Saturday, May 26, 2007

It's a mad, mad, mad, baboon world

(By Erik)

What happens when your wife’s at work, you’re at home watching PBS and it’s too wet outside to do yard work?

You get Baboon Fiction.

Here’s a little dialogue piece I thought up while learning about the brutal realities of baboon life in the Zimbabwean wilderness thanks to Murder in the Troop, an episode of the public TV series Nature.

The whole piece got a little big Lion King on me, but not in a child-friendly way. (Hey, it’s a baboon-kill-baboon world out there. Just watch the show.) Anyway, apologies to the Zimbabwean friends and biblical characters whose names I borrowed for this piece. (I'm horrible at thinking up names.)

Let me know what you think. If you like it, I’ll write some additional pieces. If you don’t, I’ll go back to composing a cappella lyrics for TV theme songs.


Salome and her husband sat on a ridge overlooking the dry flood plain. The rains were late this year. The parched land beneath their feet testified.

“It’s been three days,” Nhamo said, watching his wife caress the short hair of their son. His ears seemed so tiny. “He’s gone. You have to release him to the spirit world.”

“I know,” she said, carefully grooming the boy’s body. “Tomorrow morning. I promise.”

A few feet away, the king was feasting on a faun he’d pried away from its mother. His fangs sliced eagerly through the tender flesh. There was no need to hurry over. He’d started eating long before dusk, and his new queen, Shana, would get the carcass when he had his fill. The rest of the tribe would get whatever she left — if there was anything left.

The king needed the sustenance — they all did. Nhamo knew it. Still, this new monarch seemed to relish his kills, especially the young ones.

Nhamo looked back at his wife, her eyes fixed on a point far beyond the valley. He tried to match his wife’s gaze and spoke again.

“I want to thank you … for not blaming me for what happened,” he said.

After a pause, she answered him.
“There’s no one to blame,” she said. “It’s our way. He’s the king now. He’s younger, faster, stronger.” There was no condescending tone in her voice — just brutal truth.

Nhamo was too old and wise to disagree. All he could do was picture a time when the outcome of the fight would have been different.

“In my prime, I would have torn him apart,” he said.

“No you wouldn’t,” she replied. “You would have spared him like he spared you when he took the tribe. But you would have shown him mercy and kindness … and the same to his children,” she added, quietly.

Nhamo grunted, pawing the dry grass at his feet.

“You know this isn’t over,” he said. “He’ll come after Timothy next. As long as you’re nursing, he can’t —”

“It’ll be OK,” she interrupted him, quick and assured. “Shana’s diverted his attention for now. He’ll leave me alone. And we’ll both watch Timothy.”

Instinctively they turned their heads toward the tree line, where their son played with a small group of friends. The children had managed to avoid the king’s terrible wrath three days ago, but they all remained at risk. Right now, none of them seemed to care.

“Twins are a rare gift,” Nhamo said. “It’s not right that he won’t remember his brother.”

“We can’t change that,” Salome said, her voice trailing into a whisper. The king had left the carcass and was approaching.

“All yours, ladies,” he said, like a gracious host inviting undeserving guests to a banquet. Cleaning his long fangs, he passed them and headed for a nearby shrub.

“Still no rain,” he said, over his shoulder, “so we’ll go back to the Zambezi tomorrow.”

Salome walked toward the body, where the others had already gathered. “That river’s still full of crocodiles,” she told her husband, barely above a whisper. “We could lose half the tribe. Those crocs can devour anyone they choose.”

Fixing his gaze on the reclining king, Nhamo’s eyes bore a sudden sense of resolve.

“Yes,” he said. “Crocs are like that.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

(By Erik, of course)

I would be remiss in my blogging if I didn’t mention that today is the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars.

George Lucas’ masterwork has inspired generations of science-fiction geeks, including myself. My family has dropped untold hundreds of dollars on Star Wars products over the years. I actually started collecting the action figures before I saw the film.

I wasn’t even 4 when Star Wars debuted on May 25, 1977 — a bit too young for an intense movie adventure. (My first film was the Disney flick Pete’s Dragon, and even that was too much for me at the time — there was a toothless woman in that picture who was much scarier than Darth Vader.)

I didn’t see the film for the first time until its re-release in 1979. By then, Lucas had added the words Episode IV: A New Hope to the opening scroll. The film also featured a preview for the upcoming Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. (All I remember is a shot of Darth Vader rising from a dinner table and Han Solo shooting at him. It seemed really weird and out of place at the time.)

