Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Expectations of the Church and Disciples

©1999, 2016 By Bob Litton.

NOTE TO READERS: A couple of days ago I published another episode relating my spiritual journey. It is a mostly recondite, mystical piece that probably only a few people would be interested in.
¶But today, before getting off the theology train altogether, I want to publish the drafts for a couple of pamphlets which I wrote back in 1999 for my home church, at the time, back in Dallas. They were never published as pamphlets because the minister considered them too controversial. Perhaps some church elsewhere on the planet might view them in a more sympathetic light and make use of them. I should warn you beforehand that they are wordy: the first (What Disciples Expect of the Church) contains 1,761 words and the second (What the Church Expects of Disciples), 1,324 words.
¶One further bit of information: Recently, an acquaintance who is currently quite active in the United Methodist Church (not the same one I attended) looked over these pamphlets and pointed out to me that the UMC’s bishops have added a fifth item to their list of expectations: Witness. I think that was a good move on their part; however, I did not add it to my presentation here for two reasons: (1) I don’t believe witness was in the group when I composed the pamphlet and I want to publish these pamphlet models as originally intended; which leads me to (2), adding witness would destroy the symmetrical balance of my design (four expectations for each pamphlet). I know that sounds self-centered and childish of me, but there you have it, the dark side of Bob Litton. I should add that these pamphlet models have not been sanctioned or approved by the United Methodist Church or by any other denomination. I am solely responsible for them.
¶As noted next to my by-line, I have copyrighted these compositions. However, I don’t expect to make any money out of them. I want anybody who can make positive use of them—even in an edited form—to go ahead and do so. I just don’t want anyone to claim he or she was the original author. Also, even if readers can’t find a practical use for them, the writings might provide material for interesting conversations. I hope so.

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What do disciples expect from the Church?

