Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Touch of Grace

Yesterday was a long, torturous day of alternating waves of hope and despair. My friend still fights. 

To many people, the world seems driven by the forces of luck, chance and coincidence. Indeed, our very existence is explained as a random collision of molecules. Whenever we experience some serendipitous encounter we think, what are the odds?...or, how random was that? Sometimes, people of faith overhype every such encounter as divine intervention...Hey everybody,  Jesus appeared in my toast this morning! But, every now and then, I believe that what the world describes as coincidence bears a striking resemblance to the hand of God. You are perfectly free to disagree with me on this point. We can still be friends.

This morning was one of those times. Yesterday, after watching an amazing family grapple with the specter of death, after reading snippets of news throughout the day about the passing of Billy Graham, after witnessing the power of faith to sustain people in the darkest hours, I open my Read the Bible in 90 Days app an hour ago and what should pop up but the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Of all the places to be in scripture, the one Old Testament passage that describes Jesus Christ in such beautiful and stirring detail. Impeccable timing. Billy Graham devoted his life to preaching his message, my friend’s life has been devoted to his service, and the family has bet their money and their lives on the truth of his Gospel. And this morning, of all the places I could have been in such a vast and often confounding book, I land on this spot, this powerful, stirring spot...

53:1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

If you prefer to assign this coincidence to chance or the quirks of fate, that’s fine. But for me, it feels like...grace.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

News That Staggers

There is news that staggers you, not news of politics, business, or some celebrity, but word of a dear friend taken suddenly, grievously ill. A certain disorientation falls over you upon hearing it, as if it can’t possibly be true. Didn’t we just have lunch last week? They seemed so happy, appeared so healthy. You are taken aback by the dramatic arrival of calamity. The mind gets rocked with questions. Why this should happen to one so virtuous? Why do the worst, most despicable people in our world seem to skate through their unremarkable lives without this sort of trauma? You know that it’s not really true, but it seems that way when something bad happens to those you love.

Wasn’t it just yesterday when our 90 day bible reading project landed us in Isaiah? Hadn’t we just read these humbling words...

 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,

scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

So, we are staggered by the news. But, the good doctors work hard. It is left to the friends, we helpless friends, to pray and provide what comfort we can summon for the family. In our prayers we are aided by the fine character of our friend. We have much to brag about where our friend is concerned. God couldn’t possibly find a better, more deserving person to heal. 

And then, there’s this. Despite how small and insignificant we feel when confronted with verses like the one quoted above, there is always a glimmer of hope, and when we find it we are overcome...

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place; What is man, that you should care for him? You have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with honor and glory.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Jesus in America?

Over the weekend, a gun control debate broke out on my Facebook wall. It was mostly my fault, since I was the one who brought up the subject. As is often the case in such social media debates, it was a rambling affair, with many chased rabbits and its fair share of non sequiturs. But, at one point a friend of mine offered this observation:

Let me ask this hypothetical question to everyone on this thread as it appears most of which profess to be Christians...if Jesus were alive today living in America, do you think he would be a gun toting, NRA member, and AR-15 owner? The Jesus I read about doesn’t seem like the type.

Of course, my immediate response was deflecting and pithy...Maybe not, but he might be pretty handy with a sling shot.

However, the more I think about my friend’s hypothetical, the stranger it seems. Jesus Christ, alive today, living in America. Imagine.

First of all, he would have to get here, and being a swarthy middle eastern man, that might prove a challenge what with no fly lists. But assuming he could manage that, then he would have lots of other challenges. An itinerant carpenter with no fixed address, no possessions, and a band of 12 equally transient followers sound like the textbook definition of a sleeper cell to me! Add to this mix his tendency to practice medicine without a license, the manufacture of alcoholic beverages without a license, and his disturbing habit of associating with the underclass, and I’m thinking the FBI’s dossier would get thick in a hurry.

To my friend’s point, no, I can’t imagine Jesus being an NRA member or owning a firearm. But I can’t even imagine Jesus living in America either. But, the point of his question is flawed because it attempts to enlist him as a prop in a political debate. We all assume that we are on the side of the Angels, and what better proof than shoehorning Jesus into your political theories? In his three year ministry on this earth he had multiple opportunities to rail against the corrupt, brutal occupation of the Roman Empire, but he failed to do so. But that hasn’t stopped both sides of the American political spectrum from claiming Jesus as their champion. From the left we hear that Jesus was an avowed social progressive, his admonition to take care of widows, orphans and the poor a clear endorsement of the modern welfare state. From the right, Jesus is proclaimed the original pro-lifer, and author of our devotion to God rather than the state. But then I see that grotesque painting of our Lord and Savior, ghost-like, his vaporous form hovering behind Donald Trump, guiding the pen in his hand as he signs some bill in the Oval Office...and I shudder at the horror of such a thing.

