Saturday, October 10, 2015

He Must Increase, but I Must Decrease

The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

I've always thought of this passage in the way I think it was (mainly) meant to be thought of. In context, John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest prophet, was speaking about the coming of the Messiah ... his friend and cousin, Jesus Christ. He realized that once Jesus had been publicly identified, he must begin to step out of the limelight, to fade back, to let Christ take center stage.

But recently God has been doing some things in my life and heart, some difficult things, but some good things. And as I was reflecting on those things and read this passage, I suddenly saw it in a whole new light.

No, I'm not going to "reinterpret" John's message here. I agree, he was speaking primarily about stepping back and letting Jesus take center stage. God must get the glory! John knew that he had been appointed as the forerunner, the one who "made straight he way" for Christ's coming. Once Christ had come, his job was now primarily to simply get out of the way. In fact, very soon he would be going to a damp, dark, prison cell; and then he would be beheaded at the request of Herod's daughter. He had run the race, and he finished well.

But to me, this is a great example of how God sometimes speaks to us through His Word, using a familiar passage to convey new truth to our hearts directly by His Holy Spirit.

Struggling With Pride

Quite frankly, I have been struggling with pride issues — mostly related to my professional life. For 22 years I've had a good run at World Vision, and God has used me there to pioneer a number of new things which have been very successful, starting with our internet program which I began in 1997. I also began our most successful online product (online child sponsorship), and launched our online Gift Catalog (which has also been very successful). I launched our first corporate intranet; helped our international office bolster its web presence and start an emergency communications extranet called "WVrelief"; and launched most of our social media platforms. Finally, most recently, I've been involved in a number of re-iterations of our web presence; in search engine optimization and usability testing; in creating a web and social media presence for World Vision's (now-defunct) public radio program; and in helping improve our media relations division's web presence and social media and blogger relations. And currently I am a member of the corporate social media team, where I am doing some innovation activities, including managing our social media platform communities, creating a "social listening" strategy, assisting with social content and analytics, as well as "other duties as required." 

In most cases, after getting a new program up and running, I moved on to something else and let the people who were good at fine-tuning them and truly making them successful have at it. That's just kind of how God wired me, to be that bleeding-edge pioneer, to start things that others could then run with.

In all this I recognize that God could have (and certainly would have) used anyone else available if I hadn't been there. There's nothing particularly special about me in all this; in fact, most of the people I work with are far better trained and more talented in the specific aspects needed to manage and operate all these technologies and processes. I work with far better technologists, content marketers, and program managers than I am. I am a journalist/writer by training, and while I use that skill in my work, somewhat, it's not primarily what has caused all these things to happen. Honestly it's just a matter of "right place, right time" ... in other words, it's something God has done and I've been blessed to be a part of it.

But as I suppose it always happens, while we are tempted to live in the past, our glory days become eclipsed to some extent by the here and now. Now that all these programs have been up and running smoothly (thanks to the hard work of others), I find I struggle to a certain extent with pride issues! My "flesh" wants to be recognized and lauded for all "I've done." I want to be treated special. Now if someone at work says or does something that doesn't feel like respect, rather than just chalking it up to oversight, I'm tempted to grumble about being "put out to pasture" or "kicked to the curb." It's pretty ugly at the heart of it. So I'm trying to repent and let the Lord deal with it.

And the way the Lord deals with our pride is to humble us. I don't know about you, but I don't like being humbled. It hurts!

A Raging Battle

I know (in my head) that my value lies in what Jesus has done for me, not in anything I've done for Him (or others). My identity, my legacy, should be God's grace and not the various ventures He's allowed me to be a part of. My treasure is Jesus ... not my resume!

