Sunday, July 28, 2013

We often never see the Strong Hand of Love hidden in the shadows

Another honest insight from one of the best songwriters of our time, Mark Heard:  

Down peppers the rain from a clear blue sky

Down trickles a tear on a youthful face

Feeling in haste and wondering why

Up struggles the sun from a wounded night

Out venture our hearts from their silent shrouds

Trying to ignite but wondering how

We can laugh and we can cry

And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows

We can dance and we can sigh

And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows

Young dreamers explode like popped balloons

Some kind of emotional rodeo

Learning too slow and acting too soon

Time marches away like a lost platoon

We gracefully age as we feel the weight

Of loving too late and leaving too soon

We can laugh and we can cry

And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows

We can dance and we can sigh

And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows

Written by Mark Heard © 1990 Ideola Music

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Danger Tools

While wrapping up a rewarding ten day mission trip to Guatemala with The Village Chapel where we did much physical labor alongside our Bethel Church brethren, I'm reminded of a blog I wrote seven years ago...

Every now and then I’ll look at my body and quote that wonderful line from Indiana Jones: “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”  There are untold scars, pock marks, discolorations, and blotches that are badges of sorts; some from adventures gone awry, others from labor that went kablooey; and some that I’ll be durned if I can recall where they came from.

But in many cases, these were self-inflicted from momentary lapses of reason in relation to tools of one sort or another.

While installing a four hundred pound, twenty foot wide electric sign at Dog Ear Records in Libertyville, Illinois, me and a coworker utilized a series of ropes, pulleys, and two twelve foot step ladders to lift and set the behemoth moniker. Several hours of strain were rewarded with a job well done just as some rain clouds were gathering.  As we collected all of the tools I asked my buddy where the heavy-duty ratchet-wrench was. I had just begun glancing upward as I finished my sentence, and saw the device plummeting directly for my skull. It was literally about six inches from impact with my brow.  It had fallen about seven feet from the top of the ladder which we were beginning to fold, and met the bridge of my nose with extreme malice. Knocking me for a loop, I staggered for a moment; off the sidewalk and nearly into traffic.  If my friend hadn’t seized me, I probably would’ve been pancaked by a heavy-laden beer truck.

Even though my nose was broken, it didn’t bleed much.  But for the next week I had blinding headaches, and two fearsome black eyes from the concussion.

My Uncle Earl loved to take us kids fishing whenever we would visit Buttermilk Hill  outside of Oil City, PA.  One morning, while he was teaching my brother how to cast, he told me to go about ten feet behind to dig up some worms along the soft soiled shoreline. As I was sifting through the dirt, I felt a stinging in my shoulder, and subsequent tugging.  My brother had errantly back-cast and caught the hook in my tender flesh…and thinking he had snagged a bush, he kept yanking on the rod trying to propel the line out into the water.  When Jim and my uncle realized my utterances were not joyous exclamations of thick night crawlers I had discovered, but were instead anguished wails over being plucked and teathered, the fishing lesson came to a quick close.

I had a lawn-cutting service that my best bud, Duke, and I started while in high school (“Du-Mar will Do More for your lawn” was out motto…ahhh,my marketing wizardry was blossoming even then).  Among the couple dozen yards we regularly mowed was a large mansion and accompanying grounds along Lake Decatur.  The owner would let us use his self-propelled monstrosity for the largest sections. Neither of us really liked the machine…but it was so much more efficient than our puny little Lawnboys. On top of that, the back yard was on a twenty-five degree slope headed down to the shoreline, and featured many exposed, bony roots from the massive oaks that filled his property, so, despite the cumbersome hassles, the gas-guzzling lummox was preferred for that steep grade.   

One steamy July afternoon as I was circling up and around a huge trunk, the drive shaft for the propulsion portion of the several hundred pound device failed, but the blades were still fully engaged.  As the weight suddenly shifted from lack of momentum, I found myself being pushed backwards down the slope towards the rocky shoreline.  I probably should’ve just let the slicing abomination roll into the lake…but it was either valor or stupidity that took over in that split second. I kept trying to brace myself against the onslaught by wedging my heels into some of the ruts until I could finally gain enough traction to straighten the beast and turn it off.  But several grunting attempts kept pushing me back further until I summoned all my strength and braced my right leg firmly into another trunk. In so doing, I felt something snap under the skin in mycalf.  But as the adrenaline rush passed and I was able to corral the wayward bladerunner, I was simply glad the ordeal was over.  After catching my breath, I restarted the mutant mulcher and finished the job.

