that right now my dreams are about taking time away from what my current life is. I love my kids, but sometimes I yearn for a place to myself. I like my job, but I often wonder what it'd be like to be retired. I yearn to travel, both on the road and over the sea. And typical of my dreams, there's a great bit of detail. 

Dreams are a way to escape reality. Some take their dreams and do nothing with them. Some take their dreams and work hard to make them reality. For me, the dreams are simply escape. Perhaps, too, my dreams are an offshoot of something my mother had: never being satisfied with what one has. My mom was interesting in that way. I know that while we lived in Glendale, there were two occasions where my mom influenced my dad to look at and in one case, make an offer on property. In that occasion, we backed out during escrow and we were sued. I can't remember the outcome, but it didn't stop her from wanting to move again. Finally, they did move when my dad retired. But even though they liked their San Clemente home, my mom always wanted a place with an ocean view. Dad didn't go for it this time, though. 

And so I feel I have that same thing. Yes, there are things about this 1958-built house that I don't like, and I will admit I wish I was MUCH closer to work. But part of what makes me dream is that I can't do anything about following that dream. I'm stuck - and that makes me dream more. 

So, here's to dreaming, and the hope that someday it may come true....

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The man with the hat

It came and went quietly, and I took just a few seconds to acknowledge it, but last Thursday the 23rd was the 12th anniversary of my dad's passing. Of course, I have a lot on my mind these days, so that might be easy to excuse. And with my mom's passing in February (coincidentally on the 23rd) I may have still felt some loss from that to dwell on my dad's passing. 

But today, in the stillness of the house, highlighted by the sound of the waterfall out back and the doves cooing, I thought of my dad - the man with the hat. 

I've shared before of my dad's love of traveling, particularly on the open road. I believe when he was younger he did a lot of camping, and enjoyed that very much. As a kid, we tried that one time, and my mom didn't like it. So, my dad compromised, and future family trips were done in either rented cab-over campers, or motorhomes. And with each and every trip, there was my dad - the man with the hat.

Dad loved his cowboy hat. I'm not sure if he went the full route and got a Stetson. But his hat or hats on our trips were always the same: light grey colored, and always turned up on the sides. This was the hat that went with us on our first family trip touring the "Grand Loop" of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon in 1969. It went on our subsequent trips to Yellowstone and smaller trips to Joshua Tree or Death Valley. Yes. This was dad's "travel hat". And I believe, for my brothers and I, it was just as much a part of the trip as mom's almost daily dinner of hot dogs and baked beans, or my oldest brother, Donald, and my mom playing Canasta, or my other brother Jim and I fighting for the "shotgun" seat. 

By the time dad and I were taking our own trips in the 80's and 90's, the cowboy hat was gone, replaced by baseball caps. The man in the hat was still there, though, sharing with me that love of the open road, of seeing, of absorbing, and becoming part of what you see.

I miss that man with the hat. Love you, dad.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Missing the message

I have come to the conclusion that no one who considers themselves to be a Christian can support or even vote for Donald Trump. Conversely, I believe that anyone who supports Trump and calls themselves or considers themselves a Christian is NOT a follower of the Christ revealed in the Gospels.

There. I said it.


Because now these so-called "Christians" support a man who has had multiple marriages. They support a guy who's admitted to affairs. They want a man for President who has belittled disabled persons, who's called Mexicans "rapists", who has obviously shown from his few references to the bible to have little biblical knowledge, and has encouraged tacitly and even directly violence against those who disagree with him. He's called opponents names, like he was a schoolyard bully. He has boasted about the size of his penis. He's spoken about building walls and has criticized the pope (which they probably liked rather than disliked). He has carried himself and used language that would make a Sunday school teacher blush. 