¶When a person walks through a church door into a sanctuary full of strangers, what is he or she looking for?  What should they be looking for?  What in fact will they find?  This pamphlet is an attempt to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
¶Four primary elements motivate our search for a church home: Spirituality, Community, Relevance and Mission.  The only significance in that order is in the way these elements correlate, however roughly, with the four contributions the church expects of its disciples: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service; all of which are discussed in a companion pamphlet to this one.  Otherwise, there is no hierarchy in their importance.
Spirituality — Of the four, spirituality is the most difficult to discuss because, even as the Holy Spirit lures us with a yearning to be nearer the holy ground, it thwarts knowledge—even clear perception—of the “holy ground’s” elementary features.  Jesus acknowledged the evanescence of the Holy Spirit:  “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:7, 8)
¶The Holy Spirit can be “described” only obliquely through analogies such as the manna gathered by the Israelites in the wilderness.  The manna was given freely, it appeared overnight when no one could see it, there was enough for everyone, it was sufficient nourishment in and of itself, and it could not be preserved.  Is there anything in that description that is not true also of spirituality?
So how can a church develop and nurture an atmosphere conducive to spirituality?
¶A cross, a chancel rail, and stained glass windows help to a degree in at least keeping us attentive to the reason we walked into the sanctuary.  By themselves, however, they are insufficient to establish a truly spiritual atmosphere.  What is really needed is a yearning in the breast, both individually and as a congregation, to relate to, and depend on, God during a time of communal tribulation or celebration.  That doesn’t happen every Sunday, but it does happen.
¶Traditionally, spirituality in the church has required separation—however temporary—from the world, even from our church community.  Christ, we are told, went alone into the wilderness for his most intense spiritual focusing.  Later, he separated himself even from his disciples and went upon a mountainside to pray.
¶Today, we have retreat centers where we can go for two or more days, either solo or in a small group, to recollect ourselves through extended prayer and meditation.  That means examining our consciences more intensely, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and rededicating ourselves to spiritual struggle.  Such centers are available throughout the U. S.  There is at least one very close at hand—Mt. Carmel Center in Oak Cliff.  Although operated by Carmelite monks, the retreat is open (for a fee) to all Christians.
¶And, of course, we can always have a prayer service here at our home church.  Unfortunately, the modern prevalence of burglaries and vandalism make it unwise for any chapel to be kept open 24 hours a day, but arrangements can be made to allow small groups to gather in the chapel or the sanctuary for a prayer service at any reasonable hour.
¶Frequent prayer, in fact, is the second factor that contributes to spirituality.  But the type of prayer that is most conducive to spirituality is not of the sort through which the pray-er talks a lot.  The most spiritual prayer is the “prayer of quiet”—the prayer that waits and allows the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul.  Such praying is difficult for the novice, for we discover then that our brain never rests; it must always be busy about something. To keep the mind from drifting onto the “stream of multiplicity” different cultures have devised simple, repetitive phrases such as,  “To you, Lord, I lift up my soul!” or “Lord God, come to my aid!”
¶Most disciples—if indeed they are true disciples—want an atmosphere congenial and conducive to prayer.  Yet most of us are uncomfortable with extended periods of quiet; our culture militates against it.  Even in the sanctuary, the ideal of fellowship usually over-rides the ideal of spiritual quiet.  Do we really want it that way?
Community —  In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner recalls asking his atheistic father why he went to the synagogue every week.  His father replied: “My friend Garfinkel goes to the synagogue to talk to God; I go to the synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.”  There is much insight in this comment.  Kushner’s father respects, maybe even reveres, his friend Garfinkel enough to go to a place toward which ordinarily he is at best indifferent.  And he goes there to enjoy the wholesome fellowship he covets and that Garfinkel exemplifies.  Moreover, he is not unaware of the irony inherent in the situation: Where Garfinkel is seeking a relationship with the divine; he himself is seeking a relationship with the earthly.
¶Indeed, many people start attending any particular church because a friend, or someone they admire, goes there.  They want both to spend more time in the vicinity of that person and to do the things he does because of a belief that everything that person does must be worthwhile.
¶Once involved, though, the novice may become disenchanted; for, although it is quite possible to find wholesomeness and good-naturedness and kindness in an individual person, expecting every church member to possess all those virtues is naive.  And therein lies the cost of belonging.  While a congregation in the large can be welcoming and nurturing, each member has flaws of character the same as other people have.  Just because we go to church seeking perfection doesn’t mean we’ve attained it; the quest is lifelong.  As someone has well put it, “A church is not a haven for saints; it’s a hospital for sick souls.”
¶The new disciple can find her community only if she reciprocates in the welcoming and nurturing.  Although, to those who have never tried them, welcoming and nurturing may at first seem burdensome, the disciple quickly finds that joy and gratitude are the true recompense for the effort expended.
Relevance — Several years ago, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported of the Yuppie generation’s cynical attitude toward the church:  “They complain that it’s boring, irrelevant, and money-grubbing,” he said.  The churches that were growing, Jennings reported, were the mega-churches which offered programs little different from what might be found in a shopping mall or a country club…with child care added.  And these new churches were offering worship as a multi-media event complete with semi-professional actors and musicians and colored lights.
¶And the message?  The message of the gospel?  It was “feel good”!  In a new rendering of the old 19th century “gospel of wealth”, the assurance of the Good Book was that, in God’s eye, you didn’t earn that Mercedes Benz.  God provided it for you because you deserved it.  But that was years ago.
¶The majority of newcomers to a church today are young marrieds with children.  They say they want their children to receive a good grounding in moral values and community involvement.  They might prefer that they could leave their children in a Sunday school class and go home to their TV football game, but a sense of fairness and decency will not allow them to do that.  So they go to a service and maybe even to a Sunday school.  Let’s begin with the Sunday school and surmise what they hope they will find there.
¶Of course! It’s relevance!  They might be surprised that it’s not a discussion of whether a man can survive being swallowed by a whale or how many wise men actually went to the manger, but instead a discussion of how Christian ideals can be practiced in a secular and mechanistic world on Monday, Tuesday, etc.  Or they might encounter a discussion of particular women of the Bible compared to particular women today. They might find that Christianity is not encased in a 19th century mold.
¶And in the church service, they might find newer songs, different instruments.  They might find a sermon filled more with insight and love than with fire and brimstone.  They might find a balance between the vertical God-human relationship and the horizontal human-human relationship. And above all they might find a renewed sense of values that they can take home with them and share with fellow workers during the week.
Mission  That brings us to the final expectation disciples hold of their church.  They want to go out into the broader secular world and make a positive difference. They come into the church to be spiritually filled and go into the world to empty themselves spiritually.  As the Twelve Step programs put it so succinctly: “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”
¶Our people have expressed over and over again their desire to act outside the local church community.  We have done many kindnesses one to another and contributed, at times sacrificially, for our “little church in the wild wood”. Routinely, we have contributed financially to the community beyond us.  And occasionally we have given of our time and energy to that broader community.  Yet somehow we feel as though we have “hung back” like a shy suitor.  It seems that, considering who we are and what we have, both materially and spiritually, we should be making a more significant impact on the world around us.
¶This impulse may be dangerous because it could be simply the symptom of hungry pride.  Perhaps our contribution may be larger than we imagine; perhaps it is so diffuse and anonymous that notice of it escapes even us.  But in fact, what we want to do is something large, physical and together.  What we want is a sense of focused mission and to encounter that mission as a total church community, not simply as individuals or small committees.
¶That is where leadership comes in.  A true leader is someone who can discern and define the aspirations of a people and then mold and direct those aspirations toward a goal that is realistic, attainable and worthwhile.
¶Our church is in a period of maturation right now, much in the same way that our country is struggling toward maturity.  Won’t you come and help us grow?