Star Wars seemed to define my existence in the early 1980s. I had the names of all the characters memorized. The best time of year was when the toy company Kenner released a new line of Star Wars action figures. Finding them became an obsession for my whole family. I remember dad combing through row after row of figures to find the elusive IG-88 (a bounty hunter droid) and FX-7 (a medical droid). Combined, these two characters spent about five minutes on the screen in Empire.

But tons of people have written about how Star Wars impacted their lives. And tons of ministers have written about the connections between the movies and faith. What’s impressed me recently is the faith that it took Lucas (and many others) to make Star Wars in the first place — and how close the film came to not existing at all.

Around the time I was born, a film Lucas directed called American Graffiti was in theaters. The film, starring Ron Howard and Cindy Williams, was about a group of teenagers in small-town California in 1962. It also featured a young Harrison Ford portraying a character named Bob Falfa (which, to me, sounds suspiciously like Boba Fett). Some folks say the movie’s success inspired ABC to green-light the television series Happy Days which, of course, starred Ron Howard. (And Laverne and Shirley, a spin-off of Happy Days, starred Cindy Williams. And I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Bacon yet.)

The success of American Graffiti helped Lucas get the support of 20th Century Fox to produce the space fantasy film he’d envisioned for years. At the time, science-fiction pictures didn’t do tremendous business, so most of the executives weren’t overly excited about the picture. Lucas agreed to write and direct the film and act as executive producer. But instead of asking for extra money, he asked for the rights to produce sequels. At the time, he assumed that the film would be a disaster financially, but he wanted the other two parts of his story to be told. He also asked for a healthy chunk of the merchandising for the film. The studio agreed. (After all, who would want to buy T-shirts and toys based on a movie?)

Not too many of Fox’s executives believed in Lucas’ vision, and many times during the production of the film they tried to pull the plug. The film was over budget, shooting ran too long, and nobody really got the point. The head of the studio, Alan Ladd Jr., didn’t really understand everything Lucas was doing, either. But he believed in the young filmmaker and stood by him, even when things weren’t going well for the production. Whenever other executives criticized the film, Ladd would say something like, “I think this is going to be the best film ever made,” and that would end the discussion.

And, right up to the release date, every indication was that Ladd, and Lucas, were wrong. Lucas’ closest friends and fellow filmmakers didn’t like the first screening (Steven Spielberg claims he loved it.) Almost everything Lucas wanted to do had never been done before. Most of the actors didn’t take the film seriously, and the special effects department was behind schedule until Lucas himself intervened. The release date had to be pushed to mid-1997 (it was supposed to be released at Christmas 1976.)

At one point Lucas thought he was having a heart attack and went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with hypertension and fatigue. The stress was almost unbearable.

Star Wars debuted in a humble 37 theaters in May 1977. The studio also released a highly anticipated adaptation of the book The Other Side of Midnight the same weekend and told theaters that, in order to screen it, they also had to show Star Wars.

You know what happened next. Lucas’ weird little film went on to make millions and millions of dollars. I wonder if it would have happened without Alan Ladd Jr.

I could go on and on about this, but it seems I already have. My introductory material ran a bit too long. I’m going to revise and refine all of this into a sermon someday. Until then, may the Force … well, you know.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sending them off with a Bible, a Webcam and a prayer

(By Erik)

Jeanie and I are in the Just Starting Out Bible class at Memorial Road. Once per month our class (and all the classes at church) break into groups and meet after Sunday night service for Brother’s Keeper, a get-to-know-you type fellowship deal (with food, of course).

This month we had a combined Brother’s Keeper meal at the Norths’ home (complete with ice cream cake roll — thank you Jo Anne!) to say goodbye to the Vienna team.

Four couples from our church (three of them from our class) are headed for Austria next month to work as missionaries. The team members are:

Jake and Amanda Haskew — and Abby (I actually got Jake to admit to reading this blog once.)
Josh and Kim Hensal — and Carli, Caleb, and Cotter. (They like the letter ‘C,’ and they’re in the Young Couples class that I’m teaching this quarter. Josh accidentally knocked a Coke out of my hand at the Tulsa International Soul-Winning Workshop a couple of years ago. Crazy times, man. Crazy times.)
Ira and Kari Lockwood — and Zaden (Zaden thinks that almost everything I say is hilarious, by the way.)
Brian and Alisha Rusher (When I told him there was another Indiana Jones movie coming out, Brian’s response was — and I’m paraphrasing here — “George Lucas has already ruined his Star Wars legacy, so why not?”)