And yet, they are behind him. Through their support of Trump, they ignore the very things Christ spoke of in the Gospels: feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those in prison - basically, show compassion. And Trump has no compassion in his words or deeds. He advocates in both his rhetoric and his lack of tact a message of hate, misogyny, abuse, and stupidity. And the people that I have run across that are Trump supporters like what he says and stands for - they use the excuse "he speaks his mind", which they like in this era of political correctness. And the religious right, which probably does not really like him, have stood in support of him because they just don't want Clinton, whom they perceive as another Obama.

They are so focused on making sure that gays cannot marry, that women cannot have safe abortions, that they miss the message of compassion, love, and sacrifice that Jesus teaches us. They have forsaken Christ and God for some ideological world where women are at home, are compliant and obedient, that children grow up straight, that marriage is ALWAYS between and man and a woman, and that the college age girl who got knocked-up during a drunken night of partying in the dorm has to carry a baby full term.

Yet, they don't worry about that baby after it's born. They want to cut funding to aid people who need it most. Yup, that's Christ-like. They speak of traditional marriage being threatened by gays, but take it from my experience as well as many others, there are LOTS of ways marriages can be threatened, least of all by some same-sex couple in San Francisco wishing to marry. They speak of equality yet do not pay women equally for what they do. And they wrap it all up in the American flag, accusing those of us who see it as a symbol of freedom and diversity, and not something to be venerated. 

And they hate. And that is not love, and certainly not the love that Jesus calls us to share. Now, many of you might wag your finger at me and say it's not my place to judge. But I am not being judgemental. I am calling out those who espouse the name of Jesus, yet commit acts that are opposed to his very teachings. That is admonishment, and we are encouraged to do that. Nathan the prophet did that when King David had Uriah the Hittite killed so he could have Uriah's wife. And Paul encourages Christians in Colossians 1:26-28 to admonish one another. When we see wrong, we are not to judge, but to call out the sin, or in this case, the hypocrisy, to help our fellow believers see the true meaning of the Gospel. 

They are completely off-topic and missing the message. And in doing so, they are serving a man who is hateful, belittling, misogynistic, racist, a bully and tactless. And the only reason they do it is because they have been assured he will carry out their agenda. And to them, THAT'S more important than living the life that we were told to live by the man whose name they worship.

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
Matthew 6:24

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The neglect of an old friend....

I deplore it when things of beauty (in my perspective) are disused or unused. When I drive by a house that has a classic '67 Ford in the driveway, rusty and decrepit, I mourn. Or when I park in front of that 1920's-era building that is going to be torn down to make way for something else, I feel sad. Or even something that I treasured as a child or youth is allowed to be hidden or fall apart - I feel a keen sense of personal loss. I identify with inanimate objects, because I see the beauty and value in them.

Such is the loss I have felt these last few months for a musical instrument that gave me joy and inspiration.

A pipe organ. Specifically, the pipe organ at my family's old church in Glendale.

Very few of you know that at one time I was an aspiring church organist. In fact, it was through my organ studies that I became involved in choral music, and actually left my pursuit of being a church organist behind. In my youth and college years I had grand visions of leading congregations in worship through meditative preludes, uplifting hymn accompaniment, and finally, stirring postludes. I had plans to attend Biola College (back then it was just a "college") to minor in music and study with a well-known organist. All these plans were inspired by one thing.

A pipe organ. Specifically, the pipe organ at my family's old church in Glendale.

And now, sadly, I believe that instrument is no longer being used.

I was younger than Audrey when our church, heavily damaged by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, had to rebuild. The new sanctuary was a lofty, A-frame design, with large exposed wood beams, a back wall of palos verdes stone with a small waterfall, and concrete floors. It was typical of how churches were being designed back then. It was to remind those in worship of being in nature. And it was blessed with a very fine large pipe organ. Unfortunately, the building committee nixed the idea of having exposed pipes, so you don't "see" the organ. You see these lofty large boxes with screen mesh in the front, and if the light is just right, you can see the pipes lit from behind. The console (the actual place the organist sits to play) was beautifully designed, with several white drawknob stops, and shiny silver toe pistons (buttons to allow the organist to change his or her selection of tonal color by the push of a toe). The console itself, to me, was lovely. And as a youth, I was occasionally given permission to practice on the instrument, which was always a highlight. The church we were attending at the time had just a small electric organ. To play on a real pipe organ was a treat. 