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What does the Church expect of its Disciples?

Prayers — The Discipline of the United Methodist Church specifies four things the church expects from its disciples: prayers, presence, gifts and service.  The purpose of this pamphlet is to relate to you what we mean by each of those support elements in this local church.  In another pamphlet we discuss what this church has to offer disciples.
¶Each Sunday at the end of the pastoral prayer, our minister and individuals in the audience add brief prayers for specific persons and groups.  Whoever initiates the mini-prayer introduces it as either “a prayer of concern” (intercessory) or “a prayer of gratitude” (thanksgiving).  After each of these mini­-prayers the pastor pauses a few moments to let the congregation add their own silent, individual prayers.  Then he says “Lord, in your mercy…”, and the congregation completes the sentence with “…hear our prayer.”  There are several varieties of prayer.  We haven’t space to discuss all of them here.  Three types of prayer—petition, intercession, thanksgiving—are the ones with which most of us are acquainted.  At our church, we find occasion for all of them.  However, the prayers most frequently used by us as a community are “intercession” and “thanksgiving”.
¶But praying doesn’t cease when we leave the sanctuary.  We try to adhere to St. Paul’s injunction: “Pray unceasingly.”   By that, we do not mean spending all our time on our knees.  No, we interpret “pray unceasingly” in three other ways:
¶Firstly, it means keeping our souls and minds receptive of the Holy Spirit’s nudging; as a result, we often find ourselves praying brief, spontaneous, even involuntary prayers (what Richard Foster has called “popcorn prayers”) at any time, any place. These happen when the Holy Spirit prays within us for us. Many of these prayers are for ourselves, of course, but also many are for the church community.
¶We don’t really need experiential proof of prayer’s efficacy to persuade us to pray.  What is necessary is a feeling of great and genuine spiritual need and a sense of our own inability to satisfy that need.  Even the hardest-shelled atheist, under certain conditions, will find himself praying, as is witnessed by the so-called “foxhole prayers” of our various wars.
¶Secondly, “unceasing prayer” means keeping one’s mind centered on spiritual things, constantly realizing that we are not of this world even though we are in this world.
¶Thirdly, it means making of our lives a prayer, in other words, a life well-­lived glorifies God and sends up “a fragrant sacrifice most pleasing to him.”
¶All we believers need for motivation is love and faith.  True, even for us God sometimes says “no”, or his idea of what we need doesn’t always jibe with ours.  In other words, he gives us what we need rather than what we want.  Jesus articulated that reality when he prayed at Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me … but nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.”
¶Prayer doesn’t come easily for most of us, but with continual practice it gets easier—just like any other worthwhile endeavor. The more we practice it, the more natural it becomes for us.  Prayer indeed is the least demanding responsibility  the church expects of its disciples.
Presence — Primarilypresence means regular attendance at corporate worship services and, especially, active  participation in those services.  Some Christians speak of  the local congregation as  “thecorporate church” and of the larger community as “the scattered church”.  This latter includes district and annual conferences away from the home church.  The former includes the annual charge conference and committee meetings at the local level as well as the regular, weekly worship service.  The church is governed through such meetings, and as many disciples as can should take part in that governing, Sometimes, also, we join other congregations for a special service.  For instance, each Thanksgiving, Cochran Chapel and the Church of  South India combine for worship.
Gifts — There’s a saying: “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.” Yet it truly is amazing how many people think the church simply grows like a plant out of the ground. Yes, we take up an offering.  The offertory is an important part of each service.  It constitutes our return to God of a portion of the bounty with which he has blessed us.
¶It would be nice if everyone tithed. Not everybody is that well off, however.  All we expect is that each disciple give according to his or her capability.  No one here expects anyone else to give so much to the church that they jeopardize their own family’s well­-being, but it is better for the individual disciple’s spiritual and emotional health to “give until it hurts.”
How much is that?
¶Some people have so much and give so little that they don’t even realize they are giving. They should give until it grabs their attention.
Where does the money go?
¶Part of it pays for the utilities, supplies, upkeep and salaries at this local church (General Fund).  Another part, when so specified by the giver, is used to pay for construction of new facilities or for structural repairs and renovations on this campus (Building Fund).  And then there is what the Methodist Church calls “apportionments”, a kind of  denominational tax, based on membership head count, which we as a congregation contribute to the church’s mission elsewhere in this nation—and on this planet.
¶Each of these contribution targets is separate and requires an indication from the giver as to the fund for which the money is intended.  The giver can either use a different envelope for each contribution or write on a single envelope the fund—or funds—for which all or each part of it is intended.
¶Also, once a month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, partakers are invited to leave at the altar rail a small gift for some special charity.  And about three months of the year our church is asked to be responsible for the lion’s share of food and toiletry items gathered for North Dallas Shared Ministries.
Service — Locally, we are always looking for volunteers to teach Sunday school at least one quarter of the year. The laity also help during the service as liturgists, ushers, choir members, and servers of Holy Communion.  We also have Saturday work days periodically when disciples—those who are willing and physically able—renovate rooms in one of the buildings or improve the Children’s Center playground.
¶From a certain vantage point, Gifts and Service are really indistinguishable. Above, we spoke of gifts as what we give to the church by way of financial support.  But there is also the way of giving through service, both at the local church level and in the mission field.  By  “mission field”  we mean community projects such as North Dallas Shared Ministries and Habitat For Humanity as well as foreign missions—in other words, the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of our tiny church.
¶In the wider community, some disciples help a few hours each week with North Dallas Shared Ministries or the Wesley-Rankin Center in West Dallas.  In the past, those of us who were young enough and apt enough have rehabilitated a house in disrepair.  A group of ladies in the congregation visit the ill who are hospitalized or home-bound each week.  Some classes have adopted a family for Christmas who otherwise would not have had any Christmas.  But, to be honest about it, some of us feel we have not done as much as we ought to improve the wider community—not on a concerted basis at any rate.  Recently, we have awakened to that remissness and are planning community service projects in home renovation and tutoring for the near future.
¶We hope you will be touched by the Holy Spirit and join us in these endeavors.  If you would like to have more information on how you can participate, contact the church office.
—May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.