But unfortunately my heart doesn't always agree with my head. This was the mental battle raging between my head and my heart when we entered into our annual Day of Prayer on October 1 this year. World Vision does this the first day of each new fiscal year, and it's always a refreshing and challenging time, and God always uses it to shape me in ways that I badly need to be shaped. Our theme this year was taken from Exodus 33:14-15 ...
And he (God) said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he [Moses] said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.”
The first speaker for the day drew a very distinct line between "working for God" and "being with God." It's the old Mary / Martha dilemma; you can be so busy working for God that you neglect to be with God. In this passage Martha missed the presence of Jesus and the opportunity to sit at His feet and be changed by Him because she was too busy hosting Him! In fact, Christ tells us that there are those who will devote their entire lives to doing amazing things in God's name, and in the final judgment, He will say to them: "Depart from Me, for I never knew you." Jesus called these people "workers of lawlessness." But they were working for Him! But the true and primary work of God, the first requirement of the Law, is to "love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." You can't love someone without seeking their presence.

It was in this context, wrestling with these thoughts, that God suddenly used John 3:30 to speak truth to my heart. "He must increase, but I must decrease." If we want God's presence to increase in our lives, then we must make room for it. And the only way to make room is by "lightening the load" of our pride, throwing some of ourself overboard, as it were.

The Relationship Between Humility and Seeking God

Someone has said "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking less about yourself." I am too self-absorbed, too self-focused. To seek God's face (which in the Hebrew is synonymous with His "presence") is simply to stop thinking so much about myself and my own interests and my own dignity and the respect other people should be paying me; and to start thinking more about God and what He wants and who He is and how I can draw closer to Him.

When we begin thinking less about ourselves, and acting in accordance with those thoughts (which is true humility), we allow God to tip the balance toward His glory. He increases as we decrease. He becomes present in an ever-more-weighty (and "weightiness" is the key concept behind the Hebrew word for "glory") manner.

This idea (being rewarded by God's presence if we set ourselves aside and diligently seek His face) is not a theoretical or isolated concept in Scripture. It's repeated over and over again in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, witness Jeremiah's prophetic words to the Israelites who had been disciplined by God through exile:
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord ...
It's a promise! And God is always true to His promises.

How do you make more room for God in the midst of your own busy life? Do you ever struggle with pride issues, and if so, how is God dealing with this area in your life?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hearing God's still, small voice

Recently a Global Media Outreach contact asked me, "What is the difference between instinct, and the direction of the Holy Spirit? How do I know when the Holy Spirit is speaking to me?"

I responded:

That's a very good question, a very important question! I know from personal experience that it can be quite challenging to discern (when you hear a "still, small voice" in your spirit) what is coming from you, and what is coming from God.

How does God speak to us?

First of all, I think it's important to realize that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in a variety of ways. The most significant one, I think, is through Scripture and prayer. As you are reading or listening to Scripture and meditating on it, and praying over it, many times you will realize something that God is trying to apply directly to your heart. This is the Holy Spirit speaking. As a Bible teacher, this has happened to me, time and again.

And sometimes His commands are very direct. Once I was visiting a renter, driving a small pickup truck. I stopped by to pick up rent. When I spoke with the lady of the home at the door, I did notice there were young children around, but didn't think much of it. I went back to my truck and started the engine, prepared to leave. Suddenly I had a very distinct and shocking impression that something was very wrong. It was just as if someone had shouted "NO!" but I didn't hear an audible voice, or anything like that. I sat there, stunned, my foot on the brake. It was a very strong impression, and I had no idea where that had come from.

Confused, I put the car into "park" and got out and looked around. To my shock and horror, I discovered a young boy, maybe 3 years old, sitting playfully on the back bumper of my truck. Had I backed down that driveway, as I intended, I would have probably run over and possibly killed him.

I am absolutely sure that God issued that very direct and unmistakeable command to me, in order to save that child's life. (Read the whole story here.) I also put dreams and visions in this same category: Dramatic ways God occasionally (but not usually) speaks to us.

Another way the Holy Spirit speaks to us is through brothers and sisters in Christ who are committed to God and whom you trust to tell you the truth. If a brother shares something with me, I take it to God in prayer. "Is this true?" I ask. "Is this from You? Please confirm this, if so." Then my conscience (which is yet another way the Holy Spirit speaks to us) will often let me know whether or not it is.

