Misery, Relief, Repetition

It has been about three weeks since Peter’s last chemo treatment, and two weeks since he got to come home, but still he is feeling the effects.

Last summer he insisted on swimming all the way across a lake in Albania and not getting out 30 feet before the end like I did because it looked like a better place to climb out. And when we were exploring cave churches in a valley in Cappadocia he alone of our kids wanted to go “to the top.” He bent over and marched up the dry landscape to the uppermost level of caves. He has always had a drive to explore and the energy to match it. But this week when he agreed to go for a walk he made it half a block and had to sit down on the curb with his feet in the gutter. “I’m just too tired.” He and I guessed that his hemoglobin was low. It has happened before, but we haven’t seen his energy level lacking so much.

Yesterday he came out of his dietary slump and consumed an extraordinary amount of calories. He even drank a mango smoothie with added protein. “If you drink this I would do a backflip – if I could do one without breaking my neck,” I told him. He thought of something even better. “Can I play Flight until I finish if I drink the smoothie?” he asked. “You can play for 45 minutes.” I told him. He surprised me by finishing the drink, which contained 32 grams of protein from whey and soy, more than he has consumed in a long time. Fist pump.

Then he said tortilla chips and salsa sounded good. But not the Costco salsa, which we have, but one that’s “more watery.” I had just gone to the store and did not buy tortilla chips. I’m happy to try to meet his unpredictable tastes. So I made some homemade tortilla chips. Three corn tortillas sliced into triangles (130 calories each, I noted). Fried in a liberal amount of avocado oil from the big Costco bottle (143 calories per tablespoon). Sprinkled with salt (no calories, but necessary for flavor). He ate all of them. “Do you know you just ate 500 calories?” Wide eyes: “Really?” He asked for more and ate another 500 calories of tortilla chips. Altogether he consumed around 2000 calories yesterday. Double fist pump.

But then he started complaining that one of his ears was ringing. Weird. It was really bugging him. A side effect of one of the chemo treatments? Rebecca called the nurse, who said it was possible. That went away, then the other ear bothered him for a while. Later he had a sharp pain in his shoulder. At night he woke up and wasn’t able to get back to sleep. He couldn’t explain what was wrong; he just felt bad. This morning he had to get up early to get blood drawn for labs. He said his feet hurt. He went and returned without his misery abating, although the pain in his feet did.

It’s rough, this chemo. It’s a healing poison. It kills cancer; that’s the only justification for putting a person through such an ordeal. With all that he has gone through over the past month I feel concerned about what the next round will bring. And all we have been doing is waiting to start another round.

Well, that’s not really true. While we have waited we have been active. For his birthday I took Isaac and some friends to play paintball, ultimate Frisbee, and out to pizza. Peter played with friends that day, then joined us for pizza – well, not for pizza but at the restaurant. He wasn’t going to come, but after throwing up he felt so much better he wanted to come. On Sunday I preached at Gateway Church, updating the people on the churches they sent me to plant, share about our situation, and preach the good news of Jesus. Rebecca and the kids came to one of the services. Then Rebecca’s family came for a visit at our house. Then we had dinner at the house of some friends. Peter went along to ultimate Frisbee and sat on the sidelines with me on Tuesday.

This afternoon we got a call about Peter’s blood counts form the morning’s labs. Neutrophils and platelets are good to start chemo, but his hemoglobin is low. The nurse said that was surely what was causing his malaise. She suggested we bring him in for a transfusion tonight and they will begin chemo tomorrow. We packed up in a hurry. The drive over to San Francisco was 140 minutes of misery for Peter. I prayed as we drove, suspecting that once we got to the hospital he would feel much better. As soon as he was out of the car and in a bed he was calm. I wish he didn’t have to go through any of this. But if he learns to endure this he will become tough and strong. We all are growing in perseverance, but he will most of all. I hope that this experience today is a microcosm of the whole: misery will lead eventually to relief. We know that in the long run this will indeed happen, as the sorrows of this world are swallowed up in the joys of the next world.

Money and Mail

Several people have asked us about money and mail. Do you need financial help? How can we send mail? Did Peter get the mail I sent him in the hospital?

Oh, and I’ll give a quick update about how Peter is doing. People ask about that too, of course.

