26 September, 2008

two thousand feet of rock--finished!!!

(This post has been overdue since March. Better late than never)

It took a lot of work, but... we have a labyrinth!

Here's how it started: with an empty field.

We staked out the widths of the paths with string and flags, and asked the congregation to come put a rock next to one of the flags. People of all ages helped, with rocks big and small.

Eventually, we called a couple of work days. People brought pickup trucks, and we were able to place several loads each day.

At the beginning of the process, the rector placed the initial stone on the altar in our worship space. When we finished the labyrinth, it went in the center.

It's a big labyrinth...

Come walk with us!

25 September, 2008

The Mathematics of Inevitability

Sometimes, it really sucks being trained as an engineer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago Tuesday afternoon, I was packing to go to a conference in Corpus Christi, Texas. Then we got the word that the conference was postponed because of in impending hurricane. By Wednesday evening, the projections said that Ike would be directly overhead of us here in San Antonio on Sunday morning, as a category 1 or 2 hurricane.

I sent an email to my congregation, warning them of the possibility of a hurricane (just in case someone wasn't listening to the news), and telling them to use their common sense on whether or not they should try to get here for worship on Sunday. I planned out a couple of alternate routes for myself for Sunday morning (the two most obvious ways to get from my house to the church campus have streets that flood).

We weren't alone--events got cancelled all over San Antonio. Kids' activities, high school football... and the Texas Longhorns rescheduled a football game in Austin. Now there's a sign that the world just might be coming to an end.

On Sunday morning, Ike was... over five hundred miles away. In Missouri, for crying out loud.

The very best minds we have, using the most sophisticated computer modeling we have, missed their guess by five hundred miles. Some things we still don't know how to predict, or else are inherently unpredictable.

And then there are other things, whose behavior we know very well how to predict. And that's why it sucks sometimes to be an engineer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Engineers, you see, are trained to understand the way the world works, and to make it a better place. I studied with Phil Bedient, and I know that hydrology is a fascinating and complicated discipline, but if you over-over-simplify, this is true:


V=Volume of water
R=rate of rainfall
I is a coefficient for the percentage of the impervious surface of the land, from 0 to 100%
T=time of rainfall
A=area on which the rain falls

Just for fun, I've used this basic formula (yes, I'm a nerd) to calculate the rate of rainfall, based on the amount of time it takes to fill up a trash can with the runoff from the roof of my house.

Applying to the impending hurricane:

Houston, my friends, is a great big place. It's flat as a pancake, with a huge portion of it paved over or developed. By late Thursday evening, our best guess had changed, and a storm five hundred miles wide was heading for the city, where it was about to rain very, very hard.

And the engineer part of my brain said: It's going to flood, and at least a few people are going to die. The only question is where, and how much.

I've also studied roadway design and traffic flow, and even if there's not such an overly simple equation to show you, I know that if you made every highway single-direction flow out of town, and somehow got the residents of the city to move with military precision, with no breakdowns or accidents, you still couldn't evacuate four million people in less than two days, even if you wanted to.

Which meant that when the mayor of Houston (or the disaster response people) said that they were "taking a calculated risk" when they only ordered the evacuation of certain portions of the city, that's true, but it's only partially true. The other side of it is that they know that they can't evacuate the city that fast, and people with pretty good models for runoff and floods (like the aforementioned professor) know where it's going to flood first, so they move those people first.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Seven years ago this September, I remember having a similar moment about an impending disaster. I didn't see the first plane hit the world trade center, and I was hoping it was a particularly horrible accident. But when the second plane hit, I was sitting on my friend Brian's couch watching it on TV, and it was clear that this was deliberate.

I was stunned for a few minutes, wondering how on earth, and who... and then I started thinking about what was going on. Suddenly, the part of my brain that studied high-rise building design jumped over and overlaid itself on the part of my brain that had been an airport consultant for a few years, and I knew--I knew--that the towers were coming down.

I stared at the wall, and saw in my imagination the curves from the steel construction handbook that describe the strength of steel as a function of temperature. I saw, dancing before my eyes, the homework I had done in high-rise design and in structural stability class. And I turned to Brian and said, "Oh, God, they're gonna collapse."