Confirming the still, small voice

Finally, there is that "still, small voice," impressions we gain, and wonder whether or not that is God speaking to us. God's interaction with Elijah, on the run from Jezebel, teaches us that He usually does not speak in a loud voice, it is usually just this — a still, small voice. I think this is mainly what you are interested in learning. If you get such an impression, I would take the following steps in order to confirm it:

  1. First, it must not violate any principle of Scripture. For instance, is what you are hearing in complete harmony with the character of God and the fruit of the Spirit? If so, it may be God speaking.
  2. Take it before the Lord in prayer, and ask Him to confirm it. God is never in a hurry. I believe He loves it when we wrestle with Him in prayer in an attempt to discern His will. I've never been disappointed after doing this.
  3. There are times when it is very difficult to decide which course of action God desires you to take. It is at these times I believe it MAY be appropriate to "lay out a fleece." Remember? This is what Gideon did in Judges 6 when God was impressing upon him to lead Israel. He said (and I'm paraphrasing for length): "If you will save Israel by my hand, then give me a sign." He laid out a fleece (the skin of a sheep) on the ground overnight. He asked: "If in the morning there is dew on the fleece only, and not on the rest of the ground, then I will know you are leading me." And in the morning it was so. But, he still had doubts. So that night he prayed, "If in the morning there is no dew on the fleece, but on the ground all around there is, then I will truly know that you are with me." And the next morning, it was so. So Gideon knew that God was speaking.

I don't recommend this third option, in most situations, because to me it borders on "testing God." (Especially, doing it twice, as Gideon did!) Obviously this was a very special situation and Gideon wanted to be absolutely sure he was hearing God correctly. If he had moved forward thinking that God was leading, when He really wasn't, it would have been disastrous for all.

Praying for shut doors

Along the lines of a fleece, if I think I am hearing a still, small voice from God, in addition to praying it over, and filtering it through Scripture, and talking with trusted Christian friends, I will finally pray: "God, I believe I hear You speaking to me. So I am going to step out in obedience. But Lord, you know that I am dull of hearing. If I am not hearing You correctly, Lord, would you please shut a door in my face and prevent me from misrepresenting Your will." I don't believe God will let us misrepresent Him, if we truly seek His face in a matter.

Is that helpful? Please let me know what you think.

- Larry

By the way, sometimes God will speak to you, through others (or to others, through you), and they (or you) won't even know that's what is happening. This has happened several times in my life. God has spoken a divine word to me through someone who had no idea he was sharing something from the Lord. Or I have shared something with a brother — a thought, or an impression, or even an opinion — which God used to speak truth to their heart. Later, they shared with me that it was God speaking to them, through me. Even though I was unaware of this at the time.

When have you heard God speaking to you? What did that look like?

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Third Miracle

I was chatting with someone on Twitter tonight who asked if I'd ever experienced a true miracle. I told him about the three big ones in my life, and how I had blogged about each. First there was the Muslim taxi driver in Trinidad who came to Jesus after God used him in a miracle. Then there was the time in Southern California God protected a small child (sitting unbeknownst to me on the bumper of my truck) from injury as I was about to back over him.

And finally, there was my mountainbiking accident in 2003. But when I started looking for this on my blog, I soon realized I had never actually told the story here. So, here goes.

It was August 2003 and my wife and I were taking our daughter Mandy to Southern California for her first day of college at Pt. Loma Nazarene University (PLU). We drove down in order to haul her stuff, so I also took my mountain bike, as I had long wanted to do some biking in the beautiful mountains of the Angeles Crest Forest.

I had a full day to kill before orientation at PLU, so I started early on a Friday morning, parking my car at a popular trailhead then grinding up a long, arduous forest service road (which eventually turned into hiking trails). Four or five hours later I had achieved a peak which crowned the local ski summit. I rested up a bit then started downhill, which was my reward for the long, grueling hours of uphill work.

I had a lot of fun slaloming down the dirt trails, and then reacquired the forest service road. It was a rough, single-lane asphalt road, bordered on the south by a steep drop into a canyon far below. But I was enjoying myself, and after it turned to asphalt I let the speed out a little.

