Sunday, December 30, 2007

WWJD? Not this

WWJD? Not this.

When visiting the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, especially at

Christmastime, is it best to:

A. Kneel worshipfully at the manger's site and touch it reverently, as millions of people have done through the centuries? (This is a picture of the manger site that I took in October.)

B. Approach the altar of the Church of the Nativity, built over the manger site, and pray or meditate silently.

C. Get into a fistfight with other Christians over the custodianship of the church.

I mean, WWJD, yes?

If you answered, "C," then step to the head of the line.
Seven people were injured on Thursday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Following the Christmas celebrations, Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church, which is built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.

But the ladders encroached on space controlled by Armenian priests, according to photographers who said angry words ensued and blows quickly followed.

For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.

A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but two of them were also injured in the unholy melee.

Click this pic to see video of the fight.

National Geographic has an article this month on Bethlehem. It mentions the contentiousness over "every square foot" of the Church of the Nativity.
The Christians themselves are not immune to infighting. Literally every square foot of the Church of the Nativity is battled over by the three sects that share use of the
church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox.

The holy men of the three denominations bicker over who gets to clean which sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The guards in the church, it sometimes seems, are not there to protect tourists but to keep priests from attacking each other. "Apart from Christ," says Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan friar who served in the Church of the Nativity for 12 years, "there have been few here who would turn the other cheek."
Yes, I am sure Jesus is so proud.

Apart from that, though, the Geographic's piece seems fairhanded, based on what I learned there. And it does explain the plight of the Christians, although its numbers are off. My studies showed that the percentage of Christians living in Bethlehem was never as high (since World War II, anyway) as the 90 percent the article says; it was between 70-80 percent. And today the percentage of Christians is down to no more than 15 percent (and likely less than 10 percent), rather than the 30 percent the article claims. Also, the article does not relate the fact that Christians there and in the rest of the Palestinian areas are strongly persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. Even murder is not unusual, and the Palestinian Authority does not investigate.

(Fuggitaboudit in Gaza, controlled by Hamas.) More routine is property confiscation or destruction or coerced emigration. The week before my group arrived, 300 Palestinian Christian families were forced to leave their home in and near Bethlehem. They were simply thrown out of their houses and told that for their safety they'd better get out of town.

Together, the fighting at the Church of the Nativity (not by far the first time it's happened) and the Geographic article show that all religion is volatile in Israel and surrounds, in fact, throughout the whole Middle East. Peace shall not come easily there.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I gotta get me one of these

Behold, the Segway of the Sky.

It works like the ground Segway - you lean (but not too far!) in the direction you want to go and the stand-on helicopter flies that direction. Known as the Vertipod, it's not a new idea, being about 50 years old. None of the earlier concepts got off the ground (heh!) but AirBouyant promises to get this machine to both military and civilian market within a short time.

Gizmodo, whence the link, says that the Vertipod "is intended to travel five to 15 feet above ground at a top speed of 40 mph" and will cost about ten large. That's about what it costs to buy a new, no-frills ultralight airplane, which can fly a lot higher and farther and one-fourth faster. But you still need a runway, even if it can be a flat pasture.

Anyway, the ultimate in personal flight has always been seen as vertical takeoff, as in from your back yard. I'd say they should push the Vertipod's ceiling up to 50 feet. Then most of us could fly over obstacles around the manse.

The Hiller Flying Platform of 1955 did fly higher and was very stable. So stable, in fact, that the Army rejected it (and for other reasons).

Another concept from the 50s was the WASP - a jet-powered, one-man platform that could fly up to 10,000 feet altitude.

I'll take any of 'em.

Monday, December 17, 2007


"Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." Battered pilot Bob Robertson waits in shock for rescuers to cut him free from his plane after it disintegrated around him.

In The Right Stuff, the story of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Tom Wolfe related some stories about jet fighter flight testing in the 1950s. This was the time when the first supersonic fighters were being developed. Not much was known then about the aerodynamics of transonic and supersonic flight. Some of the early designs turned out to be unstable. They oscillated wildy - nose up, nose down - at transonic speeds.

Pilots found that they could not give control inputs in time to counteract the oscillation. By the time they tried to correct an upward oscillation, the plane was already heading down. The control inputs therefore only made the problem worse.

The pilots who lived to tell about it said once they figured out they were not going to be able to control the plane, they used the "Jesus maneuver." They cut the throttle, folded their hands in their lap, took their feet off the pedals and said, "Jesus, it's your airplane."

Sometimes the plane stabilized. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the pilots walked away from their landing. More often, they were carried, provided there was anything left to be carried.

Any stop you can walk away from is a good stop. The remains of my 2004 Chevy Malibu after spinning off Interstate 40 at 70 mph, Dec. 15.

Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

"Jesus, it's your automobile."