It has been 41 years since my family lived in Glendale, but I always have felt a connection to that church, and to that organ. I still remember its sounds, the warmth, the brilliance, the quiet stillness that it could create. And in the last few years, I have followed the church through social media, and even attended it's 125th anniversary. The organ was alive.  And as I sat in the worship service to celebrate 125 years of being a church, I rejoiced hearing those sounds again.  After the service I went once more to the console and spoke to the organist, feeling like that young kid idolizing the person at the console and wishing I could play. 

But lately, I've noticed things have changed. There is no staff organist. There is no choir or choir director. The organ sits. 

And I mourn. 

Here, once, was a beautiful instrument that could raise voices in praise at Easter, could herald joy at a wedding, could comfort the bereaved at a funeral, or could simply provide an hour's worth of beautiful and reflective practice - and it is silent. 

Now, this is not a commentary on how contemporary worship has pushed back traditional worship. Yes, I see that happening in a lot of churches, but I also see a strong hold onto the traditional worship environment, and I am pleased. But I still feel that keen sense of loss at this instrument - this one instrument that was so pivotal in my music life - silent now, and neglected.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Journey Continues - Overcome by Guilt

As I continue on this Journey of Faith, one thing that hits me the hardest is my lack of generosity and concern. Now, some of my friends who read this might think to themselves "What? John's often concerned if I have a need and offers to help." And to my friends and family, that is true.

But to those who are outside that circle, that is far from the truth. For it is those who I see almost daily that need my generosity and concern more than my friends. It is those people who live out of a shopping cart, who stand at the freeway exit or major intersection with a sign asking for money. It is the person walking down the street who might be slightly, well, off, talking to himself or maybe even gesticulating in a way that indicates that he or she has a mental problem. I live a mile from Disneyland, and yet, see this flotsam of humanity within the sounds of the Mark Twain whistle.

And I don't do anything about it. 

Why is it that we - that I - shy away from these people? People in need for so much that I cannot fathom it. While I might complain about how my mortgage payment is going up, or how it takes me an hour to get home from work, my "needs" are so meager and so insignificant to the needs of these people. Yet, I don't DO anything! 

Never have I felt this more keenly than this past week, when I was running late to get home with some dinner, and stopped at Arby's to get something for me, Justin and Colin. It was 6:30 PM, and I had to get dinner for us, eat, and leave to get to a choir rehearsal in an hour. As I stood near the door, waiting for my order (it's a small Arby's), a man outside was asking for money to be able to buy food. And I said I couldn't help him. I had $15 in my wallet. I COULD have helped him. But what I should have done was brought him in, taken him to the cashier, let him order, and paid for it. THAT'S what I SHOULD have done.

Instead, I did nothing. And the guilt and the conviction of that has been with me for these last few days.

I know that as kids we are told to not speak to strangers, and those that are living off the street, or are poor and need food, are total strangers to us. We put up our defenses. We guard ourselves against them. We look down on them. And if they're acting strange, or look repugnant, we avoid eye contact or outright ignore them. We're conditioned to believe that if we provide them with money, they'll "go buy drugs" or "go get a bottle of booze". We're conditioned to think that way, even if we are (like I was) brought up in a Christian home and a church environment. 

You know how people say "What Would Jesus Do?" when they have some kind of problem or crisis? I've thought about that sometimes, but then I realize that it's a lie. Because that concept is based on thinking how would Jesus react or respond to something happening TO him, so we need to act like he would in that situation. 

But when you REALLY think about what Jesus did, he often did things that were not reactive, but proactive. He didn't wait for the opportunity to help to come to him, he sought it out. He went among the sick, the needy. He reached out and touched those in need. I am sure that the Touch of Jesus was enough to physically heal those in both body and spirit. Our touch today may seem meager to his, but it can be effective. 