I’m including a few photos from the sendoff. Our class gave the couples a Bible (with verses we highlighted) and Webcams (so they can use Skype or some other communications program to stay in touch with us). Then Clyde Antwine, a former missionary to Germany, led a prayer for the team.

Jeanie and I really admire these young families for the commitment they’ve made to spread the gospel in a challenging location. Vienna team, you’ll be in all of our prayers.

If you want to keep up with the team, check out the Web site Or read the team’s blog.

Kudos to everyone who helped with the event (especially to whoever brought the chicken tortilla soup-type dish. Delicious!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Today's fortune

I'm guessing "hard work" here means driving to 7-Eleven and filling out a "Pick 6." -- ET

After the storm

(By Erik)

Last week I traveled to Greensburg, Kan., to cover the aftermath of the May 4 tornado that destroyed the town. Eleven families who attend the church in Mullinville, about 10 miles west of Greensburg, lost their homes in the storm. An additional church family lost its business.

I wrote a story about it that’s online now at I had a bunch of leftover photos that didn’t get used, so I thought I’d post a few of them here with some brief descriptions.

Greensburg residents flew flags from bent poles, shattered support beams — even trees — after the tornado.

The town’s John Deere dealership was demolished, including almost a dozen combines.

The storm didn’t spare the town’s fire department, either.

Mark Ralston, a member of the Mullinville, Kan., church, finds recipe cards among the remains of the home of Ray and Wilma McChristian. The McChristians were one of 11 church families who lost their homes when a tornado nearly two miles wide destroyed Greensburg, Kan., on May 4. Most of the Mullinville church’s 80 members are assisting in the recovery, along with church relief ministries from across the nation.

The Mullinville Church of Christ has become a relief center since the storm. Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc., Churches of Christ Disaster Response, White’s Ferry Road Relief Ministries and Bread of Life Humanitarian Effort have all used the building as a base of operations.

When I visited the church on May 10, the phones were ringing constantly. Churches from as far away as Alaska called to offer assistance.

The boxes of supplies in the church’s multipurpose room were donated by Churches of Christ Disaster Relief in Nashville, Tenn.

Jim and Karen Smith’s house looked mostly intact. “But you should see the inside!” Karen Smith told me.

The May 4 tornado claimed 10 lives and destroyed 95 percent of the buildings in this farming community with a population of about 1,400.

Jim Smith worked as a mail carrier in Greensburg for 35 years, but said that even he lost his bearings as he drove through the remains of the town.

Karen attended a women’s conference at the Northside church in Wichita, Kan., exactly one week before the storm. She heard a lecture about God’s promise to King Solomon in the book of 2 Chronicles that, if his people will humble themselves and turn from sin, he will “forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

After the storm, Karen Smith realized that promise “is for me, right here,” she said.

Their daughter made the sign, by the way, in support of the local high school.

Nico McMurry stands by the artwork he painted on one of the few remaining walls of his family’s home. His family had a really neat story about how they survived the storm and how they originally found the church. Here are a few snippets from my first draft of the Chronicle story. This material was revised and shortened for our print edition:

Sirens, rain and hail — followed by dead silence. Cindy McMurry had lived in Kansas long enough to know what that meant.

A tornado was seconds away.

McMurry and her 14-year-old daughter, Laina, members of the church in nearby Mullinville, took refuge in the basement of their neighbor, Doug Ulrich. They covered Ulrich’s kids with blankets and pillows and Laina crouched over them. The adults surrounded the children, threw more blankets over their heads and “just held on for dear life,” Cindy McMurry said.

She heard rocks and sticks pelt the sides of the house, then the monstrous roar of wind. She felt dust and sand on her back. Her ears ached with intense pressure.

“It seemed like it lasted forever,” she said. “Then it kind of died down — then it started again. I really thought that was it for us. I really thought I would probably not see my husband and son again.”

Her husband, Greg, and 16-year-old son, Niccolo, were 160 miles away, with a group of 30 high school students at a forensics meet in Salina, Kan. They heard about the storm on the news. Many tried to call their families’ cell phones, but there was no response.

“I prayed with the kids in the hall several times,” Greg McMurry said. “Some of them would come by, just scared to death. ‘What do we do?’ And I said, ‘Well, we just lean on God. It’s the only thing we can do.’”