It's just the mathematics of inevitability.

(by the way, it's not that I'm a particularly good or smart engineer. I'm certain that every one of my classmates came to the same conclusion, wherever they were scattered around the country, only they got there faster than I did)

I got up to call my only friend who worked in the World Trade Center, and got as far as picking up the phone, before realizing that he's pretty smart guy, and was (if he was even in the office that day) already on his way out of the building. I put the phone back down, and went and sat back down on the couch, and waited for the horrible scene I knew was coming.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When a city floods, whose fault is it?

You can't blame the hurricane. It didn't decide to turn North, it just happened.

You can't really blame the city engineers, either. They designed a bayou system for Houston that will handle some tremendous storms. If I remember right, Braes Bayou is designed for the five-hundred year storm. (That means a storm of such intensity that it occurs, on average, once every five hundred years) But it was designed for a five-hundred-year storm in the city in which it was built... and Houston kept growing. Several years later, the runoff from all that extra pavement still flows downhill (such as that is in Houston), and it gets to the creeks and ditches and bayous as intended, but there's more of it than there used to be.

So who's to blame now? Should we tell Mrs. Martinez on the west side of the city that she is not allowed, after all, to realize her dream of owning a house in America? Should we forbid St. Martin's from constructing their enormous new worship space? Make the members of Second Baptist Church park on the grass rather than paving over a parking lot the size of Massachusetts?

Even if maybe we should say some of those kinds of things, we probably won't..because this is basically a free country, and people are going to do what they're going to do. There are laws in place in many inhabited areas that require new construction to be offset by the creation of retention ponds, which makes me feel a little better. But there are plenty of good people who find ways around those laws, or who ignore them because constructing the water retention areas are sometimes expensive.

It's old news by now, but I guess we have to keep saying it. We must recognize that our lives are interconnected. What I do matters.

We breathe the same air, we share the same water supply. When I cut down a tree, we all have a tiny bit less oxygen to breathe. And when I pave over the land, there are people (literally) downstream who are affected.

18 September, 2008

Death of another classmate

I was the youngest member of my seminary class. Every last one of us are second-career clergy, and some of my classmates had already retired once, before pursuing a different vocation.

I remember the day that I realized that being the youngest meant I stood a good chance of grieving every one of their deaths, one by one. I just didn't expect that one of them would die at 42.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

D. Brent Russell was technically the graduating class behind me, rather than my class year. He was an interesting fellow...Strongly held opinions. High ecclesiology. And, unfortunately, intolerant of bullshit. It got him thrown out of a rather heavy-handed cultural immersion course that he was required to attend, and he had to go back for a second helping the next year.

We got to be friends over a series of loooong afternoons in the back workroom of the library. See, almost every student at the seminary in Austin is on a work-study program for financial aid. It becomes a kind of monastic service to the community. In between classes, you see people sweeping, cleaning, running video, shelving books, working for professors. My second year, I had the great privilege of being the student assistant to the Dean. That was way cool. Third year, though, I said that I was willing to let somebody else have that honor, and I moved to the library.

And so it was that, many afternoons, Brent and I sat in the workroom and talked about life, and classes, and the state of the church, and theology, and human sexuality, and liturgics, and... life. I was unhurriedly checking in and shelving periodicals, and he was unhurriedly fixing up old books, repairing spines, carefully gluing end panels back together. I asked him once where he got so good at that kind of thing, and he laughed.

Turns out he was a funeral director before coming to seminary. Didn't really surprise me, once I thought about it. That, of course, gave us material to talk about for at least a month. He never betrayed personal information, but he had stories that would make you laugh and weep, sometimes both in the same story.

He gave me a great gift one afternoon. I went out to his house, waved to his wife, sat down with him at his kitchen table, and for three or four hours talked about the nuts and bolts of the funeral industry from the funeral director's perspective. He had documents, tricks of the trade, perspectives on things I'd never thought about. It was advice I took to heart, and it's come in handy several times already.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The thing I'll remember most is what we called each other. Not sure how it started... probably, it was because I said something to him in the middle of an argument like "okay, in twenty years when you're the Bishop of Texas, we can do it your way," and he responded with something not generally printable.