A Retrospective of Love Poems

©1962, 1964, 2013, 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Here it is Valentine’s Day morning and it just dawned on me that perhaps I should have resurrected some of my old love poems and included them in the February 11 post along with the essays.

Don’t expect seductive poems from me, people. When I was in a seducing mood in my youth, poetry was seldom on my mind, although I could be incidentally poetic in my conversations with or about a few coeds. For instance, one day while I was sitting in the student center lounge with a young man and a young woman — both acquaintances of several months — I looked at the woman and spontaneously said, “Rhonda, you’re Eve, the apple, and the serpent all rolled into one.”

The young man glanced at me and said, “You’re feeling poetic, aren’t you?”

“Not really,” I replied. “That thought just occurred to me.”

Another time shortly afterwards, I was dating a young lady with one of the most beautiful necks I have ever seen. While discussing her with a friend I mentioned her neck and told him that I had nicknamed her “Fawn”. A few weeks later, when I and “Fawn” walked into another student’s apartment where  a small party was happening, my friend, who was sitting on a couch near the door, announced, “Deerslayer!” I never mentioned to the young lady that I had given her a nickname, so of course she did not gather the allusion intended by my friend’s exclamation. I have since then regretted that I did not inform the lady of her nickname: I think it was not only apt but also complimentary.

I have no prejudice against “sweet” love poems. It is just that when my thoughts turn to romance it is usually after the affair is over, so the poems tend to be melancholic, ironic, or cynical. I must try to write a “sweet” before-the-affair love poem, just to see if I can do it without smearing the lines with licorice.

Well, enough of a preface. Here is the URL to those love poems I promised you. Just click on the post’s heading. Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!


A Retrospective of Valentine Day Essays

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All rights Reserved.

Well, no, the doldrums have not gone away already. On top of that, now I have a sinus infection to cope with.

Still, Valentine’s Day is almost on top of us; and, as usual, I feel I must say something concerning that fateful day. There’s a tone about this period of the month that appears to have a most negative effect on my health and attitude; I just had that insight a few minutes ago while I was gathering the URLs below: I seem to endure a low energy level around February 14, so I dig up old newspaper columns I have written and publish them here in “The Vanity Mirror”, in lieu of fresh writings.

I no longer spruce myself up for Valentine’s Day, no longer call a girlfriend…because there is no girlfriend. As Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) wrote in one of his best poems, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”. It’s all part of the territory, along with a broken tooth, graying hair, an overly stout midsection…and an empty pocket. An ebullient personality and scintillating conversation cannot make up for all those deficits.