Later that night, I felt some pain in my lower right leg and noticed some veins were larger than normal. Over the next several weeks this continued, and eventually I was diagnosed with varicose veins—a rather odd malady for a sixteen-year-old.  They have progressed further down that leg over the years, and are none too pretty to look at.  But the surgeries that would be necessary to “remedy” the situation would be costly as well as leaving nearly as many unsightly scars…so I’ve learned to live with ‘em.

Once, when helping clear brush near the back of our lot in central Illinois, I decided there were some limbs hanging over our new garden that were impeding sunlight.  As any good lumberjack will tell you, pants, long sleeves, and a manly pair of gloves are minimal when trying to subdue forestry. Being in a hurry, I deemed that my gym shorts, ragged t-shirt, and manly bare hands were sufficient.  This was a tall elm, and I fetched an eight foot step ladder that would help me reach that limb jutting out at around the twelve foot height.

As I struggled with getting proper torque on the saw blade, I decided to climb all the way to the apex of the ladder.  But the wobbling that ensued only caused the legs to dig deeper into the uneven soil, and one of them poked through a mole tunnel.  Suddenly, my support system swayed wildly, and as it began to totter, I had some quick choices to make:  First off, what to do with the razor sharp three foot saw blade in my hand? I tossed it aside to my right (good choice).  Secondly, what to do with my left hand, which had been steadying the limb that was to be amputated from the tree?  Well, since it was nearly sawed-through at that point, I decided grabbing it would not be wise—seeing that it would most likely snap and hurdle me harshly into the tree trunk before I would tumble. So, I let go with my left. Probably not a bad decision.

However, now I was about to have no support under my feet and both hands free.  This is where instinct kicks in, but is not always sound. I leaned into the tree, wrapping my arms as best I could around the five foot circumference.  Had I been wearing the proper aforementioned forestry attire, this might’ve made some sense as I would try to hug my way down the tree.

But bare and sweaty fingers, arms and legs were no match for gravity.  And my supple skin was certainly not up for an abrasive confrontation with the course, jagged bark of this aging elm.  So, with Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery clearly working in opposition to my will, I slid like a tall, white, furless, humanus erectus version of Wiley Coyote down said tree in about three seconds time, leaving a fair portion of the skin from my appendages and chest embedded in it’s craggy surface.

Before the searing pain could even register, I did what any embattled artisan does with his failed tool…I kicked the fallen ladder, then picked it up and heaved it as far as I could, and cursed like Richard Pryor must’ve when he caught on fire.  Then I looked at my raw skin, watching the blood beginning to flow freely, and winced as the raw wounds mixed with salty sweat and wood chips. 

I have tried to exercise much more caution and don preventive attire when doing tree surgery from that day onward.

Another device that has caused some woe for me is the bicycle. The most memorable was when I had a pre-dawn newspaper route in my teens.  It was my first morning, and near the end of the route, there was a particularly long, steep hill on Waterview Drive to descend before delivering the last few papers.  It was a moonless night, and being a residential neighborhood, there were no lamp posts.  As I gained speed heading down the three hundred yard grade, I looked to my left to see Lake Decatur looking so serene, reflecting the lights from Lakeshore Drive on the other side two miles away in a perfect mirror.  In the midst of admiring this placid beauty I was suddenly jolted and simultaneously jettisoned over the handlebars of my ten speed Schwinn, and then slid on my chest and chin for six feet.  Fortunately, it was late fall, so I had a jacket and gloves on, so my epidermis was not flayed as it was in the tree hugging incident.

Nonetheless, I was stunned, and more than a bit agitated as to what on earth had just happened.  Had I hit a mutant possum? Had some punk kid set up trip wires at the base of the hill? Had my paper bag gotten caught in the spokes? I looked back at my bike, and the front rim was severely dented, the tire was flat.  I then stumbled as I stepped into my culprit: an eight inch deep and two foot wide pothole right at the base of the hill. Since it was so dark and there was no help from any municipal lighting, it was completely undetectable.  Other than a sore jaw, and some bruises that lasted a few weeks, I was unhurt as I walked my broken machine the final mile home.  When I look at many comrades who have broken teeth, jaws, collarbones, ribs, wrists, arms, hips, and legs from similar biking mishaps…I truly count myself blessed that my flip only wounded my skin and pride.

There have been other ordeals involving stoves, knives, tar dispensers, hammers, weed-wackers, and super-heated copper kettles.  Then there’s water-on-the-knee from hyper-extending that joint in football; a sprained ankle from dancing; another sliced chin from a wayward stick in floor hockey; a twenty-seven year softball welt on right shin; a chipped bone in my left elbow from glancing blow off a desk; a torn rotator cuff from lifting a road case and then throwing a baseball too much and too hard; a hernia from awkwardly hoisting too many twenty poundbuckets of sand at a construction site in Guatemala; compressed discs in my upper and lower back--probably from lifting in various roadie duties with rock shows over the years; and a cut on my forehead from falling down five steps onto the edge of a Tonka Toy dump truck when I was three. 

