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The Debates

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I confess I haven’t watched a Presidential debate since maybe 2000. I’m not sure which metaphor works best for these debates. Are they closer to a dog and pony show or are they more like bread and circuses? I can’t decide, but I know that if the goal is to become informed about the candidates and the election, debates are a lousy way to do it. It’s far easier to check out their websites or listen to speeches or even get into an argument with your coworker. You’ll learn more and need less aspirin to boot. I suppose they do have some value. Debates are a good gauge of who is better at thinking on their feet and reacting to pressure. That’s important, but most significant Presidential decisions are made after considerable deliberation and quite a lot of advise from Cabinet members. High pressure situations that require quick decisions make up about 0.02% of a President’s job. Now that 0.02% is an important part of the job and we would be better served if the President can do that well. They just don’t happen very much. I think George W. Bush was the last President to face that situation. It’s hard to believe, but that was almost two decades ago.

But this year’s debates are going to be awesome! They’ll simply be dripping with drama and they should be the best debates ever for drinking games or bingo cards. Biden gets halfway through a sentence before he loses his train of thought? Take a drink. Trump invents a new word that makes no sense at all? Have another drink. I don’t doubt that there will be some big surprises in store as well. They don’t seem to like each other very much and neither has much in the way of self-control. Perhaps a fight will break out. I was just telling the missus the other day that ESPN would be so much better if we had live boxing matches between geriatric pugilists. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Secret Service won’t let them engage in an old west style duel. Missed opportunity there.

Setting aside their contributions to an increase in alcoholism in our great nation, the debates should be the best entertainment we’ve seen on network television since Friends got kicked off the air.

Sadly, much like in past years, I won’t be watching the debates. I’ll be in my bedroom weeping quietly. And convincing myself to vote for Kanye.

Psalm 23

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Many years ago, back when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I belonged to a Christian group that was made up of singles and a few marrieds between the ages of 22-35. Generationally, it was composed of younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, similar to how a group of that age now would be made up of younger Millennials and older Gen Zers. As is true today, there weren’t a lot of groups available for single Christians in that age range, and I felt fortunate to find it. It was a cathartic experience making the 40 mile round trip down to the host church in Berkeley, CA every Sunday night.

Anyway, one Sunday I got selected to give the message (always a mistake) and I decided to have a little fun and indulge my data collecting obsession (Ummm! Spreadsheets!). I did a poll of the 40 or so people attending and I asked each of them the following questions:

1. What is your favorite book in the Old Testament?

2. What is your favorite book in the New Testament?

3. What is your favorite Bible story?

4. What is your favorite Psalm?

Sadly, this was almost 30 years ago and I’m sure the poll results either got thrown out long ago or are in a box somewhere in the basement that I’d probably rather not open for fear of unleashing a plague. I do remember a little about the last question. The Psalm most selected was Psalm 139 (“Oh, Lord, you search me and you know me…”). A few people selected Psalm 19 and think a few others selected Psalm 1 and there were others mentioned. The biggest surprise for me was that no one selected the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the most famous Psalm in the Bible and one of the most famous poems in all of literature. At the time, I speculated that it was a generational thing. If I’d asked the same question to people over 50, I’m sure Psalm 23 would have won hands down. I actually asked several people I knew in that age group and Psalm 23 was the almost unanimous selection.

So let’s move forward about 15 years. The dinosaur threat is now mostly contained, and I’m sitting in an adult Sunday School class in a church about 1500 miles away from the church in Berkeley. The teacher is discussing a term I’ve never heard before, something called a “remez,” which loosely translated means “hint.” The term refers to a teaching method that a Rabbi would use in which he would state one line or one idea from Hebrew scriptures, expecting those listening to him to figure out the rest of the idea. Jewish audiences at the time of Jesus would get that and most listeners were sufficiently familiar with Hebrew scriptures to make the connection that the Rabbi was shooting for.

Jesus used remez a lot. Much of what he did, many of the places he went, much of what he said could be interpreted as different types of remez. He used allegories for sheep and shepherds many times and it’s not a stretch to think that he was using those allusions as a remez for Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”).