So, if Jesus were still physically on this planet, where would he be? Not in our houses of worship. He'd be in the homeless encampment in the Santa Ana river bed, under Chapman Avenue. He'd be talking to the woman in the Orange Circle, with all her belongings in a Target shopping cart. He'd be sitting next to that teen who's contemplating suicide because he or she is gay and scared to tell their parents. He'd be with those that are around us each and every day that we ignore.

And the guilt of this is real to me..... 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Journey Continues: the Mystery of Faith in Worship

For those of you who are following me on this journey of faith (or sometimes a lack of faith), I wished to reveal that I had a moment of even further confusion today.  

As I have shared about my disbelief in specific aspects of the bible, and how I struggle with the truth of God, or even the historicity of a man named Jesus, I find that there is a paradox in all of this for me. The paradox is in the act of worship. How can I, going through this journey of doubt and questions, continue to worship that which I may doubt? 

The answer is - I have no clue.

Maybe it's because I have a flair for the dramatic, and in the traditional liturgical worship environment, there is drama. There is a script that we follow, printed before us. There are actors in the clergy that are robed (costumed) for the play. There is a story that goes along, from our corporate act of confession and forgiveness, to the act of listening to God's Word read and preached, and then our response to that in the offering and Communion. You see, it all is an act - a play. And we are all participants. And, with that aforementioned flair for the dramatic, that appeals to me. 

Yet, I don't feel it's an act. I don't sit there or stand, or sing, or recite the liturgy, feeling that I'm acting. And that confuses me. I write that I sometimes doubt the very core of my faith, yet I willingly, joyfully, and with reverence, come to the Table with a sense that I belong, and I'm not being untrue to myself, or to my doubts. 

But why?

As I pondered this thought this morning - and as I write this - I can only think of two answers: 
  • I was raised in worship. Thankfully, I was raised in a home of faith where church was mandatory (as a child), and I continued with as a youth and young adult. And now as my kids are teens, I avoid the mandatory attendance rule. But I am pleased when they do attend, or perform the duties of an acolyte, which they both do so well. More than that, I am hoping the by attending they get that core Truth, and that when they hit their time of struggling with what they believe and why, the core is there. That being said, the worship experience has been part of my life all of my life.
  • Maybe there's something real in the worship that transcends my disbelief, and reaches out for something that is intangible, and my worship - despite my doubts - is fueled by that Unseen. My MIND may have its doubts, but my soul does not. 
I am often critical of those who say "I didn't get ANYTHING out of church today", as if church was entertainment, and their sole reason to attend was to be entertained. But I think we only get out of worship that which we put in. It isn't a "God, I'm here. Entertain me. Feed me. Answer MY prayer" type of thing. Instead, worship is us saying to God "I am here for YOU", and allow ourselves to be open to His Word and to His Voice within that experience.

We NEED to worship. It is in the listening of His Word revealed, and finally, in our response to that Word that we find something that is both elusive and real. And even with my doubts, my soul understands, and reaches out for something that is familiar, yet never the same. The paradox of my life, my faith, is not completely satisfied in the liturgical worship experience, but for that hour, the focus of my life is not on MY life, but on my relationship with the One whom I seek the answers from. And for that hour, the paradox is revealed and welcomed. Because it is within that paradox that I find the Truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, April 10, 2016


sucker-punch [suhk-er-puhnch] 

verb (used with object), Slang.
1. to strike (someone) with an unexpected blow.

Yesterday, I was suckerpunched. 

Now, before you get concerned about whether I had any physical injury, this was a suckpunch to my heart that I was not expecting. That is the definition of a suckerpunch. It was WHAT suckerpunched me that really took me by surprise. 