Back in Greensburg, the storm subsided. Ulrich made sure everyone was OK before he ventured up the basement stairs. He returned with grim news.

“Your house is gone. The roof is gone. Greensburg is gone,” he told the McMurrys.

Five years ago the McMurrys moved to Greensburg, where Greg McMurry took a job with an oil field supply company. Before that they lived in Mullinville, next door to Scott and his family. The minister introduced them to the Church of Christ — and baptized them not long after.

“We just fell in love with the church,” Greg McMurry said. “The truth seekers that are there … It’s a unique family.”

Members from at least a dozen communities attend the church — some more than 50 miles away, Mosshart said. Instead of a Sunday evening service, the church eats lunch together every week and has a brief afternoon devotional.

That’s helped to make the church a tight-knit family, despite the distance, Greg McMurry said. Cindy McMurry agreed.

“I’m not worried about anything at all,” she said. “I know God is going to provide through his people. We’ll make it.”

DONATIONS TO REBUILD HOMES in Greensburg may be sent to: Mullinville Church of Christ, P.O. Box 184, Mullinville, KS 67109-0184. Please note “Tornado Relief” on checks. The church's e-mail address is and its Web site is

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Answered prayer — five years later

(By Erik)

On Tuesday Jeanie and I attended the annual faculty/staff dinner at Oklahoma Christian University, where I received my five-year pin.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since I started writing for The Christian Chronicle (close to six, actually — my first day on the job was Aug. 18, 2001). It’s been an amazing experience.

One of my favorite parts of the job is getting to travel outside the country. In fact, I just made my third trip to Guatemala. While packing for the trip, I was looking for some scratch paper and found an old notebook with the word “Accounting” on the front.

It had some notes from an accounting course I audited in graduate school and a few journal-type entries, including a couple of prayers that I wrote down while I was living in Savannah, Ga., and working for the Savannah Morning News.

Here are some excerpts from a prayer dated May 8, 2000. This would have been about a month before I turned 27.

Reading this was a humbling experience — when I considered what God’s done in the years since.

Father, I’ve always known exactly what I wanted — to be a famous writer, or just to be successful at something …

But lately that’s not enough. I lack focus and I don’t know why. …

I need you to give me some direction here. Do I just need a vacation, or is it something more? I don’t want to just hop from paper to paper all my life, and eventually I’m going to need to make more money one of these days, too.

So what do I do here? Just wait for you to give me a sign? It’s been more than a year, and I’m terribly unhappy with the direction my life is going. I’m not meeting people, I’m not really advancing as a journalist, and — most importantly — I don’t think I’m really growing as a Christian. …

Should I stay single forever? I don’t know — certainly it’s better at this salary level — right ? I hate the feeling of loneliness, but I guess this is the way it needs to be if I ever go overseas. Is that what I want? … Help me figure it out, please.

I do want to get married and have kids someday, but I will submit to your will for me. I must admit I’m a little angry at you for putting me in the situation where I look desperate, but I realize that’s because I’m overly fixated on what other people think.

So what am I asking for here? Wisdom — wisdom to know if the decisions I make will be good ones or not. I also want you to bring someone into my life — a female — with all due speed, or reveal to me a way to get overseas or go on whatever solo adventure I’m supposed to go on.

I realize that I’m asking for grandiose schemes when all you want me to do is dip in the muddy water seven times. If I’m to stay here and just help the people I can help, let me find satisfaction in that. Let me enjoy serving. And make me a servant, regardless of where I end up.

Please give me a radical change of heart, God. Let me strive to be like your son. Let me radiate light so that others can see you as I do. Help me to grow. Give me strength.

Pretty whiny, I know!

It was about a year later that I found out about the job at the Chronicle. It sounded anything but grandiose — it sure wasn’t The Washington Post.

But something about the job seemed right — and the people seemed absolutely great. So I moved out here to Oklahoma. A few months later I met Jeanie. On June 14 we’ll celebrate our fourth anniversary.

I asked God for one or the other — a wife or a chance to travel. I didn’t think that both could exist in the same universe. But now, through my work at the Chronicle, I’ve traveled to nearly 20 countries covering the work of the church. It’s an absolute delight to be able to do what I do. I can’t imagine a better job.

And I can’t imagine a better wife, of course!

I think we limit our prayers sometimes. Luckily, God knows best.

Jeremiah 29:11-13"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

Recent backyard visitor

He even smiled for the camera ... I think.