Which brings us to the other thing I learned in that Sunday School class. Jewish liturgical practices didn’t focus on one Psalm during their liturgies. They would use blocks of Psalms and Psalms 22, 23, and 24 were one of those blocks. So when Jesus called out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (the first verse in Psalm 22), he wasn’t just crying out in anguish to God (although he was probably doing that) and he wasn’t just referring to the prophecy element of Psalm 22 (likely doing that too), he was doing his last remez, reminding the onlookers of those three Psalms. Psalm 22, the Psalm of anguish and suffering, Psalm 23, the Psalm of comfort in the presence of the Father in times of distress, and Psalm 24, the Psalm of ultimate victory (“Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty, he is the King of glory!”)

Now I know some of you are asking yourselves “Where is he going with this?” and some of you are asking yourselves, “Is chocolate ice cream better than vanilla?” Well, we’re almost there. You see, back when I did that poll, I was convinced that the reason Psalm 23 didn’t get any votes was generational. Now I think it was more of an AGE thing. Pretty much every person in that younger group had suffered in some way. Some of them had suffered a lot. Death, disease, failed relationships, none of those curses respect the young any more than they respect the old. What older people have is an understanding that suffering is going to try to be your best buddy for the rest of your life. Once you truly understand that, it’s easier to grasp the importance of Psalm 23. When you’ve legged it through the valley of the shadow of death a few times, God’s presence becomes more real than ever. Jesus’ message on the cross wasn’t one of abandonment and despair. It was a reminder that God never leaves us, even when we think He has.

I do wonder whether that poll result would be different today. Maybe not much, but I remember I voted for Psalm 139. I still love that Psalm, but I think I might pick Psalm 23 now. You see, I’ve made a number of those trips through the valley in the interim. If it doesn’t destroy you first and you’re willing to look for Him, you will find God there and you will find places to rest and be refreshed. Just be willing to look.

And the answer to the other question is chocolate. Chocolate is better.

The Question of Churches

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Well, here we are back in shutdown land. Trying to navigate through the landscape designed by COVID is a bit like trying to navigate through the backroads of the Flint Hills. You may THINK you know where you are going, but it’s just as likely you’re headed back to where you came from. At first, the shutdowns were a bit frightening. Now they’re just boring.

One of the issues that got buried in the current freakout about what to do with school openings is the question of what to do about churches. This is just my viewpoint from Bible Belt central, but it seemed that when the shutdowns first happened back in March, churches were a much bigger issue than they are now. I remember there were quite a few arguments about COVID strategery for churches on social media, although I think most people fell into the category of “let’s just stay patient and wait this out.” Many churches set up video church services. Smaller churches lacking that type of technical capability broke into groups for accountability with pastors being forced to work that much harder to keep track of their flocks. Some smaller churches tried a drive-in movie theater approach, although many of the stricter states attempted to shut those down. The states themselves followed many different strategies, although most seemed to base their shutdowns on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If your business or enterprise was involved in the bottom two layers (physiological needs and safety needs), you could remain open. The higher up the pyramid you went, the less essential your enterprise was considered. Churches were thought to be in that “self-actualization” level at the top. There were exceptions of course. Liquor stores don’t really fit into a “need” category, but they were allowed to stay open. I could speculate on why that was, but I’d rather not leave any written evidence that I’m a conspiracy theorist.

Since that time many things have changed, not least of which is that the entire logic for these shutdown restrictions was exposed as complete garbage. It would seem that the need to protest and occasionally riot was much lower on Maslow’s pyramid than previously thought. Many states opened up even before the protests started and most of the rest quit fighting for shutdowns shortly after the protests made it clear that governors in those states were hypocrites. Not surprisingly, the number of corona cases increased soon afterward, although the fatality rate has not increased and, in many locations, has continued to decline. With the eased restrictions, churches started the careful process of reopening until many states reinitiated crackdowns based on case increases. In those states (mine included), the shutdowns are different this time. Here in Kansas, enterprises can remain open if they require masks and a few counties are prohibiting gatherings of more than family and friends. Counties can also opt out of the mask requirement and most have. The county I live in (Butler County) has opted out. The next county to the west is Sedgwick County (Wichita) and they’ve decided to keep the mask requirement and limit gatherings to no more than 45. Churches were exempted from the 45 limit, but were highly encouraged to follow it.