These last several weeks since my mom passed have been very busy and occupied for me. What with church events that consumed two weekends in March, followed by Palm Sunday, then Easter, then commitments I had as a board member of a choir, I really had very little time to think or dwell upon my mom's service, and had been rather stoic during the whole time. Not really by choice, but out of necessity. And as we all gathered yesterday for the service, I was there greeting long-loved and familiar faces, grateful for their attendance. I felt in control of both myself, and the event as well.

Then, we sang a hymn. 

And I lost it. 

I was suckerpunched. 

By a hymn. 

But not just ANY hymn. In my mind and heart, it was HER hymn - it was mom's. And as I stood there, I found that I could not sing. The tune was there, but I could not sing. The words were printed on the page, but I could not sing. I tried to fight back my tears. My daughter, standing to my left, kept looking at me. I'm sure, for her, to see her dad NOT singing a hymn, was a curious thing. Her concern was evident. My voice, which had been raised before on this hymn without any real emotion, betrayed me, and my heart fell. All the strength I have tried to be for myself, my brothers, and my kids, left me in those moments. And the memories, the sweet memories, associated with THAT hymn, flooded me, and I could not bear the weight of those on my shoulders. I fought to compose myself, and barely sang the refrain after the final verse. My eyes were damp with the tears I had fought to keep in control. When it finished, we sat down.

Then my oldest brother, Donald, spoke. For him, THAT hymn suckerpunched him too. I had always thought mom had sung those hymns of hers only to me - that I was the singular recipient of something so special. But she had done that for Donald as well. And I felt that wonderful love that she had for all her three sons, that she had done the same thing (at least for Donald and I), yet made it SEEM unique to us individually. As Donald began to softly weep as he spoke, I again lost it. I was suckerpunched again. Then my brother Jim spoke. He remained composed until the very end, and he began to weep gently. Then I had to speak. 

I had given ample thought of what I was going to say at my mom's service for the last few years. I was going to speak of her devotion, to friends, family and to God. But yesterday, I deviated slightly from what I was originally going to say, and shared about the hymns. I shared about treasured hymnal that was my grandmother's, and was dated 1939. And again, I got suckerpunched. I got through my prepared remarks with great difficulty, and left out some of the details that I had practiced. But the context was there. And as I returned to my seat, on the borderline of weeping, there was my sweet daughter, with a hug. 

Perhaps it was simply being in a place of love, and the shared love of a mother who had nurtured and encouraged us. Perhaps it was being in a place where we had so many friends and family there to offer comfort. But as I write this today, I still feel the effect of that suckerpunch. But I am at least relieved to know it was delivered out of the love that I felt for my mom. And I can be at peace in that.

Soli deo Gloria

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter isn't over!

I saw something on Facebook this morning that made me pause. The statement on the post was "Now that Easter is over..."

I tend to bristle at how significant events in the church, particularly Christmas and Easter, have become so commercialized. It never really bothered me much before. But as I have journeyed and grown as a follower of Christ involved in a Lutheran tradition, I have become sensitive to, and appreciative of, the liturgical calendar. For example, Advent is the time leading up to Christmas Day, then Christmas STARTS on that day, and finishes on Epiphany. Lent is the time leading up to Easter, and then the Easter season STARTS on Easter Sunday, and continues until Pentecost, 40 days later. So, seeing such a statement that Easter is over bothers me. Why?

For those very first Christians, those frightening and uncertain days following Jesus' death, and even to the extent, His Resurrection, were part of their Easter narrative. I have read and seen a few comments on how those early Christians, when referring to the Resurrection, didn't mean the event that took place that early Sunday morning: they referred to the following weeks, when they saw and experienced the Risen Lord in His fullness. Think of it: a man you thought had been dead, and WAS dead, now walking among you. His wrists and feet marked with the wounds caused by the nails. His side and its scar from where He'd been pierced to confirm He was dead. And even the marks on His forehead where the crown of thorns had been placed and pushed down. And this same Jesus was alive, fully, eating, drinking, laughing, hugging, those people, THAT was the Resurrection!