Nonetheless, you folks can still find something to peruse about Valentine’s Day in my “archives”; and, just for this year, I have made the reading easier for you by pulling together the URLs for those essays: here they are; enjoy!

Be sweet to your Valentine…if you have one!



Beauty in Ordinary Things


One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.


To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)


Family builds underground ‘Earth Ship’

©1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Okay, guys! Here’s another oldie but goodie from the remainder of my stack of feature articles and columns—this one from the Alpine Avalanche. It was a fun story for me to interview for and write about because it had so many unusual, fascinating elements in it, which you will discover as you read.

Of course, the events related are 19 years in the past now—ancient history. I have not had any subsequent contact with David and Rebecca Hart or their daughter Abby since the day I interviewed them. And I don’t recall where their home is (or was); nor are they listed in the phone book, naturally enough these days, since cell phones are ubiquitous now. However, I am preparing this post on January 31—a week before it is to be published—so perhaps I will find some way to reconnect with them before next Saturday and I can obtain a brief update. <<See comment at bottom of page.>>
— BL

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

There’s a house being built southwest of Alpine that would warm the cockles of any diehard recycler’s heart.

Looking more like a metal lean-to/storage-shed from a distance, the home of David and Rebecca Hart is mostly underground — four feet below ground level — with only about three feet of structure above.  And it’s built almost entirely of old car tires and aluminum cans plastered with adobe.

“Michael Reynolds (a national expert on solar passive architecture) calls this type of structure an ‘Earth ship’,” says David. “It’s in tune with its surroundings and it takes advantage of the sun to heat the house and of the earth to keep it cool.”

David Hart grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived in Borger, Texas, about five years, where he earned his living first as an architectural draftsman and then doing drafting for the Department of Transportation.

On vacation once, the Harts visited Balmorhea “and just drove around” until they discovered Alpine. “We saved our money so we could come down and I could build the house,” David recalls.

After buying the four acres on which they wanted to build, the Harts returned to Borger wondering what kind of house they wanted.  “On the way back to Borger we picked up a Mother Earth News,” Rebecca adds, “and there it was in an article by Michael Reynolds, so we found it serendipitously.”

The couple moved with their daughter Abby, now nine years old, to Alpine in 1993, and David started working on the house while Rebecca got a job as teacher at the Alpine Montessori School.

Johnny White dug out the area for them with a front-end loader and a backhoe and then bought the dirt from them, so they broke even on the excavation, David says.

They managed to accumulate the tires —all 1,700 so far — and aluminum cans for free, too.  “Once you start with one size of tire, you want to stay with that size,” says David, “because, as you fill them with dirt they expand.”

As he got each tire placed, David used a sledge hammer to pound the dirt into its air space.  “Each tire weighs two hundred to three hundred pounds once it’s filled,” he points out. “We averaged about nine or ten tires a day.”


“Mostly just me, but occasionally a friend or my brother would come over.”  (And his two sisters and his father, all of whom came from Albuquerque to help David hammer dirt into old tires.)  “We did nothing but pound tires for about six months,” recalls David, “so it’s really labor-intensive.”

Also, some friends in Alpine poured the concrete slab floor, mixed with a dye to match the reddish-brown color of the adobe-plastered walls.

The aluminum cans were used to fill in the curved spaces between the tires and for short walls.  Holes and tabs were left facing outward.  “They were left outside so they can serve as a lath, like the metal mesh that’s put over walls before plastering,” David explains. “Also, the tires — if they have any tread — that acts as a lath, too.”

After the walls of a room are complete, the tires and cans are covered with the adobe plaster which comes right out of the Harts’ front yard.  Eventually, the house will consist of six rooms — counting the kitchen and living room — but the family moved into the existing two rooms a year ago.

The slanting metal roof will allow them to collect rainwater “if it ever rains” in a planned cistern as a supplement to their water well.

They have in fact figured ways of meeting two aspects of West Texas’ moody weather.  Besides the planned cistern to collect needed water, they have already built a 2-1/2-ft. dike around the house and dug a deep hole outside it where water can be pumped in case it rains too much.  “Friends have told us this place can get flooded,” David notes. “Normally this type of house is built on a south sloping hill, but we just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

The metal roof is still visible from inside the house.  “We don’t know what kind of ceiling we want yet,” says David. “Probably sotol or stalks of wood.”

Their more pressing need is a shower stall outside.  “The walls will be aluminum cans and mortar columns with sotol stalks to block the view and the wind,” he explains.