For the majority of churches in the area, 45 is a real problem. Even the smallest of churches are pushing that number. Again, I need to clarify that this is just my perspective and I would like to not become known as the Pauline Kael of church attenders, but I think the opinion of many church-goers has changed from “lets wait this out” to “y’all are bat guano crazy.” The issue of school openings is more immediate and more intense, but at some point churches and county  and state governments are going to have to deal with some fallout over this.

My own church has struggled for find the right path through all of the government mandates and I truly don’t envy the Church Board. Frankly, you could get whiplash trying to keep track of all the directional changes in the past four month. We canceled on-location service and started live streaming services only in mid-March, with the goal of meeting again sometime in early May. Well, May rolled around and the governor slowed down the reopening process, so we kept up the streaming services until June. In June, we started outdoor services, but it was clear from the email and attached video announcing this return that the church had somewhat mixed feelings about the subject. We were told many times that live streaming was still available and we should use it if we felt unsafe. I think it was an enormous and somewhat frightening shock to see 700 people show up for that first service (average weekend attendance is around a thousand over three services). Attendance dropped off over the next two weeks, partly because it always drops off over the summer and partly because I think the attendance spooked many of the attendees, having been told for three months that large crowds are evil.

The next major event on the agenda was indoor services, which were supposed to start on July 5th, with masks required to get into the main sanctuary. Then the governor issued the current mandates and we went back to live streaming only. A new video and email was sent out, explaining that the leadership had discussed the situation with medical experts and determined that it was safer to stick with live streaming. The video also explained that we should respect Sedgwick County’s restrictions even though the church isn’t located in Sedgwick County because many church members live in Sedgwick County. I’m okay with the medical expert argument, but the whole “respecting another county’s restrictions” argument is just bizarre. There’s a reason that Butler County is swamped in the first four days of July with people buying fireworks. Butler County has fewer restrictions on what can be bought. I suspect the same would be true for church members in both counties. Not having the same rules as Sedgwick County is a feature, not a bug. One word that was conspicuously not mentioned in any video or email was the word “liability.” Just a guess, but I suspect that a lawyer or two were consulted in addition to the medical experts.

I’m not criticizing the church leadership. It’s a difficult job under ideal circumstances and my own foray into that realm 24 years ago at a different church was an unmitigated disaster. I’ll never do it again and I have the utmost respect for the brave souls that venture in. It LOOKS bad because the church is constantly on the defensive, reacting to every whim by the State. I’m personally frustrated, because I know that historically, the best way to destroy the church is to destroy the church community. This isn’t exactly doing that, but it does feel a little like we’re trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. My only request is that eventually my church figure out a way to get in front of this and get out of defensive mode. And, no, I’m not sure what that would look like. Many other churches are going through the same thing and hopefully they’ll figure out a consensus strategy that meets safety needs and allows the church community to thrive again.

Because if they’re waiting for the State to quit jerking their chain, they may be waiting a while. States really like being able to do that.

The Non-Boycott Boycott

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Anyone that knows me or anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I love sports. I especially love participating in sports, although at my age I love having functioning knees and hip joints even more, so I don’t participate much. I still love watching sports, an activity that is far less dangerous to my body parts. By sports, I don’t mean all sports. Watching golf is like watching the 100-meter dash performed by turtles and watching soccer would be a far more pleasant experience if the teams would occasionally score. I can watch pretty much any other sport event if the circumstances are right.

Over the years, I’ve tried to explain this love to other people, a few people, my wife and in the process I’ve distilled my reasons down to a genetic imperative to tell and listen to stories. This is what I wrote a few years ago:

The topic has come up often enough that I’ve actually had to think about it and develop a more considered answer, rather than simply saying, “Just cuz I do.” It occurred to me that probably the most effective method that we humans have developed to share information is the story. This has probably been true since the first time our ancestors were sitting in a cave around a fire and Grog started describing how he and his friends had managed to take down that woolly mammoth they were eating without get skewered by those giant tusks. Grog, Jr. probably sat around that same campfire and took it all in with rapt attention, but as he got older, he probably thought that old man Grog surely would have done better with the mammoth if he’d thrown the spear there instead of there. Perhaps it did work better and Grog, Jr. would have his own really good story to tell around the campfire, or perhaps he found out that the old man was smarter than he thought, which would explain Junior’s noticeable limp, but that would also make a really good story, assuming he survived.