Perhaps I’ll get to those some other time. For now, I’m sore just recalling these incidents. Yep, it’s the miles, not the duration…although my creaking body seems to argue otherwise at this point.

More Five Star Reviews for "Embracing the Gray"

My book, Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and ADoubter’s Resolve, continues to generate over 95% Five Star Reviews at  Here are some more of these recommendations:

You must read this book! Embracing The Gray was such a stellar read that my family sat around reading chapters to each other, through tears. The stories of Mark's interaction - with everyone from music industry celebrities to the homeless to villagers in the remote corners of the world -are absolutely riveting. I guarantee that this book will have a long standing impact on you.

Most people of faith go through periods of doubt, questioning why things happen and whether God is with us. Mark Hollingsworth does, too--but unlike many, he is open about it. His book Embracing the Gray, recalls his journey (a fascinating one) and explores the gray areas of life and faith, and does so in an engaging and compelling fashion. This book is not just another book about religion. It is a personal account of faith, doubt and acceptance. Embrace it!

First book I’ve Read cover to cover in years. Not being much of a book reader, I haven't fully read a book from cover to cover in at least 20 years. This book changed that. I laughed hysterically at times and was overcome with emotion and tears at times as I was brought along on Mark's journey, which is really everyone's journey. God definitely has used this book to move and stir something in me. It was thought-provoking and inspiring, and The Eternal Now chapter will provide reflection and great comfort for years to come.

Pick up this book! Mark Hollingsworth has written a beautiful memoir that chronicles the arc of his own humanity. To follow a spiritual path--to be "in the world, but not of it"--is to reach and fall, to lose and regain faith, to be downcast and uplifted, and to ultimately be appreciative of the grace of an imperfect, and impermanent, world. Written with humor, empathy and a poet's heart, these stories will find their way into your thoughts again and again when you least expect it. As a citizen of the world whose spiritual quest has taken him fararound the globe in a life of service, Mark Hollingsworth is a man worth knowing. Let's hope this is the first of many books.

Definitely a Must Read. The best way I can say it is that Mr. Hollingsworth has written abook that not only was entertaining to read, but that is a very deep journey into the soul of someone that I think many of us can easily relate to. It was certainly fun learning about the many people in music he was able to come to know personally, but for me, what made this book so phenomenal are the personal stories, the stories where his belief was tested, and despite times where he could have given up on his faith, the struggles seemed to only solidify his resolve, and made him a more spiritual person, and I think that's something all of us can admire then.

Each one of us are a living story, some of us dare to write it down. Anyone who really knows me knows of my utter disgust with gray, but I LOVE Mark Hollingsworth and I find his life story (so far... after all, he has much, much more to explore and hopefully write down) fascinating. He's honest and raw and vulnerable. He's not a poser (THANK GOD) and I'm honored I got to know him. Get this book.

Irresistible! Once I started reading Embracing The Gray... I could not put it down. Hollingsworth takes you on a journey through his life using a wondrous interplay of stories and lyrics. He shows that his faith, even though often tested, has remained strong - this is a great testament to us all. Mark brings his relationships front and center - baring his soul and causing this reader to question how I could have been more thoughtful in my own journey. His wit and storytelling creates a wonderful tapestry - weaving relationships in and out of the seasons of his life. He has led a truly remarkable life with similarly remarkable friends. Thanks, Mark!

I continue to be humbled by the response the book is generating. If you have read it and wish to correspond with me, I always interact with any communiqu├ęs.   You can also read many other reader reviews at:

Embracing the Gray is still available for a limited time as a 99 cent Kindle download at that same link, or as a free PDF download at my website (donations accepted):

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tantalizing Tikal

As I prepare for my tenth trip to Guatemala, I’ve been reminiscing about previous visits, including this journey into the exotic forests of the northern territory six years ago…

Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  Akin to that would be trying to describe the aural and visual sensations of an overnight stay at Parque Nacional Tikal in northern Guatemala.  But I shall try.

A dozen of us decided to stay in Central America for two additional days on the tail end of our church mission trip.  We had been in the central highlands, at about a mile high altitude for the better part of a week, and, even though it was July, had been enjoying sunny humidity-free days working alongside our new friends at Bethel Student Center in the humble burg of Patzicia.  Populated with tranquil Mayans who are small-of-stature, but huge-in-heart and good will, it was easy to see why this culture has remained sacred for over 2,000 years.  There’s an abiding sense of peace and understanding of their relationship with each other and to the land. 