Hence I was going a little too fast, perhaps 25 mph, as I turned a corner coming down the hill maybe halfway or so down. In front of me suddenly appear a gully filled with large rocks, where the asphalt had washed out. Had I been an experienced mountain biker, rather than trying to brake I would have brought the nose up high and tried to power through the rough spot. Instead I hit the brakes with all my might. And slide right into the washout.

My front tire caught the asphalt lip on the far side of the washout and pitched me forward. I took the full impact of the broken asphalt on the far side of the gully, right on my face.

Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet. The top portion was crushed by the impact with the asphalt. (I have no doubt I would have died, had I not been wearing one.) But, unfortunately, I wasn't wearing a face shield!

Five of my top teeth were snapped in half by the asphalt. My lips were smashed. In the crease where my upper lip joined my lower lip, on the left side, my cheek was torn open about an inch or two. (Standing on my left side, with my mouth shut, you could see my molars through the wound.)

My nose and right eye were badly abraded by the asphalt. Somehow my nose wasn't broken, but my right cheekbone was. (I didn't know this at the time. I knew something was broken there, but thought it was my jaw.)

My right knee was also torn open and blood was pouring down my leg as well as my face.

Healing up from my injuries.
I lay there or sat there on the asphalt for awhile, my head swimming, stunned and grappling with the sudden immensity of unbearable pain. Eventually, I struggled to my feet and began to examine my bike, which was no longer rideable. With nothing else to do, I began to limp down the hill toward home. But I had no idea how far away that was.

I had seen no traffic whatsoever all morning and was very alone. (Had it been a Saturday, there might have been hikers.) I had also had 0 bars on my cellphone all morning -- no signal whatsoever.

So I limped along down the hill for about a half hour, making as best time as I could, but I doubt if I traveled more than a mile down that hill. Probably half that. And then, I began to feel quite faint, and suddenly knew I couldn't take another step. I had lost a lot of blood, the pain had been intolerable and I felt as if I might pass out. So I sat down by the side of the road and considered my situation. I took my cellphone out again and stared at it. 0 bars. I had no options.

That was when it hit me ... I hadn't prayed! I couldn't believe it. It was a half hour since this accident, and I was in desperate straits. I was ashamed of myself. I called myself a Christian, one who trusted in God to save him. Yet I hadn't even prayed about this very desperate situation. (To this day, I have no idea why.)

So I shot up the quickest and most desperate prayer of my life. I think I said, very out-loud: "Please help me, Jesus! I don't want to pass out here and become food for mountain lions. I don't want to die. I need a miracle!"

I then looked down at my cell phone again. Zero bars.

But suddenly, in front of my amazed eyes, it shot up ... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 bars! I thought I must be hallucinating.

I dialed 9-1-1. It started ringing. I counted 20 rings before there was an answer. "9-1-1 ... what's your emergency?"

I explained that I was in the Angeles Crest and I'd had a serious mountain-biking accident and needed help. There was an awkward pause. "Angeles Crest? You mean as in Los Angeles?"

"Yes, the mountains north and east of Los Angeles," I replied. "Where are you?"

"San Diego," he answered. About 150 miles due south of where I sat, covered in blood, on that dusty roadside.

That wonderful 9-1-1 operator then jumped into action. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll figure out exactly where you are, and get you help. Do you know what county you're in? Are you in Los Angeles County?"

"I'm not sure," I told him. "I'm near the border between Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, I think."

"Well," he reassured me, "I'm dispatching a rescue helicopter from San Diego right now. But I'll also get both San Bernardino and Los Angeles county rescue units on the line and we'll figure out which one is closest to you."

As it turns out, L.A. county rescue was closer. They said they knew approximately where I was and were dispatching a rescue unit up the trail.

As soon as that was over, the 9-1-1 operator said reassuringly, "Okay, Larry, I'll stay on the line with you until they get there." I was about to say, "That's great," when all of a sudden the line went dead. I looked and the 5 bars of service dropped back down to zero.