A testimony about finances first. A few years ago we passed on a large amount of money that had been given to us when we bought our house. “Don’t pay it back; pay it forward,” they said. So we did. That same year, though, the transmission went out on our van. It cost over $3000 to replace. And the first manifestations of Rebecca’s mastocytosis led to hefty medical bills. Over $5000 I think. To top it off, we found out that our taxes had been done incorrectly for the last several years (what was I paying a tax preparer for?!). We owed something like $7000. Huge expenses all piled on top of one another. And yet at the end of the year we had as much in our bank account as we had at the beginning. I’m not sure how. God provides.

We are confident that God will provide for us in this time too. So far we have the potential of some pretty outrageous bills, but mostly it’s just our insurance company trying to bluff their way out of paying. Peter’s oncologist had to spend 40 minutes haggling with someone from our insurance company to get them to approve a PET scan. But so far the insurance has covered most costs. So we only have the deductible and co-insurance costs, plus the peripherals of some extra travel and food costs, but those are within our means.

But I am no longer working. I had already announced I was leaving when Peter was diagnosed, so eventually the church needed to move on with its search for a new pastor, and I needed the availability to be with my family. I still need a paycheck, though, since our transition from here to Belgium has become protracted and complicated. I am remaining on staff at our mother church (Gateway in Merced, CA), but on family medical leave, and relying on donations to maintain my salary. So yes, you can help us financially by donating towards my salary. You can send a check with “Nelson” on the memo line to:

Gateway Church

353 E. Donna Dr

Merced, CA 95340

You can also give online at Gateway’s website http://gatewaymerced.org/give

It may be many months before we can make the move to Belgium, so we do need some long term support. Again, we are not worried about our finances. God has always provided.

If you are inclined to help, we will gratefully receive. But can I ask that you consider giving an equal or greater amount to the truly poor in the world? One of my favorite organizations to support is Partners International. They provide clean water, education, medicine, etc through local ministries in the least Christian (and some of the poorest) parts of the world. We are blessed to have a network of generous people with the means to give. Many people in the world do not have that. Think of them. Please don’t think that we are not grateful for the help we have received. We are overwhelmed with gratitude. We never expected to be the recipients of such love. We are grateful that our needs are being met and at the same time mindful of the needs of others. Peter often prays for children in the world who don’t have enough food, or are sick and don’t have medical care.

If for some reason you wish to send us something directly, you can do that too. Our home address is

582 Harvest Park Dr

Turlock, CA 95380



This brings me to the next point, the mail. Peter loves it. Keep it coming. Some of the doctors have commented on the huge amount of mail Peter receives. People have sent very thoughtful letters, packages, even artwork. Thank you! It makes him happy to get it and he is encouraged to know how many people are praying for him.

He’s not in the hospital at the moment, so if you wish to send anything now, send it to our home address below (but it’s at the hospital when the encouragement is really appreciated). When Peter is back with a new room number, I’ll let you know what it is. I do get the impression that mail sent to the hospital takes a little longer to make its way through the system and get to Peter’s room, but he does get it eventually. And if he gets out before it’s delivered they will forward it to our home.



Finally, how is Peter?

  • Cheerful, as he usually is when not on chemo.
  • Active, though not like pre-cancer. We’re hoping he gains a little weight, especially muscle, before heading back, so activity is important. A UNICEF Kid Power fitness tracker (like a fitbit) is keeping him motivated to stay active, plus when he earns enough points a food packet is sent to a malnourished child, something he is excited about. He agrees to go out for a walk with me about half the time I suggest it.
  • Eating moderately well; his diet has expanded somewhat, but his staples are still avocado tacos (corn tortilla, avocado slices, lime juice and salt – try it!), and dried mangoes (he’s still convinced it’s boosting his neutrophils). A little cottage cheese is providing some protein.
  • Playful. He went with some friends and part of the family to go fishing on Monday. He had a great time. Last night I was playing a favorite game of my two younger kids. It’s called “Get off my couch” and consists of me lifting them off one couch and depositing them on the love seat. Still holding his book, Peter came and laid down on the couch with a smile, knowing he’s a bit old for this game. I noticed with sadness how easy it was to lift him off the couch.
  • Waiting. His blood counts are still low, so we are all waiting for them to come up. When they do, he’ll head back in. Thankfully, since he recovered so quickly this time, they think his post-chemo recovery this time can take place at the Family House a few blocks from the hospital. It’s a much more comfortable place to be.
  • Worshipful. Our first night back home we had a worship dance party for our family worship time. It was a sweet time dancing and singing to Matt Redman and Kirk Franklin. Peter was also happy to rack up some extra steps taken on his fitness tracker.