Anyway, my point is it’s a part of our DNA to collect information and stories make collecting that information more palatable than just gathering dry facts. Most of the information we gather, we’ll never use, but that doesn’t make the gathering of it through stories less important. In fact, stories have become such an integral part of us that we need them, regardless of whether the information is useful. This explains the value of music and art and a good book. It explains why Jesus taught in parables and Shakespeare made Julius Caesar much more entertaining than just “Brutus and Cassius stabbed Caesar, the end.”

Sports for me is a story that’s being created as I watch. Sometimes the story is really boring when the game turns into a blowout and sometimes it’s endlessly fascinating as the game twists and turns to an unexpected conclusion. Some people don’t have the patience or the understanding of what’s going on to get much out of sports and I get that. Each of us has types of stories that are more attractive to us than other types and there’s no disgrace in not liking a particular type of story. I tend to like most forms of storytelling, although opera is a bit of a stretch. But all of us need stories in our lives and you can tell her I said so.

My need for stories hasn’t diminished in the three years since I wrote that and I miss the spectacle of sports in this time of COVID-19 shutdowns. When live sports resume in a couple of weeks, it’s going to be weird not watching them.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of weeks, or about as long as it’s been clear that the major sports in this country were going to attempt a comeback this summer. I think this resumption is ill-conceived, but that’s not why I won’t be watching. The major sports (particularly the NFL and the NBA, although I’m certain that major league baseball will do something equally stupid before their comeback) have decided to mix a large dollop of politics into their comeback recipe. I follow politics a lot and I probably spend too much time on the subject. I’d be happier if I didn’t do that, but politics is its own type of story and even when I hate it, I kind of enjoy it. But when I sit back on a quiet weekend afternoon to watch a game, the last thing I want to see is mass protests by people who are no more knowledgeable about politics in general than I am. Oh, I’m sure that the black athlete knows far more about racial discrimination than I do because he or she has lived it. And I’d actually like to hear his or her opinion about the subject, up to a point. All I ask in return is that, for a few hours, I can get a respite from the political miasma. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but the NFL and NBA disagree. That’s fine. They can do their thing and I can go read a book or something.

I don’t do boycotts, or at least I didn’t before now. I suppose if I found out that the local grocer was eating human livers with fava beans and a nice chianti, I’d probably quit shopping at his store (we all know that a merlot is preferable in that situation), but mostly I don’t let the politics of the businesses I wish to support stop me from doing so. We’ve got an artist on the outskirts of town who is a socialist, or at least I think he is. He’s got a sign in front of his house that says “HOUSE OF SOCIALIST” with a hammer and sickle drawn under the message, but I suppose that could be some strange form of irony. Let’s say I decided that one of the skeletons driving a motorcycle he’s got in his front yard would be the perfect conversation piece in my front yard and I found out that he was selling them cheap. Would I let the fact that Socialists were responsible for the murder of 100,000,000 people in the last century stop me from buying this outstanding work of art? Nope.

In my own mind, I don’t think of this as a boycott. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind and I won’t spend any time proselytizing others about the evils of mixing sports and politics. I don’t care what other people think about this subject. I could also see going back to watching sports at some point, depending on whether the sports world gets back to doing, you know, sports. I’m not holding my breath.

I’m going to miss it, but I don’t think I’m going to miss it that much.  Or at least that’s what my wife keeps telling me.

Loving on the United States

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Welp, it’s Independence Day weekend, so…

I’ll never leave you in suspense concerning my emotions about the United States. I love this country. I love almost everything about this country. I love it’s Constitution and system of government. I don’t love everything that’s happened to that system of government in the last, oh, 110 years or so, but the theory is still good, and how we practice that theory is still close enough to the ideal that I can live with the flaws.

