Monthly Archives: April 2007

The devil’s mountain


goal we have set recently in our family is to be regularly in the scriptures. We have begun, each night after dinner, to read a chapter in Portuguese from O Evangelho Segundo São Mateus.

One advantage of reading familiar scripture in a foreign language is linguistic: You pretty much know what your reading, and when you come across new vocabulary, you can easily fill in the blanks for comprehension.

Another advantage of reading familiar scripture in a foreign language is spiritual: It forces you to think outside of some well-worn ruts in your mind. I have found new insights come to me often as a result of struggling to understand a portion of scripture where my own familiarity with the text has bred laziness.

One such text is Matthew 4:1-11, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In verse 8 the devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which he can see all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All this the Devil offers to Jesus, if he will but worship him.

Sometime in my childhood, I read this story in a picture Bible, and there was an artist’s rather fantastical impression of what the view from the mountain must have looked like. And ever since, reading this text, I called to mind a glistening watercolor Babylon, about 4″ to a side, printed on glossy paper.

Fortunately, a couple weeks ago, at our dinner table, we read this account again in Portuguese, where verse 8 is as follows:

Novamente, o transportou o diabo a um monte muito alto;
e mostrou-lhe todos os reinos do mundo e a glória deles.

I read “diabo” and “monte,” and suddenly in my mind, I was standing on top of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, east of the San Francisco Bay.

This mountain is not even 4000 ft. high, but because there are no other mountains around it, from its elevation, you really do have the sense that you can look down and see all the kingdoms of the world. To the west, you look out to Concord and Walnut Creek, and beyond that, Oakland, the Bay, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Inland, you see California’s San Joaquin Valley with the cities of Stockton, and Sacramento, and beyond them, the towering Sierra Nevada. In fact, when a winter storm clears the air, one can see Mount Lassen some 180 miles to the North in the Cascade Range. Because of its unique vantage point, land surveyors in the 1850’s used the peak of Mount Diablo as their starting point to survey large portions of California, Oregon and Nevada.

Even though the official story of how Mount Diablo got its name has nothing to do with Matthew 4, as I read aloud to my family, I found myself imagining a Spanish padre making the climb, with decomposed granite filling his sandals, and leaning on his walking stick all the way to the top. When the Franciscan reaches the summit, he looks down the other side, and then back where he came from, and then all around, and–still catching his breath–observes what appears to him to be the whole world fairly spread out before him. Recalling the account of the temptation of Christ, he names the mountain under his dusty sandals Monte del Diablo.

Now the scene my mind created in an instant is quite likely fiction. But the former image of a four-inch watercolor Babylon is fiction of a far worse sort. I do not know how Satan transported Jesus to the top of that mountain in verse 8, or what the view looked like from there. But whereas before, my mind plodded through these verses like a cow beating a well-worn path to pasture, now I find myself standing on top of that mountain with Jesus seeing those kingdoms with him!

And if the scripture came alive like this because I read the text in Portuguese and recalled standing upon a hill in Contra Costa, what would happen if I could actually read it in Greek or Hebrew and call upon memories of hillsides in Galilee?!?

Yellow Card

Appearing for the first time ever at На Даче, a Yellow Card:


Hmmm! … this actually happened to me once.

A few years back, I was visiting Almaty, Kazakhstan for a conference. I had been living in Uzbekistan and they don’t have ATMs. But in Kazakhstan, they do, so I had gone out to get some cash from my stateside bank account.

Returning from the ATM to my hotel, a nice looking young man approached me to ask directions. I confessed that I was not from Almaty, and did not know the street he was asking for. He explained that he was a student from Kyrgyzstan and we began to talk as we both walked the same direction along the wooded path.

We had only gone a few paces, when low and behold, he stooped down by the sidewalk and with an exclamation of surprise came up with a wallet in his hand.

We opened the wallet, and found US dollars, Russian rubles, Kazakh tenge, German marks (this was a few years back), Kyrgyz som, and Uzbek sum. I’m not sure if there were any yuan, there may have been some won. Anyhow, there was a wad of cash, in about any currency that might tickle your fancy. But there were no documents. No IDs of any kind.

The two of us discussed briefly what we should do, and the kind Kyrgyz student suggested we split it, since we found it together.

I smelled a rat, and told my friend that he had found it, and in English we have an expression, “Finders keepers.” He insisted on sharing it, but I told him I was content, and didn’t need the money. He, as a student, could surely put it to good use.

He shrugged and thanked me, and in two steps he completely disappeared from my sight.

Only later did I learn that this is a common scam. If I had taken half of the money, my friend would have disappeared, and a moment later, an accomplice claiming to have lost the wallet would have shown up with a couple crooked cops and demanded his money back. I would have had to pay back the half I gained from the deal plus the other half out of my own money. Convenient that they happened to spot me returning from the ATM.

Thankfully, I avoided that scam. But I think I’ve fallen prey to others. The good scams are the ones you never know about.

But then there was the time I was living in Germany, when in my building’s community laundry room, I found a still wet 100 DM note on the floor.

What did I do?

I kept it.

Juan Valdez

This is old news actually. But I tucked it away, thinking I might use it someday. Last year on our flight to Brazil, I picked up a Miami Herald, and noticed this:

The actor who played Juan Valdez, the famous Colombian coffee grower, was about to retire, and they were looking for a replacement.

Funny they never contacted me. I used to work for Juan Valdez. In 1989, I arrived in California to start 9th grade and was befriended by a bunch of losers, clowns and general smart alecks. When they found out I was from Colombia, they all wanted to know if I knew Juan Valdez. I told them, “Of course, I used to work for him after school, picking beans and all.”

“Oh,” they said.

“But it’s a shame what happened to his brother, Exxon,” I added.

“Huh?” they said.

“Never mind.”

I hope they find the right guy for the job.

Don’t I know you from somewhere?

I told you there is a conspiracy afoot.

Now they’re at it again. I already introduced you to this book back in August. In Brazil I picked up O Caminho da Felicidade, the Portuguese translation of MacArthur’s The Beatitudes – The Only Way to Happiness. I thought the girl on the cover kinda looked like my sister, but she definitely looked like she had found the way to happiness.

Imagine our surprise today when the same girl showed up in our mailbox in California advertising a “solution for clear, beautiful skin!” for $19.95. She definitely looks like she has found clear, beautiful skin.

But which one is it? Did she find the way to happiness, or did she find a nice complexion? This question is going to haunt me, I can tell.