Rebecca lifts a black plastic bag that resembles a hot water bottle but is in fact a “solar shower bag” that can contain five gallons of water.  “You set it out in the sun to heat up,” she says, “and you press this lever to let out water, so you can soap up and then rinse it off (without needing a continuous spray as in conventional showers).”

The Harts’ home is hooked up to a natural gas source which powers their refrigerator and kitchen stove for about $10 a month, but their lights, television and VCR are powered by 12-volt batteries which receive their energy from photo-voltaic cells.

The solar-powered batteries are adequate most of the time.  “About Christmas we had seven cloudy days when we thought they might run low,” David recalls, “but we do have a generator for backup.”

The Harts have adapted to their two-room lifestyle well enough that they don’t feel any pressure to complete the house quickly (except for the shower stall). “Target dates have come and gone,” says David, smiling.

Alpine Avalanche, April 18, 1996

Bob’s Current Preferences

Bob's Current Reading Preferences

I recently received an email from my local artist friend, Chris Ruggia. It includes the brief comic strip above.  I find it to be marvelous and am much flattered by it, even though there is a touch of the satirical in it.

You see, Chris and I meet every other Friday morning at my apartment for about two hours of coffee or juice, and conversation. Our topics range widely, but they are usually much more “on point” and satisfying than the conversations I’m used to in the bars and coffee shops.

I have occasionally expressed to Chris my hope that he will eventually pause for a while in his production of comic books about animals and do something involving only–or mostly–humans. I have also tried a couple of times to convert him to poetry by showing him my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Robert Browning and Emily Dickinson. The reference in the second panel of the comic strip is to Emily’s poem about being startled upon perceiving the movement of a supposed snake in the grass. (Also note the poet in the tree—a mockingbird, my mystical messenger.) I was unsuccessful in bringing Chris up to the level of poetry-appreciation I cherish: Don’t even try anymore.

I should explain a little about the “fear and trembling” note in the first panel, and the humans in the last. A few months ago, I was reading for the second time Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling — a difficult book to understand, not because it is too deep but because Kierkegaard wandered about too much in his sentences and paragraphs and because he allowed his emotional break-up with his fiancée to affect his writing (according to Bob).

Hopefully, this background will give you some sense of what is going on in the final panel. Kierkegaard’s fiancée did not leave him; he left her. And then he entangled the whole angst episode up in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard reportedly was slightly shocked when the young lady, as Bertrand Russell opined, “very sensibly married someone else”.

I have no idea yet what the fiancée, in the last panel, is waving in her hand. Is it a brush with which she brushed Kierkegaard off? I’ll ask Chris Friday.⇓<See postscript below.>

For a fuller sampling of Chris’s comic book creations (three now), click on or copy-and-paste this URL onto whatever that line at the top is called.  (The main character in his comic books is a jackrabbit.)


POSTSCRIPT: Friday, January 23> Well, I discussed this post with Chris Ruggia this morning. He told me that he “loved” the way I connected the last panel of his cartoon with Kierkegaard. However, he added, he and his wife had recently watched one of the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, and he had been thinking of that movie while drawing the cartoon. The hair of the man in particular had been modeled on the hair styles of two of the movie’s characters. (Kierkegaard’s hair actually was fuller and puffed up in front, comparable, I imagine, to Justin Bieber’s.) Also, Chris explained that the woman is admiring a long, dry thistle—which she prefers to listening to her suitor.

I told Chris that I still like my assumption that it is a brush—in fact, a toilet bowl brush.

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The Other Side of the Altar, Part II

Pastor with couple No. 1

PREMARITAL AND POSTMARITAL counseling can be arduous for couples–and for the pastor, too–because the affianced or newly-weds are usually so emotionally involved in their relationship that they cannot look at it objectively.

How Ministers View Weddings, Alpine

NOTE TO READERS: While reading the article below, keep in mind that it was written in 1996. All the ministers quoted have moved on to other parishes or retired. The priest has left the priesthood. I had originally intended to alter the verb tenses in this re-publication to better reflect that these interviews are now history, not current events. However, that tack proved to be unworkable for me, so I am leaving the article as it originally was printed, except for correcting any typos I spot.


© 1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

By the time most young lovers set a date for marriage they’re usually too much in love to consider counseling worth their time, but they feel obliged to talk to the minister anyway.

Local ministers vary in their approaches to pre-wedding and post-wedding counseling, largely in response to what they have learned from couples’ reactions earlier in their careers.