It’s not been without problems, however.  Through several epochs this people has both flourished and gone into deep decline. Archeologists and historians are still puzzled as to what transpired to bring the mighty Mayan Empire that covered over 60,000 square miles for over a thousand years to closure.  Was it pestilence? Disease? A prolonged drought? Toxic volcanic ash from a mighty eruption? Genocide brought about from internal warring? Being overrun by an outside nation? It now appears that it was some sort of combination of all the above that hastened the downfall from prominence around 950 AD.

Rising at 3:00 AM, we had to strap most of our baggage atop a creaking mini-bus, and motor our way from Antigua to Guatemala City for a pre-dawn check-in.  Operating out of a small hangar off to the side from the main airport, we flew a domestic airline that ran several one-hour shuttles each day between the capital city and the infamous ruins two hundred miles to the north. If we had chosen to drive, it would’ve taken close to eight hours each way to navigate the mountain passages and primitive roads leading down into the rain forests.

As soon as the door to our twin prop aircraft opened, we realized we were in a much different circumstance.  Hot, steamy air whooshed into the cabin, and we began sweating even before we deplaned.  We had descended to nearly sea level, and there were no more hills, let alone lofty mountains, as far as the eye could see.  Just lots of huge, exotic trees,and intermittent swampy lowlands.

Boarding another bus, we drove one more hour further into the jungle, getting to know others from London, Luxemburg, and New York who were also going to explore the Mayan wonders. When we emptied out at the official hotel of the park, we were greeted by chattering spider monkeys in the trees above us, and swelling waves of buzz-saw like armies of cicadas in quadraphonic bombast around us.  

After quickly disposing of our luggage in our rooms, we set out with our tour guide (curiously named “Nixon”) for an initial four hour hike of the ruins.  With temperatures and humidity percentages both approaching  a hundred, we traversed dusty trails under gigantic ceiba trees (some twenty stories tall, with massive spreading trunks as wide as a UPS truck).  Mahogany and cedar also dominated the scene, the latter with a distinct odor reminiscent of bean and onion soup.  An All Spice tree added to the olfactory sensations with a scent quite reminiscent of Old Spice after shave.

Our anticipation grew as we trekked deeper in the woods. The Mayans had built some gargantuan pyramids and temples that had become iconoclastic worldwide.  I had wanted to climb them since I was a youth…and now, finally, I was so close.

When we eventually came out of a thick clump of fauna we gazed upon the back side of the Jaguar Temple…standing there mesmerized…our necks craning back to take in the two hundred foot high edifice that jutted out from the greenery surrounding it.

We scampered about the main acropolis, taking in the exquisite carvings, and marveling at the combination of brute force and craftsmanship that built these various holy sites. How many died from falls, or being crushed, or fevers over decades it took to erect these at roughly at the same time the Romans were conquering the Mediterranean?

My roomie for the trip, David, and I scaled several of the largest pinnacles together. As we made the strides up the steep steps (almost ladders, really), we wondered how tiny Mayans managed to climb the hundreds of twelve to fifteen inch leg-lifts to reach the top. With lungs heaving from the thick air, and sweat glands working overtime, we were rewarded with a gentle breeze at the top of each summit—the only wind we ever felt in Tikal.  From these perches we surveyed half a dozen other pyramids standing strong like Gibralters in an otherwise all-encompassing green sea of leaves.  Some of these identical views were captured by George Lucas in the very first Star Wars film in 1977 to represent one of his exotic far-flung planets.

Descending was even more stimulating.  Not only were the steps just six inches wide, but they were often covered in limestone dust and rounded off from two millennia of wear and tear.  One misstep could have resulted in more than just a band-aid.  Visions of multiple fractures and even loss of life crossed our worried minds as we walked backwards down those unforgiving stairs like two-year-olds attempting their first solo try down the basement steps on their own.

Working our way from one cluster of temples to the next we heard so many exotic sounds above us: descending whistles like infant bottle rockets, clipped chirping, squawking, inquisitive tones, and even a tea kettle approaching full boil. 

At one point Nixon stopped us suddenly and told us to crouch low, where we saw a miniature superhighway of thousands upon thousands of leaf-cutter ants coursing across our path. Carrying ten times their body weight, these industrious red workers hoist what look like little green sails of leaves back to their humongous colonies (some with mound clusters the size of a living room) for food storage.  I studied these tiny critters several more times over the next day.  I was fascinated with the sociology of common purpose, and the single-minded commitment to their calling.