The truth is, attempts to co-opt Jesus Christ into political service is a fool’s errand. Politics is the business of coercion, the building of coalitions, the cobbling together of imperfect compromises, a grubby exercise of temporal power plays designed to exploit every human emotion into a political movement best expressed by that most vacuous phrase...the personal is political. The gospel, by contrast, doesn’t much concern itself with the corporate, but rather tells of Jesus standing at the door knocking, of leaving the 99 to pursue the 1 who is lost, of being stirred by one troubled soul touching his garment amidst a throng of people crushing against him. While his teachings can and should inform our beliefs about politics, the savior himself isn’t a political spokesman, and attempts to make him one are doomed to failure.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rocks vs. Guns. Let’s Have This Debate!

I have run across the following photograph more times than I can count since the Florida school shooting...

It is always accompanied with the caption: Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a heart problem, not a gun problem. Then comes the scripture reference of Jeremiah 17:9...

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

Ok. Listen up people...I am not a gun zealot by any stretch, either way. But, this argument is specious and a classic example of trying to be too clever by half. Let’s deconstruct this reasoning, shall we?

Human beings have been killing each other for all of human history. The Prophet Jeremiah was onto something, the heart is indeed wicked. However, are the people who post this sort of thing trying to suggest that guns don’t matter? 

Suppose that Nikolas Cruz had entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School armed with a bag of rocks as opposed to an AR-15? Does anyone seriously believe that we would be dealing with 17 dead teenagers? Tools matter. If I were tasked with cutting down a tree in my back yard and was offered a choice between a paring knife or a chainsaw, my choice would be an easy one. And while it is true that the paring knife turned against another human being could become a deadly weapon, the job of killing another human being is made manifestly, inarguably easier with the right tool for the job...a gun. Further, if the goal is to kill as many humans as possible, as efficiently as possible, that task is made still easier with the right AR-15. Yes. Cain did kill his brother with a rock. If I were mad enough, I could kill someone with a coat hanger. The issue with semi automatic rifles like the AR-15 is the sheer killing power they present to the unhinged mind. If every deranged psychopath had to content himself with a bag of rocks to act out his murderous fantasies,   we would not lead the universe in dead school children. Besides, despite the potential for death that exists by being hit upside the head with a rock, school children aren’t kept awake at night by visions of rock throwing deviants in their midst. 

I have serious misgivings about the effectiveness of the various “gun laws” that get proposed after each of these horrific shootings. In my opinion, anything short of confiscation would only be marginally effective, if effective at all, and confiscation could only be accomplished by amending the constitution, if we still consider ourselves a nation of laws. Nevertheless, to dismiss any attempt to fix this epidemic of gun violence with such a logically flawed argument like this rock vs. gun photo is rediculous. To add insult to injury, enlisting a bible verse as an ally in such a moronic effort just makes it infinitely worse.

If Nothing Else, I Can Serve as a Bad Example

Have you ever done something really, really stupid? I mean like something transcendently dumb, so epically careless as to defy comprehension, a blunder of incandescent incompetence? Well, pull up a chair and listen to my latest...

Ok, so I am a signatory of three checking accounts at two different banks. One is a business account from which I pay all of the expenses associated with running an office which I own with my partner. Once a month, I make a deposit into this account from rent bills I send out to everyone in our building. Once deposited, my assistant then pays the monthly bills associated with Richmond Financial. Simple enough.

Well, yesterday I wrote my own check for my share of January’s expenses from my personal checking account. The amount of the check that I wrote I took from the billing statement that my assistant had left for me, since she was away on a well earned vacation this week. The problem arose when I wrote a check based on December’s billing statement. Just before I was going to leave to make the deposit, I noticed the error. So, I wrote another check, this time for the correct amount...then rushed off to deposit the checks before the bank closed. Unfortunately, I neglected to rip up the first incorrect check, which remained hidden in the stack of checks. So instead of depositing the right check, I deposited both checks.

This morning, at 6:05 am, I was greeted with a disturbing ping from my iPad informing me that my personal checking account was overdrawn by an alarming amount. (It ain’t cheap operating Richmond Financial). Imagine how surprised you would be if your automatic mortgage payment that comes out of your account on the 15th of every month suddenly doubled up on you? Then imagine how angry you would be when you discovered that it wasn’t because of a bank error, rather, it was a human error...that human being YOU!!

My weekend is off to a rousing start!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

My Long, Strange Day On Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter since 2012. I don’t have many followers, and I don’t follow that many people. Although I publish all of my blogposts on Twitter, I don’t often post much of anything else. I use it mostly for keeping up with people or things I find interesting. I follow people like Jake Tapper and Jonah Goldberg...and, of course, Andrew Freiden, ( everyone follows Andrew, right??)I also follow The Far Side, so I get a new cartoon every morning. It’s relatively entertaining, actually, since it features some of the most unhinged people you could ever hope to meet, if you go in for that sort of thing. But today something really bizarre happened that I still am having a hard time wrapping my head around...