First United Methodist pastor Rush Smith has been a minister for 19-1/2 years now.  While he was serving churches in El Paso he had couples take a compatibility test: “The test didn’t make any difference whether I married them,” he says, “but it gave us something to talk about. Here in Alpine during the first year I found that nobody even wanted to take it. They already pretty much knew their compatibilities. They’d just come right out and tell you, ‘Well, he won’t do this’….‘Well, she don’t like that.’”  Finally, he quit suggesting the test.  “It wasn’t something I dropped reluctantly,” he adds.

Now, in two or three sessions before the wedding, Smith tries simply to get to know the couple.  He concentrates on the expectations of young engaged couples, while older couples require a different scenario.

“The church requires I ask how long divorced persons have been divorced, and, most important, are there children involved,” he says. “I try to talk through many of the situations with children: Where’s the discipline going to center? Where do children fit in? Should they have children of their own?  I want to know why the previous marriages didn’t work. Then we talk about how that might affect this marriage and be avoided.

“In both cases, we always talk about the format of the ceremony itself.  That’s really up to the bride; it’s her day.”  In nearly every instance the preferred service is traditional — out of the book — but what happens afterwards can sometimes be unconventional.  Smith recalls how he married a couple in the traditional manner and then watched them drive off in an 18-wheeler, fully loaded.  “They were both truckers,” says Smith, “and they had to make a run to Houston. Some other truckers on motorcycles escorted them out of town.”

Smith says he doesn’t suggest any post-wedding counseling. “I think that would be a little presumptuous on my part,” he says.  However, he will meet again with the couple if they request it.

Baptist minister Philip McCraw, like Smith, has three pre-wedding counseling sessions and spends the time trying to get to know the couple and build up a rapport with them.  He differs from Smith, however, in that he uses a series of three videos and requests a post-wedding session.

“There are three basic things I work on,” says McCraw, “communication, money and sex. The video deals with all three. I spend most of my time dealing with the specifics of the situation.”

McCraw says he asks a couple if their parents were divorced and whether they consider their parents to have been good role models.  He asks if they consider their parents’ marriages to have been healthy ones.

Other questions discover whether they have been married before, whether they already have children, whether they are living together, and whether both families are supportive of their marriage.  “I’m looking for factors that are going to lead to a healthy marriage and factors that are going to be inhibitors,” McCraw explains. “I lay those out for them and find out if they are talking to each other about them.”

McCraw suggests that the couple return in six months for another talk.  “I can’t require it,” he says, “so I try to set up in the first three sessions a scenario where they can enjoy it and want to come back. Some do; most don’t.”

However, McCraw says he’s not overly concerned about the lack of response to the post-wedding counseling session among his Alpine couples, because he often encounters them around town and can check up on them informally.  “I try to set up a rapport,” he says, “and I think they are surprised how gracious I am with their situation and that I’m not here to condemn.”

Of the 30 marriages he has performed, McCraw says he feels regret about going through with only one of them. “The woman told me she had already had a child by a man she never married,” McCraw recalls. “During our third session, she said, ‘I ought to tell you I’m pregnant with his (her fiancé’s) child.’  Six months later, they attempted to come in — she called, but he wouldn’t come in with her,” McCraw says.  In a poignant footnote to the episode, McCraw tells of an 18-year-old man who came to see him later about getting married, and it was this woman he wanted to marry.  “She grew up with her grandparents, not her own parents,” McCraw explains, “so she didn’t have good role models. She didn’t have a very good self-image.”

First Presbyterian minister Ed Waddill says that in his 31 years in the ministry he hasn’t changed his pre-wedding counseling approach much.

One difference, however, is that while he was pastoring a church in Temple he started giving couples the opportunity to customize their wedding service as long as the basic integrity of the service and the idea of commitment were retained. “It seemed to me that it was a good counseling technique,” Waddill says. “It personalizes the service for them when they have gone through the trouble of writing the service. Not everybody wants to go through that process, but quite a few have.”

Waddill says he doesn’t require lengthy counseling anymore. “When I did require it, it didn’t accomplish much,” he says. “They were just going through the motions. But some people have wanted to come to me because they had particular things they wanted to work out. I do require that they come to me so that we can get acquainted,” he says. “I don’t do quickie marriages. And when they do talk to me it’s been very fruitful.”

As an example of an instance when more counseling was obviously desirable, Waddill recounts the story of “the most traumatic experience” of his career.  “There was a couple in Temple that I was going to marry,” he recalls. “On the night before the wedding they got into a fight in a bar. Three or four others were involved. They all landed up in jail.

“The next day, the mother of the groom came to tell me what had happened. I said, ‘I’m not refusing to have anything to do with the couple, but there are some things we have to talk about first.’ The father of the bride got fighting mad because he had spent a lot of money. I thought he was going to shoot me. That marriage never did take place. I found out later that the groom was an alcoholic and had some drugs, too.”