We came across several tremendous beetles---some the size ofa half dollar; and handfuls of different chameleons and salamanders; red-winged grasshoppers twice as large as what one sees in the U.S., and a Jesus Christ lizard—so named because it can run across the top of a pond—making a dash across some water.

Though brimming with it, not everything was life.  A carcass of a four-inch tarantula was wedged in a hole---no doubt being dragged in for supper by another spider (they eat their own dead). A large dragonfly with a translucent back, was struggling in a sticky web, about to become someone’s meal. A wren with yellow and black markings no less vibrant than a bumble bee, had apparently starved to death struggling to free itself from a screened porch.  Squadrons of foreboding vultures were circling above some recently felled beast that they were zeroing-in upon. Even one of our group members, Gayle, was stung by a scorpion that had found its way into her suitcase overnight.  Fortunately, the venom was not strong enough to kill a human (although it did cause some searing, swelling pain)…but most certainly would’ve felled a lesser creature.

After hiking several miles amongst the main compounds of this once burgeoning city of over 100,000 ancient citizens, the afternoon rains began. With the thick canopy above us, we mostly just heard the rains; intermittent drops coming down in patches around us. As we worked our way back to the hotel, we saw lemurs, toucans, raccoons, and howler monkeys all scurrying about for cover in this daily ritual.

That evening, as the hotel turned the generators off at 10:00 PM, we were plunged into sudden and absolute darkness—so thorough we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces. As I lay as still as possible, trying not to think about how sticky I was from the smothering heat, what was initially eerie quiet became an aural feast that helped lull me to sleep. Layers of sound cascaded down from the above and around:  chirping crickets trying to woo each other; the creaking and blurting of various tree frogs and toads (some that were as large as a cereal bowl).  Occasionally the rhythm would be punctuated with a coconut’s thumping splat as it met the soaked sod. All in all, it seemed like God’s soothing benediction to another magnificent day.  One of Debussy’s soft evening pastorals couldn’t have been lovelier.

At daybreak, the forest began to giggle with life, and once again, I lay there soaking it in. I would be hard pressed to be awakened by anything better than the tender, lilting sonnets of tiny parakeets, wrens, and sparrows. A very light rain, much like gently tapping my finger against my throat, was working its way down through the layers of forest above us, and cascading upon the dozen layers of dried corn husks that made up the thatched roofoverhead.  Other droplets were ricocheting off bathtub sized banana leaves outside my window. A puddle below was receiving sundry drips with a rounded, melodious plunking like a lone pebble into a deep cistern. 

I couldn’t just lay there any longer…I needed to get out in the midst of it.  Out along the edge of the compound there was a swing, and as I quietly rocked back and forth on it, I felt like I was joining into the beats and measures of that early morning serenade. A light fog that was creeping through the greenery above was hardly muting the celebration of life.  Most of the over 260 types of birds that inhabit Tikal were unseen, but certainly not unheard. Titters, muffled warblings, and gurgling melodic conversations were everywhere.  Between a few were several harmonic vollies unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There were caws, hooties, wah-wahs, warks, pata-tooeys, and wija-woks.  Some modulating with relentless repetitivity, others untimed and meandering.  One with an ascending triple call, another like the warning beacon of a truck inreverse.  Over my shoulder, in a clump of hydrangea bushes, I heard the warm fluttering of hummingbirds—so faint that it was nearly imperceptible. 

A few minutes later I heard the slightest of shuffling behind me. I quietly turned to see a family of coatamundies stealthily picking its way thru the thicket.  A brown-furred, tail-less type of critter about the size of a beagle.  Having never seen these before, I was curious, and slowly stood up, beginning to approach them. They suddenly sat motionless hoping I wouldn’t see them blend into the earthen tones of the jungle floor.  As I got within twelve feet, they silently arose and walked away from me. When I got closer still, they froze once again, rabbit-like with their eyes opened wide and whiskers twitching. When they felt I was too near, they gently stood in unison and strode quickly away into some low-lying brush.  Chances are, I will not be able to repeat that awe-inspiring interplay with such a rare species ever again.

Tikal, with all its intertwined dependence and relentless pursuit of life, reminded me of the resounding, abundant joy that each day can bring to us, if we allow ourselves the privilege. It sure seems that the Mayans recognized that and embrace it even to this day.  In my daily toil of computer screens, airport terminals, cell phones, and traffic tie-ups, I desperately needed that visceral memo on the profound simplicity of God’s creation in all its splendor.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mother Teresa on Clarity and Trust

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, “And what can I do for you?”  Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.

“What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles form the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”

She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” 

When he asked her why, she said,  “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” 

When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.”

(from Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning, 2000)