So, let's not say Easter is over yet. Let's CLAIM it, embrace it, and say to our Christian brothers and sisters "He Is Risen! He Is Risen, Indeed! Alleluia!"

Soli deo Gloria

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Journey continues - into Holy Week

A while back I wrote about taking a journey through my faith. I must confess that lately, while on the surface my faith may seem strong, it still is tenuous. I will state that I have a strong belief that the Old Testament, for the most part, is purely mythological, particularly Genesis. When you read of God (I'll call him Yahweh since I really refer to the Hebrew god of the first five books of the Bible), I see a god that has very human characteristics: remorse; anger; genocidal tendencies; fickleness; even arrogance. I find THAT god, Yahweh, to be very hard to take seriously. I really doubt most everything in the book of Genesis is fact, because that's where we see Yahweh, not the God of the New Covenant as manifested in Christ. 

But a major part of me has an issue with reconciling Yahweh with the loving God as shared with humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I have doubts about the concepts of "original sin", and if it was "introduced" in a fictional Garden of Eden. I have serious doubts about the mythical Tower of Babel (where different languages were supposedly to have originated), the Great Flood (which parallels the Epic of Gilgamesh), and even the Hebrew enslavement and release from Egypt following Moses. It's just all too fanciful, and more like a comic book movie than fact.

But sometimes I fly in the face of all these doubts with an uncertainty in the reality of Jesus. I have lately been wondering if he actually existed as a historical person. There are arguments that he did, and arguments that he did not. And, sometimes I wonder if he really WAS and IS God as he claimed to be. C.S. Lewis stated once that anyone who makes that claim is either certifiably nuts, or is speaking the truth. And for me, there are several litmus tests that I see as being the reasons for the very truth of Jesus, and those are the things that for now are holding my faith together.

For me, the very fact that the Gospel narratives - all four of them - do NOT perfectly match in content or dialog, is one of the litmus tests. I believe that if the Story was false, the four authors of the Gospels would have worked diligently to make sure that the details of their own stories matched, in order to insure its veracity. But in fact, they don't match, facts are jumbled. There are inconsistencies among all four of the Gospels. And to me, that actually strengthens their legitimacy and veracity. 

And as we come to Easter, I think of these days, from the night when Jesus was betrayed, to his ascension 40 days after Easter (and I don't really think it WAS 40 days, because 40 is a number of great significance - probably picked because the Great Flood story said it rained for 40 days and 40 nights). But other things about the Passion ring true: the great denial by Peter (who was not with the program yet became the greatest of the Apostles); the efficiency of the cross as Christ's death; the public humiliation of crucifixion; the fear of the disciples following Jesus' death (that alone to me is a powerful statement of the truth of Jesus); the constant nonacceptance of Jesus' followers that he was alive, even when he was in their midst; the FACT that the church existed, and that men, women and children would willingly die for something that would have been false; and finally, THERE WAS NO BODY - where was it? After all, if the Romans or the Jewish leaders wished to disprove the news that this Jewish prophet from Nazareth had, of all things, risen from the dead, why didn't they just go and get the body and say "here. Here's the proof that your so-called 'Messiah' is dead." But that didn't happen.  

When I find myself shaky in my faith, I think of those pivotal few days, when the world came crashing down on these men and women. And, then, on a quiet Sunday and in the days following, these same fearful folk witnessed the true Resurrection - seeing Jesus alive, and they went on tell anyone and everyone that Jesus is Risen. And my faith, for the moment, is solidified in that Truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, March 20, 2016

When the world seemed a little less scary

Today is Mr. Rogers' Birthday. 


Today, I find that my mind escapes to those simple times of kid-hood, when the smooth, mellifluous voice of Mr. Rogers emanated from the TV and into my room. His rather silly and pretentious puppets, who always learned an important life lesson from their experiences, to his slow and deliberate way of talking. Oh, sure, comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams poked fun at him, but I never took it as attacks, but satire, and even to a point, maybe appreciation. But why today, when I'm in my 50's, does Fred Rogers still speak to me and have such an influence on me? Because there are still many others who share with me that same experience. 