The worship and dance party reminds me I have something I want to write about suffering and joy. I find it’s quite possible to experience both at once, but in the end joy will swallow up the sorrow. I’ll write more on that soon I think.

What the Doctors Can’t Explain

When the doctors can’t explain something it can either be bad (“We don’t know why the tumor didn’t respond to treatments”) or it can be good (“We don’t know why his neutrophils jumped up so dramatically”). We have now heard both.

We learned early on that neutrophils are the type of white blood cell that fight infections. Neutrophils are the main ingredient in pus, for instance. Cancer cells are the intended target of chemotherapy, but the drugs affect all fast-growing cells, so chemo patients lose their hair. And another more important effect that you cannot see: chemo attacks another fast-growing cell, bone marrow, which stops producing new blood cells. So neutrophils, along with platelets (important for blood clotting), and hemoglobin (the red blood cells that carry oxygen) plummet after chemo. They can give transfusions of hemoglobin and platelets, and they often do for Peter, but for neutrophils we just have to wait for them to come up on their own.

After the five days in a row of chemo we expected to wait three weeks or so for his blood counts to come up. Then Peter would go home for a short break before a PET scan to check for tumor activity and then begin round two. The X-ray during the week gave a snapshot of a shrinking tumor (half a Hallelujah) and then on Friday we got another surprise.

A normal range of neutrophils is 1.5 – 8.5 x 109 per liter of blood. 109 means adding nine zeros, so 1.5-8.5 billion neutrophils per liter of blood. There are a lot of cells in a body! From Thursday to Friday Peter’s neutrophils had gone from zero to .42 billion. For some reason the doctors all refer to this as 420. I guess they put the decimal in a different place. Anyway, the attending doctor who visits Peter every morning on rounds was literally incredulous: he did not believe the results. He guessed it was a miscount. Although Peter had received a medication to increase the production of white blood cells, such skyrocketing numbers was a complete shock. If it was a miscount we would find out the next day, Saturday.

On Friday night one of the MD fellows spent the evening socializing with us and our four kids. Her family is from India and we happened to be eating Indian food prepared by my co-pastor and his wife that night. The doctor accepted a samosa, rice, dall, and vegetable curry and joined us for at least an hour and a half until her pager finally went off. Among other topics, she talked with Peter about his theory that it was the copious quantity of dried mango that he had eaten (a great way to get him to consume calories) that had spurred his body’s production of neutrophils. She had mentioned earlier that they had never seen a patient receive so much mail. Thanks everyone! It really means a lot to Peter to open up so many cards and hear how many people ae praying for him. The doctor said at the end of the night that her other dinner plans had fallen through, but she ended up with a very pleasant evening with our family. We felt the same. Peter’s hospital room has sometimes been a place of sober misery. That night it was a place of friendship and laughter.

Saturday’s numbers were even higher, .66 or 660. 500 is the magic number for being discharged, so they sent Peter home. Excitement rippled through the whole family. Going home for a break a full two weeks earlier than expected! Hallelujah (three-quarters this time)! At the same time the drag of disease, the hospital, and all the accompanying worries and complications was evident in our manner through the afternoon. I find myself more snappy than usual.

Because our older son was registered for a chess tournament in the Bay area for Sunday we stayed at the Family House for a night. (Thank God for the Family House. Paying for a hotel in San Francisco would be ridiculously expensive). A few weeks ago Rebecca ran into a woman we knew from our little church in Los Angeles. We had last seen her twelve years ago. One of her young daughters is being treated for cancer here too. She and Rebecca were both happy to find a friend to share their struggles with. And her older daughter and Peter quickly became friends. Peter was happy to see his friend again at the Family House. She came along when I took Peter and his younger siblings to a great little park in the neighborhood.

We have watched Peter’s body weaken through chemo and inactivity. Physical therapy and a Unicef Kid Power band (like a fitbit) have kept Peter motivated to stay active, but he remains extremely thin, weak, and unstable. He can’t walk like normal. Part of that is an effect of some of the chemo, which affects the longer nerves like those that run down the shins. He literally cannot stand on his heels and raise his toes off the ground. Peter’s physical condition was evident on the way out of the hospital. Rushing to get the younger kids from the playroom, Peter took a hard fall. Somehow his knee started bleeding.

