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Six Feet Under

I went scuba diving today. It was pretty cool. The experience I had was just an “intro to scuba” kind of thing, a chance to “get my feet wet” (pun intended) in the sport. We dove in a specially-designed swimming pool at the local dive center and stayed in the six-foot section, so it hardly counts as scuba “diving.” More like “swimming around underwater breathing through a tube.”

All of which got me thinking, as I sat on the bottom of the pool with my inner-ear pressure equalized and my breath coming in Darth Vader-like rasping breaths: I think Maslow was on to something. Food and water comes before a nice car, and a dry place to sleep comes before the motivation to pursue a doctorate, and the freedom not to get blown up in your sleep comes before the freedom to crusade for environmental causes. Ever had a toothache? That stupid tooth consumes your entire life ― you can’t even think clearly enough to watch American Idol, and we all know how much brain power that takes. It’s the same thing with air, only worse. Enclosed in that scuba mask, stiff rubber valve clenched tightly in my teeth, my own heartbeat pounding in my ears, I became incredibly aware of how important air is. It’s a stupid thing to say, of course, as anyone who’s ever been choked can tell you (been there, done that too), but your mind gets a chance to wander a bit six feet under water.

And hey. I bet Abraham Maslow never went scuba diving, so maybe I’m the first one to add “air” to his silly little hierarchy.

At any rate, scuba diving was a blast. The first five breaths or so were kind of panicky, and the sense of neediness towards my breathing regulator never really went away, but it was an incredible experience. The mind-paralyzing obsession with air eventually diminishes enough for you to realize how glutted with sensation and sensory input we are here on the surface. There’s no such thing as background noise underwater. No visual distractions (it helped I couldn’t wear my glasses). We couldn’t even move fast ― the “underwater Frisbee” was comical, a slow-motion parody of normal human locomotion.

Underwater, everything matters.

Especially air.

Try it.


I woke up this morning, used a bathroom with indoor plumbing, heated water in a kettle with no visible fire at the touch of a button, brewed fairly-traded coffee grown by an ecologically-sensitive Latin American farmer, read an email message that someone on the other side of the planet sent me during the night, checked some up-to-the-minute news headlines from around the world, ate food from a box, drove myself to church in a conveyance with no visible means of propulsion, listened to pre-recorded music from a device no larger than a human hand, arrived at a church building that was cool and comfortable despite 85-degree humid summer temperatures, and participated in a liturgical Christian worship service that did not include Holy Communion.

Of all the modern “innovations” of which I have availed myself today, which would be the most surprising to the average, run-of-the-mill, fourth-century Christian?

That was rhetorical, by the way.

(Before I get drummed out of the WELS on some sort of heresy charge, see Rev. J. Micheel’s essay The Church Offers Holy Communion pp. 13-29.)

As it has often been observed, the proper question isn’t whether Athanasius (or Chrysostom, or Luther, or Jesus, or whoever) would have belonged to my church, but whether or not I belong to theirs.

The Right Van

I’ve spent parts of the last four summers in the desert of northern Mexico, working with students from Wisconsin Lutheran High School as they travel to a town called Altar to do mission work with Mission to the Children, a para-synodical organization based in Tucson, AZ.

There are a lot of interesting things down there, but one thing you can’t miss are the shuttle busses that run between Altar and a smaller village called Sasabe. They’re everywhere, beat-up vans and vintage school busses, waiting on street corners and in parking lots around Altar, collecting people. When they’re full they make the run, driving like madmen on a treacherous dirt road up to Sasabe on the border. Then they come back. Day after day, trip after trip.

The first time I was in Mexico wanted that job so bad: Altar-Sasabe shuttle bus driver. What a great way to earn some extra pesos over the summer, practice my Spanish, have some awesome conversations with some very interesting people, and probably have some really cool stories to tell in the fall. Last summer, too, I just fell in love with the driving, and decided that if I couldn’t buy a Jeep and drive to Guatemala that I definitely wanted to give taxi-driving a shot. Altar-Sasabe. Sasabe-Altar. Rice, beans, and tortillas. The good, simple life.