But, I told myself, they knew where I was. So I just sat and waited, as patiently as I could and trying to keep conscious, about another 20 minutes or so, until I finally saw a swirling dust cloud on the road as the rescue squad from L.A. County made its way up the trail. (I've never been so happy to see a swirling dust cloud before!)

The rest is something of a blur. They put me on a back and neck brace, which was excruciating due to my injuries. In the ambulance on the way down to the hospital, I was going into shock, so they gave me oxygen and started an IV (after numerous tries in my collapsing veins, my rescuer finally found a vein in the back of my hand), and I soon began to feel slightly better. I called my wife and as calmly as possible told her what had happened. ("Hi honey! You'll never guess where I am ...")

Darlene and my daughter drove down to the emergency room, and my very patient wife (who is an R.N.) even helped stitch up the wound in my cheek. After lots of x-rays and bandages, I was released.

Mandy had planned to be a nursing major at PLU in San Diego (ironically!). But when she saw my swollen and disfigured face, she decided that day to change her major to art!

The next morning the three of us drove down to PLU for Mandy's orientation. Much of that day she spent explaining to people: "This is my dad ... but he doesn't normally look like this."

After a month or two my broken cheekbone fused and healed up fine. (You can't actually set a broken cheekbone, I learned.) My dentist did wonders repairing my broken teeth, then probably took a vacation to the Bahamas afterward on the earnings. The wounds to my lips and mouth were very painful for a week or two, but eventually my cheek wound healed and now the scar is pretty much covered by my moustache. You can still see damage on my nose, if you look carefully; but I'm not a model anyway, so what the heck.

I did learn some things from this experience. I learned how to mountain-bike more safely, and never to ride without a helmet. (I've been in one other very serious cycling accident since then, and a helmet saved my life in that one, too.)

But most importantly, I learned that prayer should not be a last resort when you are in trouble! God cares about us, and He is standing by to help when we really need Him. Just remembering the sight of those reception bars on my cellphone zipping up from 0 to 5, the moment after I prayed, has bolstered my faith in many a crisis since that day.

How about you? Have you ever witnessed a true miracle?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is the Media Playing the Trump Card to get Hillary Elected?

POLITICAL RANT ALERT: Please change channels now if you can't handle it.

After watching CNN blather on this morning about Donald Trump, a couple of thoughts occurred to me when they showed the current poll with Trump way out in front of other Republican candidates (28%, nearest contender, Dr. Ben Carson, with something like 12%) ...
Can Dr. Ben Carson heal a broken GOP? (The Daily Beast)
When was the last time we heard the media elite profile ANYTHING Carson had to say? I've heard him speak, he's an incredibly intelligent fellow, and nodoubt has intelligent things to say. But you wouldn't know it by listening to CNN and the like. All they talk about is Trump said this arrogant thing, and Trump said that stupid thing, and Trump said this other angry thing. Every time he opens his fool mouth there's 100 cameras whirring.
We all know that the media elites would like for nothing more than to see Hillary get elected, but as things stand now she stands only the slimmest of chances. So what's the trump card they could play (pardon the pun), the only thing that might give Hillary a chance?
Dr. Ben Carson: #BlackLivesMatter misdirects righteous anger
to political convenient targets, ignoring true culprits. (USA Today)
It's Donald Trump, of course. If he doesn't get the numbers he wants and goes independent, he could split the Republican Party. If he stays and keeps blathering on, and somehow secures the nomination, I'd like to see a poll indicating how many Republicans (like me) would leave the party and declare themselves Independents. Once again, potentially throwing the election to HIllary.
Trump is by far the media's best (possibly only real) chance to actually get Hillary elected. No wonder they're talking about him 24x7. God forbid they should give any profile to an intelligent candidate like Carson.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Taking the Kingdom of God by Violence

Occasionally I publish posts here reflecting my conversations with Global Media Outreach contacts who are seeking to learn about Jesus or grow in their relationship with Christ. I serve as a volunteer "online missionary" with this great organization that is reaching millions of people with the Gospel, all online. (If you'd like to know more about how to get trained and serve in this way, please let me know.)