Rather than avoid physical activity, it is important for him to maintain and build muscle and balance. That afternoon we walked (slowly) to the park, gladly holding hands for stability while his younger siblings and his friend ran on ahead. In the hospital they offer physical therapy, art therapy, music therapy, aroma therapy – I might be missing more. The music therapist and I joked that they should offer math therapy, but then more people would require therapy after math. “That’s funny, Peter,” Rebeca said to the stoic Peter, but he wasn’t in a mood to laugh those days. That hour at the park Peter did something far better than any kind of therapy a person could offer: he played.

This afternoon we will head home. We are glad for the break, but our hearts are still full of worry. (What does a visit from the palliative care doctors mean? How will all the complications of a bone marrow transplant affect Peter the rest of his life? How long will that life be?) When his platelets are up Peter will be back for the next round of chemo, probably on Wednesday or Friday. So for the next few days we will all engage in that life-giving, God-honoring activity – we will play.

Half a Hallelujah

Yesterday I asked the oncologist when they would do the X-ray that he had mentioned a couple weeks ago, before starting this new cycle of chemo. X-rays would give us a glimpse of whether the treatment was effectively shrinking the tumor. When I asked, though, he hedged a little and said it wasn’t that important. “It might be the same size, but that’s not a concern because it can take some time for the tumor to shrink. Or it could even be slightly larger because tumor cells can swell up before they die.” So whatever an X-ray showed it wouldn’t change the course of treatment at all. “I am curious,” he added, “to see if the tumor is getting smaller. That would be nice to see. What do you think Peter? What would you like?” “X-ray,” Peter said.

This morning they took Peter downstairs to radiology. Around noon we were standing in the hall talking to the nurse practitioner who coordinates a lot of Peter’s care when the oncologist appeared around the corner and motioned for us to come to his office. He added a thumbs up and we stepped in to look at his computer screen. On the screen were two images. He directed us first to the one on the right. He pointed out Peter’s ribs and heart. His port, which was surgically implanted in his chest for accessing as needed for chemotherapy, IV fluids, and other medications was the clearest thing visible. “This,” he said pointing, “is the abnormal tissue.” Ghostly white in the X-ray, it was shaped like a thick gourd placed upright in his chest. That X-ray was two weeks old. The new one was on the left. The difference was obvious. He drew a quick line across the tumor in both pictures to get a rough calculation. In the old r-Ray the tumor measured 11.6cm (4.6 in) across. In the new one it was 8.6cm (3.4 inches). A significant change. The top of the gourd shape especially was much more slender.

We all agreed it was encouraging. But how much do we celebrate? My brother said he wasn’t sure whether to celebrate or be cautious. Precisely. We went through shock, fear, and relief so fast during the diagnosis and first days of treatment when the scans showed a 65% reduction in the size of the tumor. Then our hearts were crushed with the results of the scan a couple months later. We are certainly happy that the tumor is shrinking, but there’s still so far to go and so much danger along the way. The phrase “cautiously optimistic” has never meant much to me, but in this case it fits. We are cautiously celebrating.  Half a hallelujah. Or maybe a full hallelujah is fine. The Psalms alternate between praise, lament, and thanksgiving quite frequently, sometimes in the same Psalm. It’s fine if our prayers do the same.

Some Numbers & Vocabulary – March 12, 2017

  • 10 days in the hospital. Maybe 20 more to go before a little break at home?
  • 5 days of chemo
  • 3 times vomiting (unless I lost count)
  • Several slight fevers
  • Precious few calories consumed
  • 13+ hours a night sleeping
  • 3 movies watched
  • Several books read
  • 1 robotic insect assembled
  • Innumerable pills swallowed
  • 2 blood transfusions (1 hemoglobin, 1 platelet)
  • 2 short family worship times
  • 1 Father God whose love never fails

This is life right now. Is Peter complaining? Not really. He’s just not communicating much. That’s how we know he’s not feeling well. This is the world of cancer and cancer treatments. It even includes its own language. We chat with other parents about neutropenia and BMT here on the HemOnc ward.

Like church gives a common vocabulary to express and understand suffering and hope, so cancer gives a common language to express the same things, although suffering is called diagnosis and hope is called prognosis and treatment. Except that prognosis is not always a word of hope. We’re glad to have a bigger hope.

Oh, one more number: 1 cool T-shirt.



Bone Marrow. Be the Match!

Did you know you can give your immune system to another person?