(Note to the non-clergy:Seminarians love to tease each other about things like that. Nobody in their right mind wants to be the bishop.)

The next day, I walked into the workroom, and called out, "Good afternoon, Your Grace!" Without missing a beat or even turning around, Brent responded, "Good afternoon, Your Eminence!" (which is the honorific for a Roman Catholic Cardinal, or an Archbishop, depending on your religious tradition.) I cracked up laughing, and somehow it stuck.

It became our ritual greeting:

Good afternoon, Your Grace.
Good afternoon, Your Eminence.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Life moved on. I was ordained and hired and brought to San Antonio. Brent dropped out of the ordination process, finished his seminary degree anyway, and made some difficult and painful decisions about his family and his future. Then he decided to try his hand at being a chaplain, which is extremely difficult duty. I think he would have made a great priest, or a great chaplian, in the right circumstances.

And then came the brain aneurysm, a 'successful' repair surgery, the beginnings of rehab, and a sudden (and probably merciful) death. By the time I got the news, he was already gone.

Goodbye, Your Grace.


12 September, 2008

A long blog silence

I think I've finally figured out why I haven't written in quite a while.

Most of you who have had face-to-face conversations with me know that I'm not exactly naturally shy or reserved. ("In love with the sound of my own voice" is more accurate.) In small groups, I have to be careful not to dominate the conversation. I have to constantly remind myself to stop and listen, really listen, to my wife and children, rather than jumping in before they even finish their sentences, and I'm not always successful at that.

But in a large group, I'm different. I want to choose my words carefully. I don't want to waste the time of a large group of people with an incomplete or rambling thought.

I've been a delegate to diocesan council in three different dioceses, covering at least twelve years. In all that time, I've never stood up to address the council, not even once. I've gone to clergy conference for three years, and I have yet to speak up at clergy conference. (sotto voce jokes not withstanding) I've attended city council meetings, meetings of concerned citizens about airport noise, and public forums, and only rarely, rarely, will I say anything.

The funny thing is that I tend to be one of those people who have to start talking about something complicated before I get it straight in my head. I almost always have a step in the sermon writing process where I go for a long walk, or take advantage of a long drive, or shut the door and pace around and around and talk to myself. If we have to make a decision quickly, I'll sometimes ask my wife "let me think out loud for a minute, okay?" and she knows that the first thing out of my mouth might not be the same as the last thing.

* * * * * * * * *

A while ago, my friend Gordon Atkinson asked me to be a part of the network of bloggers for the Christian Century. (you've almost certainly noticed the link in the upper right corner of this page.) I had to think about it for a while to see if I wanted to be included, but finally accepted. I suddenly found myself in distinguished company, people who were faithful and far more articulate than I am and insightful and smart and funny. I read everything that anyone in the network wrote, for a while. Then the network grew and grew, and more and more voices were added, all of them worth reading. I kept reading. And the more I did that, the less I wrote.

Took me a while to recognize the same dynamic that happens when I'm in a room full of people. I realized that I was unconsciously weighing everything that was going on in my head to say against the wonderful stuff that was already being said, and deciding not to waste everyone's time on it. And then I got out of the habit of regular writing. And then life events happened, and I had a few crazy-busy weeks, and then all of a sudden it's been three months since I posted. And if it's been three months, then it's really no big deal if I let it stretch to four...

Take, for example, the subject of my most recent post. It was the middle of Lent, and we were building a labyrinth. Yes, we finished it. Yes, I started writing about it. I even have pictures. But the urgency wasn't there to post it. The people at my congregation already knew it was finished, and my friends who read this blog from several states (or countries) away couldn't come and walk it with us, and all those wonderful people in the bloggers network probably wouldn't care less... Same goes for my monthly articles for the parish newsletter, and sermon manuscripts.

This is silly, I know, but I haven't been consciously thinking about it. It took a day like today, when I was going to be doing something that got cancelled and then I was going to be really busy doing another important thing that's probably not going to happen either and I unexpectedly have a free day to sit back and take few deep breaths and look around to see what I've been neglecting that I shouldn't be.

I never promised to be prolific, but I won't be living in a cave again.