One thing I love about my contacts, and particularly those in developing nations, is the astute theological questions that they ask. These questions always force me to study Scripture to find an answer, which always blesses me immensely (and hopefully blesses them as well).

One young man from Nigeria, with whom I have been corresponding extensively, recently asked:
"Please share your understanding or opinion of this verse: 'The kingdom of God suffers violence and the violent take it by force.'"
That was a very interesting question, because I had been perplexed by that verse many times but had never received sufficient motivation to truly dig into it. But now I had it! His question spurred me to read a number of evangelical commentaries on Matthew 11:12, and the scholars who wrote them all seem to more or less agree on an interpretation which makes very good sense to me, now that I've studied it through. And I also think it has some incredible applications to things we struggle with here, today, in America ... far, far away from Nigeria! (Where the church obviously struggles with many other issues.)

Here's how I responded to my contact:

Context is always important, but it's extremely important here in this passage in Matthew 11. Jesus has been speaking about his cousin and precursor, John the Baptist, who is now sitting in prison. John "made straight the way" for Jesus by preaching repentance of sin, baptizing, and pointing toward the coming Kingdom.

The sequence (in Matthew 11) really starts in verse 3 when John (from prison) sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus whether He truly is the one to come, or whether they should expect another?

We know that the Jews longed for deliverance from Roman oppression, and expectation was high that the coming Messiah would provide that deliverance. But it didn't seem to be happening. Jesus didn't appear to be in any hurry to raise an army. And so one can understand why John, sitting in a Roman prison, was growing tired of waiting. He essentially asks: "Jesus, are you truly the Messiah? If so, WHEN are you going to bring the promised deliverance?" (I.e., "WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?")

Perhaps even John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest prophet ever born, didn't fully understand the nature of the Kingdom that Christ was ushering in.

In that context, Jesus' words in verse 12 make more sense: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it." In their impatience for deliverance, crowds had thronged to the counter-cultural John. And they were doing the same thing to Jesus, in an even greater way. The New Testament tells us that even His own relatives sought to take Him by force and make Him their king. Why? They were all tired of waiting for military deliverance from the Romans. They wanted to "take matters into their own hands." (Sound familiar?)

I think the message for us, today, is that God's ways are not our ways. He does not bring the Kingdom to us on our terms, He brings it on His terms. In Christ's day, that meant turning the other cheek and laying down your life for those you loved ... not raising up an army.

How Does This Apply To Us, Today?

We may be passionate for the blessings and benefits of God's kingdom, as the hearers of both John and Jesus were. Here in America, we struggle mightily with a false teaching called the "prosperity gospel" (also known as "word of faith"). Some preachers teach that God does not want you to be poor, he wants you to be wealthy. All you need to do is name it and claim it. These preachers are ravenous wolves who fleece gullible people who are tired of living in a cycle of poverty and want to have nice things.

This false Gospel is (in a sense) an attempt by violent (passionately greedy) men to "take the Kingdom of God by force" -- to make it after their own image, to define it to be what they in their own flesh want it to be and not what God wants it to be.

But Christ will never allow that to happen. Ultimately, He is the head of the Body and the Body exists to serve Him and His plan. He is the one who decides what the Kingdom is and will become. That is why we must commit ourselves to following His lead (which is completely different than thronging Him and seeking to misuse His name to get what WE want).

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Comcast is evil ...

... they bugged us for months about "upgrading" our modem (which I pay them a monthly rental fee for, like an idiot) to the latest, greatest, fastest, newest tower model. It includes an integrated wireless router which they promised would deliver greater speed. (I have "TriplePlay" with a home phone, which I didn't even want and tried to get rid of, but they were going to increase my price to remove this "service." But the home phone of course depends on their leased router.)