We found out today that both of us parents and one of our kids is a half match with Peter’s bone marrow. Then we remembered that the origin of Rebecca’s mastocytosis is in the bone marrow, so she is out as a donor. There are further tests to be done, but as a younger donor is usually preferred, it’s Peter’s doppelganger little brother Nate who is the likely donor. That’s just what we all anticipated. Nate himself hoped to be the match because we told him he could play video games during the entire 4-6 hours it takes to collect the bone marrow (if they do use the “peripheral” collection method). Further tests will determine if a half match (called a haplo) from the family or a full match from the general population will be better for Peter. Nate trembled with fear when they stuck that needle in his vein a couple weeks ago. This time he is prepared. And afterwards he gets to choose a popsicle from the hospital cafeteria so he’s pretty pumped to get stuck with a needle again.

A bone marrow donation is necessary for some cancer patients for two reasons. One, it allows higher doses of chemo, which attacks the fast-growing cancer cells but also affects other fast growing cells such as hair and bone marrow. Two, another person’s white blood cells, their immune system, will hopefully recognize that cancer cells shouldn’t be there and will attack them. Doctors call this the graft versus cancer effect. The thought of Peter having his little brother’s immune system is kind of crazy and kind of cool.

Several people have offered their bone marrow for Peter. That is incredible generosity. But the chances of any one person being a match for Peter are one in millions. But you might be a match for another Peter, someone you don’t even know. That would be an even greater demonstration of love. People have offered their bone marrow because they know and care about us and Peter. It’s an even greater thing to offer your bone marrow for a person you’ve never met. It’s like the love of God shown to us in Christ, who died for us while we were separate, excluded, foreigners, strangers, without hope (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19).

Modern medical technology allows people to demonstrate love and give hope by donating their own blood and bone marrow. Peter has received a lot of blood. If his current treatments go well he will then receive someone’s bone marrow. So yes, go ahead and join the bone marrow registry. You’ll find the info you need at http://bethematch.org. 

The Bible says Christ gave his blood for us. The basic meaning is that Christ has given his life for the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. Is there some sense in which Christ has given us a new immune system, a life-saving transplant?

Peter Unafraid

Some readers will already know that our 11 year old son Peter has cancer. I set up a CarePages site as a way to provide some more details on his health and treatments and in order to move it to a slightly less public place than facebook. Instead of a billboard on the freeway, it became a sign saying, “More information available here.” But many people had trouble accessing the CarePages site. So I am moving things here to my existing blog. Here I will post about Peter’s condition, updates on his treatment, and share some reflections on it all. Your encouraging comments to Peter or the family will be passed on. And your interaction with my theological reflections are welcome too.

The Story

On Saturday, November 12, 2016 Peter sprinted in the sand all day at an ultimate frisbee beach tournament. The next day we discovered he was carrying an eight-pound, basketball-sized tumor in his chest. The children’s hospital that diagnosed him put him on a plane to UCSF because his case was too dangerous for them to treat. We were shocked and terrified. Peter was unafraid. He acted like it was just another day.

Peter was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Treatments began and within a few days the massive tumor had shrunk by 65%. Unfortunately, two months later the tumor had stopped responding and had grown slightly. Having a tumor that did not disappear with initial treatment put Peter into another category altogether. This was more devastating than the initial news. Peter, however, was unafraid. He wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t afraid.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked.
“Kind of,” he said.
“What about it are you afraid of?”
“Yeah,” he said. “When you think about it what is there to be afraid of?” Peter is confident that if he dies he will be with the Lord. His strength has given us strength.

As of March 2017 Peter is undergoing a new round of more intense chemo. If it is successful in shrinking the tumor, it will be repeated; then he will then get a bone marrow transplant. We are looking at several difficult months of treatment with a prognosis that, statistically speaking, is not very good. We feel lifted up by the prayers and faith of so many.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
– Psalm 27

What can I do to help? We are grateful for all the people who have asked. Here are some things people can do.

1. Pray. We have been greatly encouraged by the number of people who are praying for Peter. Thank you! We have felt God’s love in the midst of our grief.

2. Write to him. Here’s how:

Address it as below, but in the lower left corner of the envelope write his name, Room C-6865, and “Patient Mail”.

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco
1975 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94158-2351

To email Peter, ask for his address.