Many of the couples Waddill counsels are there because they assume it is required of them.  “More than half the time they think it’s important to talk about what they’re going to do,” he says, “but some of the time people are not communicative, which worries me because I wonder if they can communicate with each other. But it’s only a small minority who are that private.”

Most of Waddill’s counseling deals with the same topics Smith and McCraw cover — money, sex, communication, and in-laws.  However, one different topic he mentions is domination.  “Women are particularly interested in talking about that because of the women’s movement,” he says. “They often come into the conversation with some misconceptions about what the service says, especially ‘love, honor and obey’. That’s not in our service; it’s not in the Roman Catholic service; it’s not in the Methodist or Episcopal services. That’s Hollywood.”

Another false quote from the “marriage service” is that business about “if anyone objects, let him speak now or forever hold his peace,” notes Father Ricardo Ruiz of Our Lady of Peace Church.

Father Ruiz, who completes his fourth year as priest on June 13, has been serving Alpine Roman Catholics for two years.  His first church was in El Paso, where he performed about a hundred marriages.  Here, he says, he has performed about twenty.

The pre-marital counseling process is standard throughout the diocese and is comparatively lengthy. “We ask for six months preparation because it takes a long time to prepare spiritually and for all the other aspects of the service,” Ruiz says. “We focus, not on the wedding day, but on the whole marriage. The most important thing in marriage is communication. About half our marriages involve a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Also, some involve coming into a marriage where children are involved.”

For those couples marrying for the first time, the local diocese requires that they spend a weekend at an Engaged Encounter Retreat in Mesilla, New Mexico.  “It’s an intense weekend for the couples, given by other couples, and covers issues of finances, sexuality, problem-solving, and extended family,” says Ruiz.

“As teachers, couples are preferred who have been through some difficulty in their own marriage and successfully overcome it,” Ruiz points out. “Many times the sessions are so intense that a couple might decide during the weekend that they are not right for each other or they might postpone marriage.”

Several Engaged Encounter Retreats are offered each month at the Franciscans’ Holy Cross Retreat House, Ruiz says.  And it is open to other Christian denominations.

Locally, the priest meets with the couple and works through a little booklet, with a test, on FOCUS — Facilitating Open Communication, Understanding and Study.  “It’s interesting — a different dynamic,” says Ruiz. “Depending on how many areas of disagreement there are, it can take two to five sessions.”

Ideally, the retreat should occur last, says Ruiz.  “It’s a peaceful place and helps them put their experience in a spiritual context.”

Another type of pre-marital encounter group, called pre-Cana II, is for couples going into a second marriage or couples with blended families.  “It’s where the couple engages in dialogue with another couple who have gone through the same problems, usually in the couple’s home,” Ruiz explains. “It takes two to five hours and focuses on issues unique to second marriages.”

Still other programs, these designed for the already-marrieds, are Marriage Encounter (similar to the Engaged Encounter), Marriage Enrichment (more like a workshop than a retreat in that it covers practical rather than spiritual concerns), and Retrouvaille (a retreat for couples whose marriages are troubled).

When asked why the Roman Catholic Church requires so much soul-searching, Ruiz replies, “Divorce statistics. It used to be that a couple would meet the priest at the church door and say, ‘Let’s go!”  Also, Ruiz points out, “Some people have the skills necessary for making their marriage work, but they need to be affirmed that they are doing right. Other people need help fine-tuning their skills to prevent bigger problems later.”

As for post-wedding counseling, Ruiz says his involvement depends on the problems a couple might have.  “If they haven’t been married in the church, I give them the FOCUS test, just to focus on issues they haven’t resolved,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, I refer them to a marriage counselor.”

All of the counseling is intended to accomplish one basic purpose: undergirding the marriage.  “I hope to help the couple see that the wedding is important, but it is only a day, and help them focus on marriage as a lifetime commitment,” Ruiz says. “For any commitment, you need to discover the tools and the abilities to maintain and enrich the relationship in good times and bad.”

Waddill notes that a lot of people view the marriage service superficially, as just a matter of saying words.  As a minister, however, he sees it differently.  “I have a responsibility toward God first and the church secondarily,” he says. “I have my ordination to think about. I’m accountable to God and the church for everything I do, including marriage.”

McCraw, too, says he needs “to be sure the tie is tied tight and that each couple has a wholesome Christian ceremony so that it will be something they can look back on and treasure for many years.”

— Alpine Avalanche, June 6, 1996


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