It has been often said that Fred Rogers never talked down to his audience of children: he talked TO them. That is a great difference. I think of another show that my own kids liked (and I did too for that matter), "Blues Clues". The hosts of that show did kinda make it sound like they were talking to kids, with higher pitched voices, and a vocal cadence and delivery that suggested that they were trying to get the audience engaged by making them think everything was exciting. But Mr. Rogers simply talked to the kids - simply. No big words, and even big concepts were delivered in very easy and simple terms. And he could hold onto a child's attention by talking to them - talking DIRECTLY to each child - as if that child was the only one in the world. 

Lately, I've seen stories posted in social media about some things that Mr. Rogers did that show his very human side, and of course, most people know that he was ordained clergy. But you'd never know that seeing the man on PBS. He was the local guy who changed into his Vans and sweater, fed his goldfish, talked to and welcomed all his neighbors onto his porch or into his home, allowed for and encouraged imaginative play, and made each child feel like they were his sole focus for that brief time each and every day.

I didn't live a traumatic childhood, but I am sure that there are many children who felt unwanted, unloved, unworthy, and they'd see this gentle man tell them that they WERE special - to him. What a wonderful and glorious thing he did for humanity.

Monday, February 29, 2016

This isn't easy, ya know....

Seriously. I thought this would be easier than it is. 

When a loved one passes, words cannot adequately express the sense of loss someone may feel. My dad passed away 12 years ago, and even though I was at peace with his passing, and made it through the days and weeks that followed his death with relative ease, I'm finding that I do not have that capacity now. Of course, when he passed, my kids were toddlers and I was so involved with them that, perhaps, I didn't have time to grieve. Over the years I have missed my dad, but not to the point that I have felt down or that part of me had been wrenched from me.

But with my mom's passing, it's very, very different. And yet, I thought I had prepared for this. I'm feeling a very profound sense of loss. Yet, in these last years, I actually felt distanced from her. With dad, he had suffered a stroke, but even with that, he still KNEW me, still knew who his grandkids were. And in a limited way, you could still interact with him.

With mom, it was different. She was taken gradually. Ten years ago it was "oh, I don't remember that, honey", but she knew who I was. Just a few years later, on a visit to the emergency room in November of 2013, she had no clue who I was. Dad retained his dadness. Mom was taken from me slowly, bit by bit. She ceased being "mom" to me, and became the shell of that once loving and often overprotective person. 

I knew that eventually, she'd be gone. And I thought I'd be ready for it. But this past week has proved me wrong.

Of course, it doesn't help that my birthday was yesterday, and it was a day of sadness and a sense of loss, rather than a day of celebration. I've had so many comments from Facebook friends on my mom. And then yesterday, on my birthday, one of my close friends commented that even though this is a shit time for me, look how the community of friends is there for me. And my church family was very loving and caring, expressing their sorrow at my loss. It was genuine. It was warm. But I still felt loss.

And, to be honest, this sense of loss from my mom's passing is compounded by the sense of loss in my marriage ending. Usually, when an adult child loses a parent, a spouse is there to offer support, and even help ease the load. That is not happening for me. I feel the desire to shut down, to run away. But I can't. Even though the kids are teenagers now, they still need me to an extent. And they were not close enough to my mom to feel the same sense of loss that I do.  And I cannot expect them to. Children grieve differently than adults. But moreover, I have no one - no shoulder - to cry on, to lean on. I'm feeling overwhelmed because I'm doing it by myself. I feel utterly alone. I feel the desire to have someone's arms around me in a gentle, loving embrace. But that is being denied me. And it hurts not to have that sense of relief, to not have that assurance that there will be hand to take mine in hers, that there will not be a voice to soothe me, or simply to hold me when I feel lost and alone. 

So, yes, this is MUCH more difficult than I thought it would be.