3. Visit. Check with us to make sure it’s a good time.

4. Finances. This all happened at a particularly complicated time. We were planning to move to Belgium (where I, Peter’s dad, will pastor an international church), our house had sold, and I had announced my last day serving my present ministry. Many people have asked if they can help financially. The answer for the first few months was “No, we’re fine.” Now that I have ended my work here (so they can move on and I can focus on the family), we are saying, “Yes, if you would like to give we will gratefully receive.

Donations can be sent to:

Gateway Church

353 E. Donna Dr

Merced, CA 95340

Indicate what it is for. I will remain on staff at Gateway, the parent church of the churches I planted, but the funds will come from outside support.

A little more about Peter:

Peter is bright, curious, adventurous, and creative. He likes travel, new foods, hiking, camping, Scratch (programming for kids), ultimate frisbee, and reading. He agreed that I should customize the care pages site I set up for him so that it had a fluffy pink bunny next to a football. Then the bunny would eat the football and turn into a giant mutant rabbit. That is beyond my ability but he says he will try to program that on Scratch. Check back soon to see it.

Shangri-La of the Sierra

A gift to you this election day: something non-political. Though a lot hangs in the balance, I think the mountains will still be there in the future. I thought you might enjoy a report of my trip to the Shangri-La of the Sierra, which I first sought out with my friend Brad in 2014. In 2015 we made it, and I finally wrote up this report.



Also, I took my two older boys backpacking this summer. It was their “first homeschool unit,” I said, as if I needed a reason to take them. We did try to make it educational, but the number one goal was for them to love backpacking. Goal achieved. They wrote their own reports of our trip, which you will find here.







Everyone I know who has visited Edinburgh says it’s a great city. They’re right.

We visited Edinburgh in July 2016. I know, I’m way behind in my writing. Perhaps there will be a time when I have the time and the discipline to write more regularly. It is as much for me as for any audience. So here we go, a little glimpse of Edinburgh.

We made our way by bus from the airport to the city center, then walked to our airbnb apartment. As usual, google maps could not find the address, so when we got to the vicinity we mooched wifi from a cafe and looked up the details on Rebecca’s ipad. Key in the lockbox got us in and up the four flights of stairs to the apartment. View of Edinburgh Castle? Right out the window.



William Wallace lives on in Edinburgh

The next day we explored the castle, an obvious destination. Afterward we made our way down the Royal Mile, stopping to spectate at various unimpressive street performers. We arrived at Holyrood Palace, but found that access was denied because her majesty was “in residence.” Oh well, we weren’t that interested anyway.


At one point during the day, our second son commented on how funny it was to catch little snippets of conversation from the people we passed. “…the infection spread. They just put him on antibiotics…” “…this app is great. It shows you all the train schedules. I think that’s the castle. No wait…” “…you know the best part about Scotland is the scones. I really like the cream tea that comes with…”

img_2777 img_2771

We made the hike up Arthur’s Seat, where the wind at the top was strong enough you could lean into it. The view was nice. My second son had commented that our hike in Albania made his legs feel like jelly. On the way down from Arthur’s Seat I asked if they felt like jelly again. “No, I didn’t put on my jelly legs today,” he said. We talked for a few minutes about the different types of legs he could put on. “What if someone heard just a little bit of our conversation as they walked by?” I asked. “What would they think if they heard us talking about you putting your goat legs on instead of your jelly legs?”


Somebody left the I off this sign.

We made our way back into town and to our apartment by a different route. I did not shop at the Brotique, tempting though it was.


That night after everyone was in bed I went out for a walk. I looked up tea houses and found one that was still open, the Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote the Harry Potter books. The walk there took me through Old Town Edinburgh, which starts basically at the apartment. In those 40 minutes of walking I saw:

  • More pubs and restaurants than I could count
  • Thousands of young single people
  • A few dozen couples
  • A handful of people middle-aged and older
  • A group of women dressed like Ladybug Girl
  • A group of men dressed like bananas
  • A well-dressed man walking along the sidewalk angrily shouting obscenities
  • Three strip clubs on one corner
  • A large woman lying on the sidewalk, surrounded by a group of people. One woman among them seemed concerned. An ambulance made its way to her right after I passed
  • Several young men driving bicycle-taxis. They never seemed to have any riders, even on the strip club corner.
  • Groups of men and women dropping more f-bombs than American teens

I never made it to the tea house. I got to the spot on the map and realized the tea house was directly above me, on top of the bridge. I didn’t want to make the walk around to get on the bridge. So I just cruised back observing the scene. If this is what they call night life – something that has never interested me – Edinburgh has plenty of it. It is a lively place. And all of this takes place within view of the castle on the rocks.