Ok, early this morning during my routine news roundup,  all I read about was the horrific mass shooting in Florida. I began thinking of how many times over the past ten years or so we have read similar stories. It’s heart breaking, infuriating, and depressing. Once again I felt the familiar frustrtion that nothing would change, that despite wall to wall coverage for a day or two, we Americans would eventually move on to some new outrage and the status quo would remain intact. Then I logged on to Facebook and summarzied my thoughts this way:

Quick quiz: Do any of you remember Stephen Paddock? No? He was the guy who killed 58 people in Las Vegas just 4 months ago, already forgotten. So too will Nikolas Cruz be forgotten 4 months from now. Such is the state of the American attention span and the casual routine of mass shootings in our country.

Then, almost on a whim, I decided to post this thought on Twitter. I cut and pasted, only to discover that the Twitter format would not accept the entire I cut off...and the casual routine of mass shootings in our country. I hit send and then stepped into the shower. By the time I got out of the shower, my phone was pinging off the hook, one notification after another in rapid fire succession. I picked up the phone and thought, what the heck is all this?

To make a long story short, at this hour, that simple, innocuous observation has been viewed over 260,000 times. It has been “liked” 3,400 times, and retweeted 1500 times. At this point nearly 90 people have felt moved to comment and their nearly unanimous verdict is that I am an: idiot, ignorant, moron, dickhead, dipshit, and turd...the first three indictments possibly true, the last three up for debate. The objections to my Tweet fall into several categories. The first one is a legitimate point of contention, ie.. that we shouldn’t remember the killers in these mass shootings, only the victims. This is a fair and valid point. The fact that I used the Las Vegas shooter’s name merely as a proxy for mass shootings in general seems to have gotten lost in translation. Then there were those who vehemently denied having forgotten a thing about Las Vegas, and me pointing out America’s short attention span was beyond the pale. Here, I feel to be on more solid ground. We have endured so many of these killings, it would be almost impossible not  for them all to become muddled in our heads at this point. Then there were those who felt compelled to refer to me with scatological descriptors...which I kinda enjoyed. I had particular fun pointing out to one of my detractors that , in point of fact, “dickhead” was one word, not two!

In my almost 60 years of life I have written many things. I’ve written far better sentences. I’ve said things far dumber, far smarter and certainly more controversial than this in my life, but nothing has ever provoked so much reaction. Nothing else has even come close to this. I suppose it’s true what they say...there’s no accounting for taste.

I stand by my Tweet. Maybe it’s intent would have been clearer if the last few words from the Facebook version had been included. Or maybe not, since subtlety isn’t a concept that mixes well with a platform like Twitter. But, just in case anyone out there is still confused...I am horrified by each and every mass shooting in this country, but I’m not overly optimistic that anything substantial will be done to stop any of them anytime soon... no matter how temporarily outraged we all are at the moment. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Life Without Labels

Words and ideas, like fashion, fall out of favor over time. Bell bottom jeans used to be a thing. Now, jeans are mostly skinny. Having a gay old time might carry a different meaning today than it did when it was a lyric to the Flintstone’s theme song. The term fiscal conservative used to carry real meaning. Over time the meaning of words can change, turning once innocuous expressions into loaded, fighting words. But, just because the public perception of a word, phrase or idea may change, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. There are times that I want to reclaim the English language, to rescue it from its bastardized torment. However, this is a job which is much bigger than I am. So for now I can only wish that certain words didn’t carry around such baggage...

I want to enjoy the benefits of wealth without being thought of as wealthy.

I want to live out my Christian faith without being considered religious.

I would like to advocate for a less intrusive and oppressive government without being labeled a conservative Republican.

I would like to support a more humane and compassionate immigration policy without being branded a liberal Democrat.

I would like to enjoy golf without it being assumed that I must be a member of a country club.

I wish to continue reading tons of books every year without being thought a book nerd.

I would like to be more careful about what I eat without becoming a food Nazi.

I want to continue to work out and take care of my body without succumbing to vanity.

I want to experience the wisdom that comes with age without getting old.

I want to develope greater empathy for others without turning myself into an easy mark.

I want to demand professionalism and accountability from law enforcement without being accused of being anti-police.

I want to be able to condemn lawlessness, violence and thuggery wherever it exists without being called a racist.

I want to continue to be an unrepentant baseball fan without being dismissed as old school.

I believe that wanting American troops brought home from their foolish deployments isn’t the same thing as isolationism.

I want to cultivate more generosity in my life without becoming a spendthrift.

I want to strive for consistency without it turning into stubbornness.

Desiring to keep more of my hard earned money instead of having it confiscated by the government does not mean I’m greedy.