There were two or three high-speed revolutions on the road surface. All I heard was whizzing of the tires skidding across first the pavement and then the grass. The windshield went opaque from water and thrown mud. I hear two loud bangs and the car suddenly stops. I am surrounded by pine trees. I smell and see smoke. The car's on fire! Seat belt off, pull the door handle.

Nothing happens. The door's jammed. I see shattered glass all over me and feel cold air against my face. The driver's side window is shattered. Even if the door worked, it wouldn't open more than two inches because of the trees. Great: I lived through the crash to burn to death.

But the smoke smells different than smoke from burning petroleum or rubber. It smells explosive. Then I see the deflated air bags and realize they are the smoke's source. Relax. I feel no pain.

The front of the car is buckled upward. Nothing penetrated the passenger compartment, which did not deform.

I find my Treo 650 phone on the floor and punch 9-1-1. The dispatcher gets a fix on my phone's GPS signal and assures me help is on the way.

I hang up. Then I tell God I am thankful I am alive and for whatever he had to do with it. ("In all things give thanks," says the Good Book, so I did, right then.)

A man and a woman appear to the left, unable to come close because of the trees. I assure them I am fine and say I've already called 9-1-1. A very cold rain is falling hard. The man leaves but the woman says it's hard to see the car from the interstate, so she will stay to flag down the police.

I try to call my wife but get her voice mail. So I call my eldest son and tell him what happened. I see blood on my right hand. A glance in the mirror reveals cuts above my left eyebrow. Blood covers my left cheek, but the cuts are very small.

I call a colleague and ask him to call our district superindendent. He doesn't have the number with him (he's traveling, too) so he calls my church's secretary, who quickly calls me. I assure her I am fine.

"Here they come," says the woman. I hear a police siren. The interstate is 30 feet behind my car and about 10 feet higher. A highway patrol car screams by, blue light flashing, siren yelling. It disappears over the far hill.

The woman says, "Chasing a speeder, I guess."

Soon a deputy's car appears, parks, and the deputy walks to my car. The woman says she is leaving now. "I am very grateful," I call to her. Later, I berate myself for never asking for her name. I tell the deputy that, except for the cuts on my face, I am uninjured. He asks for and takes my license and makes a report to his dispatch office. A few minutes later the rescue squad appears. One man come to my window and confirms that I am of sound mind ("What is today's date? What is your full name? Do you know where you are?") and so he believes me when I say I have no injuries.

"Do you want us to take you to a hospital?" he asks. I tell him I want the glass cleaned from the cuts in my face and that my left eye feels like glass dust may have gotten in it. So they put the collar around my neck, ignoring my protestations. I crawl headfirst out the front-passenger door. They say they'll get the stretcher-board to take me to the ambulance. I insist on walking.

I should have let them carry me, that way my dress shoes wouldn't have been ruined!

I say I'll sit up in the ambulance for the ride. "Okay," the medic says, "but you'll have to sign all kinds of release forms."

So I lie on the board. They strap me down. "What hospital?"

Dickson's is nearest, but my wife doesn't know how to get there and I don't want her to learn in the driving rain. "Vanderbilt," I say, in Nashville.

After 40 minutes riding on the board, I almost wish I'd said Dickson, rain or not.

Two X-rays, one eye exam and a face swabbing later, I'm checking out. Not even a headache, not a Band-Aid.

While walking from the car to the ambulance I had seen that the car had plunged off the interstate's outer edge, fortunately facing forward, and down the sodded embankment. The Malibu bounced over a small, concreted drainage ditch and then front-first into a stand of pine saplings, plowing over successively larger trees until it hit one that stopped it. The loud bangs I heard were the air bags deploying.

For five seconds - surely the whole event lasted no longer - I expected that I would not celebrate Christmas this year or ever again. But in truth, I've had roller-coaster rides that were rougher.

When the car left the road, it missed by two feet hitting the end of a guard rail head on, which would have been disastrous.

Another two or three feet to the left and it would have bounced off the rail back onto the road. Maybe it would have gone across to the median, which was broad and level, but more likely the car would have stopped in the middle of the lane, almost invisible in the pouring rain to oncoming traffic. That would likewise have been disastrous.

Samuel Johnson, one of the leading literary figures of 18th-century England, wrote, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

So does spinning out at high speed in the rain on the interstate. It gives your mind a certain focus.

Today, someone asked me what I want for Christmas. "I've already got it," I answered.

"The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up." - The Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2.


It is not really that for five seconds I was dead, and now am alive again. That is God's gift truly, but my life has always been God's gift, even before I acknowledged it.

The clarity is this: I know that for the rest of my life, I am really just a dead man walking. That evokes a certain freedom and a longer view of life. So Saturday night, just before I went to bed, I went alone in the dark to my living room, sat down and thanked God for the clarity.