On Sunday we chose a church to worship with. We chatted with a few people after the service and then walked back in the direction of the apartment, looking for a place to eat. We didn’t find a place agreeable to all until we were in front of the apartment, where we found a restaurant connected to a theater of some kind. My oldest son and I ordered the traditional Scottish breakfast: eggs, ham, sausage, beans, toast grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, tattie scone, black pudding, and haggis.


Yep, black pudding and haggis. I asked the waitress what exactly was in haggis, but she was evasive. “Are you saying you don’t know what’s in it?” I asked. “Well, I have an idea, but I don’t really want to say.” That’s the way to advertise your national dish! Haggis is sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, held together with oatmeal, and flavored with onions and spices. Black pudding is made of pork blood, pork fat, and oatmeal. “You have to at least try a bite,” I told my son (and myself). A nibble was enough for each of us. Both taste and texture were problematic. Although I like the idea of letting nothing go to waste, the World Black Pudding Throwing Competition seems like a better use for these dishes.


After lunch we walked some more – to the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. It was nice. We were tired.


We found a hip, organic-y café for scones and tea on the way home. It was nice. We felt less tired.




The next day I hiked to Avis to pick up our rental car. I walked around the Ford S-Max (a car that I had never heard of) to inspect it, then sat down in the driver’s seat. Wait, there’s no steering wheel on this side. Driving in the UK was going to be an experience. Why can’t the world agree on where to sit and which side of the road to use? Driving from the right side I felt like, “What is this great extension of car over on my left?” It felt strange, like how a fat lip feels huge. Most worrying was the knowledge that I would at some point drive by autopilot and pull out into the wrong lane of traffic. At least I had paid the extra to get an automatic rather than a stick shift. Shifting with the left hand – who can do that?

Roads in England are wide enough for approximately 1 and ½ cars, but nobody slows down when passing. I constantly feared the right side mirror getting torn off by a car flying by in the other direction. I nearly took the left side mirror off because the sides of the roads often had a stone wall or hedge starting exactly at the edge of the road instead of a shoulder. Being used to having my body line up with the left edge of the road, I consistently drifted to the left, which did not make for peaceful traveling for Rebecca on the passenger side. She could have pruned the hedges as we drove by.

Our first stop was Craigmillar Castle outside Edinburgh. Americans can’t get enough castles.

Driving from Edinburgh to Penrith in the Lake District, we stopped for lunch at the most charming little tea house that perfectly fit its village setting. We ate sandwiches and scones, then played on the playground and explored the open field and church out back. The grave stones in the church yard were ancient.

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We stopped at the very interesting Caerlaverock Castle on our way down to the Lake District in northern England. Like I said, Americans can’t get enough castles. Castles with moats, like this one, are even better. They emanate a sense of the rough and romantic medieval history that we just don’t have in the USA.

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In the afternoon we arrived in Penrith, England, the Nelson family’s home until around 1706, when “Scotch” Tom Nelson emigrated to America. The Nelsons in America became slave owners, revolutionary signers of the Declaration of Independence, ministers, and anti-segregationists.



Greek Style Slow Food

There’s a story about a wealthy Greek American who visited one of his homeland’s islands on vacation. While out walking he meets a Greek man sipping Greece’s national drink, ouzo, while watching the sun set over the ocean. The American notices a stand of olive trees behind the man and asked whose trees they were. “They’re mine,” the Greek man said. The trees are unharvested, just dropping olives all over the ground. “Don’t you harvest the olives?” the American asks. “I just pick one when I want one,” the man says. The American remarked how the Greek man could prune the trees and harvest the olives and sell them for a great profit. “The demand for olives and olive oil are only going to increase. You could ramp up your production even more by planting more trees. You could make a killing!” “What would I do with the money?” the Greek man asks. “You could build a big house and hire people to do everything for you.” The Greek man responds, “And then what?” The incredulous American says, “Well then you could do whatever you want!” And the Greek man says, “You mean like sit outside and drink ouzo at sunset?”