So I finally relent and they send this me this magnificent new device. I spend hours getting the old one all untangled and unplugged and the new one installed, only to discover:
  1. Now I'm locked into a new (Comcast-provided) network name and password. Apparently I can't change either.
  2. Therefore I have to go through all my devices (Sony set, Blue Ray, 2 Chromecasts, and wireless setups on 2 phones) and update my network settings to the new network SSID and password. Plus I have to tell everyone else who visits our home who depends on our wireless. I spent hours doing this yesterday.
  3. The new wireless signal is EXTREMELY WEAK (5 bars on the old one, 3 on the new) and crawls like a baby. I can no longer access any of my apps or features on the Sony set or Blue Ray (like Netflix), it's simply too slow and times out. On my laptop wireless, internet runs so slow I can no longer effectively use Facebook. (Which as a social media professional, is part of MY JOB.)
  4. The new tower is broadcasting some sort of new public wireless internet access point into our neighborhood (independent of my private home network -- see the linked article for confirmation). This has GOT to be affecting my bandwidth somehow, since it's all feeding through that little coax cable sticking out of my wall. (And the electricity, which I also pay for, is powering all this.)
I've joked before about how Comcast's goal is apparently world domination: to get you completely dependent on all their services so you can never disentangle yourself, and then to ream you with escalating bills from now until the day you die. And possibly longer. And now you can add to that something I never thought possible: they charge you for the privilege of providing wifi access to OTHER customers who are also paying them for it! What's wrong with this picture?

I swear, at this point I'm ready to cut my losses, throw in the towel now, and try to find some podunk internet provider who cares. I shudder to say it ... but Century Link? Any other suggestions?
I'm also considering joining this lawsuit against Comcast ... what do you think?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fire Morels

Morels in the griddle, simmering in butter and Tawny
Port over a open maplewood fire, with tri-tip steaks
and asparagus waiting to be sauteed in the gravy.
Okay, this is very possibly the best meal in the world, so I had to brag about it a little bit here and make your mouth water.

Last weekend my sister Kay and I went up to the Carlton Complex Fire burn area (off highway 153 in the Methow Valley, between Twisp and Pateros, in the region northern Washington state where the Cascades slope majestically down to the eastern plains). Our goal was to hunt first-year Fire Morel mushrooms, which typically spring up in such a burn area that has swept through Douglas Fir or other candidate trees at certain altitudes.

In case you're not aware, Morels (Morchella tomentosa, M. esculenta, M. conica and similar species) are considered to be among the best eating mushrooms in the world. They grow in many areas of the world and are common in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the U.S.A. during the spring. Michigan is probably the state where they grow in greatest abundance. They grow predominantly in the wild, although I have read about one facility in Michigan that has learned the complex secret to domesticating Morels and growing them in the laboratory.

For a reason not everyone understands, but probably relates to soil chemistry, Morels (particularly M. tomentosa, the greys) are most abundant in the spring in areas that have previously experienced a forest fire. They grow most abundantly the first spring after the fire. They are lean the second spring, but if the second spring has been relatively dry and the third spring gets good rains, they can come back. The fourth spring is the leanest of all, then they return to normal levels of rarity after that.

Kay can hike the slopes like a mountain goat, if there
are possibly any Fire Morels to be found up there.
They also grow occasionally in areas of timber that has been harvested, and in old apple orchards primarily in the Northeast. Here in the Puget Sound region, we occasionally get them in beauty bark beds, which contain ground bark from Douglas Fir trees which I assume have hosted the Morchella mycelium. I'd been looking (fruitlessly) in the forests of Puget Sound for them for years, when a friend who lived a mile away sent me a snapshot of a mushroom growing in his lawn. "It looks like a dog turd," he said. "What is it?" I recognized it immediately as a Morel, and quickly rid him of his infestation.

There are several varieties of "false Morel" so you have to know what you're doing, harvesting them. There are Verpa bohemica (which grow in lowlands under the cottonwoods common in this area), which look and taste a lot like true Morels, and most people can eat them (if cooked well, as you also have to do wtih true morels), but a higher degree of incidental allergies occur with them. The Wikipedia page on Verpa says they are "edible if properly prepared." (By the way, check out the meaning of "Verpa" on that page. I won't repeat it here!) The most telling difference between Verpa and Morchella is that the latter is hollow inside, whereas the former is filled with white fluff.