Then, this summer, driving down that long long road for the third time, I came to a horrifying realization, a paradigm-shifting moment that almost made me pull over right there in the desert and cry. There was always something weird about those shuttles, those overcrowded vans whizzing by at 50+ mph on roads that weren’t very safe even at half that speed. But finally, after three years of glorifying that life, of idealizing something that is really pretty far from ideal, I realized what was really really wrong with this picture. The vans headed north, from Altar to Sasabe, are always filled to capacity. Young guys, mostly, but an occasional older man, wearing jeans, boots, and a hat, some with button-up cowboy shirts and some a little dingier. The northbound shuttle is always full, taking those bumps on springs that are about to give and trying to pound out one more run on a set of bald tires. The kids are always amazed by how many people can fit in a van.

But here’s the thing: the southbound shuttle is always empty. Nobody ever makes the run from Sasabe to Altar. Just the driver, maybe one or two people, and maybe someone he brought along to keep him company and collect the fares. Nobody ever goes south. The vans make those runs in record time, riding high on the road and flying over the bumps.

It’s not like dozens of people a day, hundreds a week, are moving to Sasabe. Sasabe is something of a ghost town, at least in comparison to Altar. It’s more like an Old West town, springing up next to a gold mine before the tracks get laid and the iron horse brings wives and ministers and sheriffs and law and order. Except that there’s no gold in Sasabe. All those young men, all that potential, an entire generation of Mexico’s future aren’t hopping the next shuttle to get a job at the new factory.

They’re trying to cross the border. They’re putting their hopes and dreams, their families and their futures, their very lives on the line in a desperate effort at survival. Their most valuable possession is a jug full of water. They pray to whatever God is listening for the luck of a dark moon, a straight path, and a job on the other side that doesn’t ask too many questions. The only thing in their life that has any meaning is whether or not their legs have the strength to make it three days across the desert, so they can get an awful job for meager wages in an expensive foreign country where people don’t speak their language, understand their culture, or value their existence, so they can scrape together enough money to send something, anything, home to their family so they don’t have to watch their children die of malnutrition. “With God as my witness,” their silent eyes say with more determination than Scarlett O’Hara could ever dream of, “Let me go hungry so my children don’t have to.”

All of which realization dropped on my head like a ton of bricks as we got passed by about the fifteenth empty Sasabe-Altar bus on the first day of the trip. All those guys in all those vans. Of the twenty-plus men in the northbound van we were just meeting, in a week’s time most of them would probably be back where they started from, deported, even poorer than they had been a week ago (if that were possible). A few, maybe, would be dead, perhaps because they misread the map marking the water stations, perhaps because the water station had been discovered by the Border Patrol and closed down, or perhaps because the God they prayed to had simply run out of luck to give that night. One or two might have even made it, finding that job with their cousin’s wife’s friend in Tucson, sending back money and love and hope for dozens of others to get on tomorrow’s Altar-Sasabe shuttle and try to make the trip.

But instead of pulling over and weeping in despair, after a minute’s reflection I tightened my grip on the wheel and kicked it up another 5mph. We were doing the right thing. We were driving the right direction. The 1400 lbs. of donations in the back of my van were going to make life a little easier for someone in some village, maybe give them enough hope that they wouldn’t have to make the run, at least not this month. Let them stay home with their kids. Help them help themselves, so that life in Mexico is possible for them. The 12 kids in the van behind me were going to teach those people’s children about Jesus, who would give them Hope enough to know that their ultimate home wasn’t Altar, or Sonora, or Mexico, or even the USA, but heaven. The things we were bringing were needed, needed in a way that people like we, Americans, can’t even understand the word need. So I reined in my imagination and stopped wondering what it would be like to drive the Altar-Sasabe shuttle. I realized that today, I was driving the right van.


Well, Espresso Week has come and gone, and with it my faulty assumption that man cannot live on espresso alone. I did indeed live through an entire week without coffee from my French Press, and in fact I would venture to say I prospered by the experience.

I’m now into my second day back into my old habits, but tellingly the Pavoni has not yet been removed from the kitchen counter (much to the chagrin of my wife). In fact, as I sit and type this I am enjoying an afternoon pick-me-up cappuccino that nicely compliments (rather than competes with) my morning pot of “regular” joe.

Faced with an extended, involuntary trip to an electrified desert island with a regular supply of fresh coffee beans, I’d still choose the Bodum as my one means of regular caffeination, but I’ve learned to appreciate the effort and process of home-crafted espresso drinks as well.

So, like so many fine things in this world, it is not a question of “either/or,” but of “both/and.” Now I just need a UN resolution to justify my annexation of 3 additional square feet of counter space.