That was one of the few stories I had ever heard about modern Greece. Since I know more about ancient Greece than the modern country, it is a place I had always thought would be interesting to visit. My brief experience there in transit between sabbatical destinations this July confirmed something of the spirit of the story about the old man drinking ouzo at sunset. When our Albanian friend checked us into our hotel in Thessaloniki for the night, a small spot right on the beach, he told me I should pay for the rooms that night rather than in the morning. “I don’t know what time he gets up in the morning,” he explained, referring to the hotel owner. That surprised me, as we wouldn’t be leaving until 8:30am, and what hotel doesn’t have someone available at that time in the morning? But I took our friend’s advice and paid after a swim in the ocean and a late dinner.



At our lunch stop in Kastoria, Greece our two adventurous seafood lovers ordered the octopus.

And they both finished it.


Our Greek dinner, by the way, was delicious. Unfortunately I have  no pictures to share. We ate at a traditional “taverna,” where the menu is basically meat. Good meat, as we soon discovered. My second son and I took a look at the menu and immediately agreed, “We have to order that.” Goat chops. Because where else would you find that on the menu? Unfortunately, they were all out of goat chops. The lamb chops were quite tasty, but not as exciting. The pork souvlaki, greek salad with huge slabs of feta cheese, and other items were also delicious. The restaurant was filling up more and more until the time we left around 10:00pm. Late, long dinners are a thing in Greece, as I hear they are in other parts of Europe.

After that late dinner the proprietor of the hotel was up with some friends or customers (it was hard to tell, maybe there’s no difference) watching TV and chatting, eating, and drinking. He seemed only vaguely interested in taking my payment. He sent his daughter or employee (again it was hard to tell) to run my credit card. When I was paying, I noticed a sign saying that breakfast was only served from 9:00-10:30am. In the morning, sure enough there was no sign of the hotel owner or anyone else when we left at 8:30. How late can he sleep in and still run his hotel? (Or maybe the question, given Greek culture, is how early could he go to bed and still run his hotel?)

You may have heard of the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the opposite values of our American fast food culture: fresh ingredients cooked well, enjoyed with friends over extended mealtimes. It is the opposite of a drive thru meal. (I’ll admit I am a fan of the idea, although I have never participated in anything officially Slow Food). My brief experience in Greece suggests that Greek people don’t need a Slow Food movement; the Greek mindset and pace of life is Slow Food. To be fair, my experience was extremely limited, and I’m sure there are Greek workaholics too. I wonder about the possibility of balancing the American values of efficiency and productivity with the Slow Food value of leisurely enjoyment of food and friendship.

The story of the farmer sipping ouzo – and the real life people who value Slow Food over fast food, or conversation over productivity – raise questions about our American race for making things bigger, better, faster, and richer: And then what? When do you get to the point that you can enjoy things? The Greek farmer was already doing what he wanted – enjoy the sunset. But those that want always more – can they ever enjoy it?

Jesus told a parable about a man with the bigger and richer mindset. He faced what we would call a “good problem” – he had no more room in his barns for his abundant crops. So he said to himself, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’” (Luke 12:18-19). After a great push of productivity to tear down his barns and build new ones he could then “take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.” The whole thing sounds uncomfortably like the way many people think of work and retirement. And it sounds like the American who told the Greek man he could work hard so that later he could enjoy the very thing he was already doing.

The point of Jesus’ parable, though, is not about giving up productivity for a Slow Food style dinner in the comfort of one’s friends, nice as that may be. I certainly enjoyed the meal at the restaurant, even without the goat chops – and I give thanks to God for good food, especially eaten in good company. God confronts the greedy man: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have stored up for yourself?” And Jesus delivers a punch to the gut when he sums up the lesson for us all: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves, but is not rich towards God” (Luke 12:20-21).

The point of the parable is not that the man should slow down and enjoy life a little more by sipping ouzo under unharvested fruit, and the point is not that he should be more productive either. It is about generosity towards God. The value of generosity towards God forces us to rethink our both our values of work/productivity/fast food and leisure/take it easy/slow food. Workaholism and laziness are both problems. Work for the sake of generosity towards lines up work and rest correctly. Since generosity towards God includes showing generosity to the poor, that might mean harvesting those olives, or paying someone a fair wage to do it. It might mean planting more crops, and then using the surplus for the needs of others, rather than one’s own leisure and pleasure. Efficiency, productivity, resourcefulness – the “Protestant work ethic” that made America tick – can be great tools. The end goal, however, can either be to store up things for oneself or greater generosity towards God. And I think you can enjoy a great meal along the way.