My son and I have also found "Snow Morels," Gyromitra (gigas or montana), which look a bit like a calf brains or disfigured black morels (though the color is more reddish). They are also said to have an excellent flavor, but have a toxin related to hydrazine (the primary component in rocket fuel) which must be cooked out first (avoiding the fumes). And even so most experts advise not eating them due to the risk, according to what I've read. The ones we found, we threw out. Better safe than sorry.

Anyway, last Sunday afternoon we started hunting about 3 p.m. By 6 p.m. we had thoroughly searched two of the three canyons that we had identified as potential candidates on a map, but hadn't yet turned up a single Morel. (We did find one lonely Bolete! Slightly off-season.)

There were several mushroom buyers who had set up shop down in the town of Carlton, so we descended the mountain to go talk with them. While there, we saw a number of hunters coming in with bins full of Fire Morels. I struck up a conversation with one, and told him we'd been hunting all afternoon and hadn't found any. He laughed out loud.

"It took me three days up here, hunting, before I got into my first patch," he said. "But once I figured out where they were hiding, it wasn't too bad."

I was glad he shared that. I didn't feel as bad then about my lack of patience.

I told the mushroom buyer I didn't want to return home empty-handed (we only had time to go check one more canyon before dark fell), and asked if he could sell me any. He said he couldn't, but he would give one of the sellers from whom he was buying permission to sell to me instead! "I was going to pay this guy $7 a pound for his top grade Morels," he shared. "Ask him what he would sell them to you for."

The answer was $10 per pound. Which was way less than I expected to pay for top-grade, table-ready Fire Morels*. So they sorted through his bins of blacks and greys (and a few blondes), and weighed out slightly more than a pound into my bag. I paid him $10.60, and then tipped the buyer my remaining change ($4.40) for his generosity. Even $15 didn't seem too bad (to me) for reaping part of the benefit of his three days of work (and our five hours of fruitless searching).

After we thus procured something to show for our trouble, we went and hunted in our third canyon, once again without finding anything, until it became too dark to continue. Kay helped herself to a few of the morels I'd purchased, and we parted ways.

The weather turned nasty that night on the way home, and a bad accident involving a hapless deer and a trailer full of motorbikes in the lanes right in front of me delayed my return until about 1:30 a.m. But, despite all the bad luck, I returned home a happy hunter with my nearly-a-pound of top grade morels.

Nathan and I found these nice Black Morels during our Spring 2014 hunt.
Most of what we found, we located in the first hour of two full days of
hunting. And we ate them all that first night!
And Monday night my son and his wife came over and we cooked them up into the meal pictured above: tri-tip steaks seared in a cast iron skillet then grilled over an open flame fueled with chunks of maple hardwood. The morels were sauteed in the meat juicy pan with butter and a sweet Tawny Port. The gravy that resulted was then used to saute a nice bunch of asparagas. With more butter.

Add mashed potatoes and watermelon chunks, and wash it all down with a nice Cabernet, and we duplicated for our spouses the meal that Nathan and I had enjoyed in the mountains of Eastern Washington following our first successful morel hunt in the spring of 2014.

"What did you think?" I asked my wife, after dinner.

"They were good," she said, "but after years of you talking about how wonderful Morels are, I think you set my expectations a little too high. They're just mushrooms, after all. And it must be disappointing to have to buy them, after driving all that way."


Where we hunted was about a four-and-a-half hour drive from home. Each way. But, I don't regret it. It's the Mighty Morel we're talking about here, after all! And it's not every day you get to enjoy one. I do plan to go back, once or twice more before the season is over. And find one (or hopefully more), I will!

*About Morel grading: Three grades are used to describe a Morel just brought in from the field. Grade 1 means table ready -- crisp and fresh. Grade 2s have some flaws which relegate them to "dehydrate only" status. And grade 3s are moldy, or broken, or floppy, and otherwise not worthy even of being dehydrated. They are usually thrown out behind the tent, into a pile which the buyer hopes will, next year, spring forth some nice, new mushrooms right near his buying spot!