I love the economic system we have, a system that, when practiced close to its original intent, has allowed for a great deal of freedom to improve your economic status, should you endeavor to do so. Hence, we have a relatively low poverty rate here, which leads us to define poverty at a fairly high level. More impoverished people in this country have cell phones and big screen televisions than any country in the world. Other countries have modeled their systems after our system and attempted to improve on it. Some of those improvements have been quite commendable and maybe we should consider doing them here, although each of those improvements can come with a high cost, both in capital and in freedom. That cost should be considered before we jump in. Over the years we have made a number of changes ourselves. Some of them have worked out and some of them haven’t. We are nowhere near a free market economy anymore, which has it’s pluses and minuses. Once again, I’m pretty comfortable with how close we are to the ideal.

I love the people here and I love way that each region of the country and, indeed, practically each county in every State has it’s own unique culture. I live in an almost stereotypical small town, but I’m fifteen minutes away from a large city and five minutes away from farms and cattle ranches. I’m an hour away from the vast, empty spaces of western Kansas and only four hours from the wonderfully different flavor of the Ozarks and it’s unique landscapes and people. The whole country is like that, a hodgepodge of different cultures and heritages and histories. It never gets boring traveling across the United States, unless you want it to be boring. You can do that, too.

We have problems. Every country has problems. Ours stem not from flawed ideals, but a failure to live up to those ideals. It’s great to believe that all of us are created equal, but then you actually have to act like it’s true, which is tragically against our very nature as humans. That’s why the First Amendment is so important. If you see injustice in a situation, you can speak out against it, or seek to change who speaks for you in the government, or even change who leads that government. I’m not sure if most Americans realize how rare that is. We often look at nations like China and Russia and lament their lack of freedom, but many supposedly free countries limit what can be said politically with vaguely defined terms like “hate speech” and “incitement.” There are people in this country who would like to alter our freedoms, including freedom of speech. I’m glad they can voice their opinions, but they are wrong and I will fight them to my last breath.

I don’t know if we’ll get fixed what needs fixing, but given a choice between trying to fix it here or trying to fix the various maladies that other countries have, I think I’ll take my chances here. We’ve got the right system, the right freedoms, and the right people to figure this out. There’s too much good here to give up on just because we’re missing a bit when we shoot for our ideals. On the whole, it’s a good country. It’s a good country to love. I do, unapologetically, love it.

Lessons in Prayer from Conan the Barbarian

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Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have not the tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad, why we fought or why we died. No, all that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what is important. Valor pleases you, Crom. So grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then the hell with you!” – Conan the Barbarian

Nothing improves the prayer life quite like a crisis. Right now, we’ve got multiple crises we’re dealing with globally, nationally, and locally, so I guess each of us must, in his or her own way, test that hypothesis. There’s an old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” An army guy I knew once told me that this saying isn’t universally true, but it’s true enough. Just before he died, noted atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens told a fellow writer that if he heard through the grapevine about a deathbed conversion, he could be certain that it was just the drugs talking. I’m just guessing, but I think that you’d have to be committed to the cause like Hitchens was for that to be true. Most people prefer to cover all the bases.

I am a Christian and there has been a dramatic improvement in my prayer life in the past three months. So it is every time I face hard times in my life. It is a character flaw, for sure. If I’m truly committed to a God whom I believe loves me unconditionally, perhaps He deserves a little more of my time when life is good. That particular flaw has lessened as I’ve gotten older, but it’s never gone away.

This time is different, though. The zeitgeist is a spirit of anger and division and against that there is no full immunity. I confess my prayers this time are a little less like Francis of Assisi and a little more like Conan the Barbarian. Okay, I haven’t asked for revenge against my enemies (yet) or ended a prayer with blasphemy. But the prayer time has been a little coarse of late.

And if you thumb through the Bible just a little, you find that God is okay with that. Before he dies, Samson asks God for revenge against the Philistines and God grants his request. There are a number of verses in the Psalms that are motivated by anger in the face of oppression or injustice (Psalm 137:8-9 is probably the most graphic example). God’s been around the block a time or two. If we go to Him expressing our anger, it’s not like he hasn’t heard it before.

I’m aware that if I put together a list titled “What Would Jesus Do,” I’m sure “Seek vengeance against my enemies” wouldn’t be in the top ten of that list. Nor would I expect God to grant my request for revenge like he did with Samson. But the best way to get past the anger that motivates such a request is to let go of it and the most effective way to let go of it is to pour it out to God. Trust me, He can take it.

So in this time and with this particular spiritual crisis, I confess that my prayers are far from perfect. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just keep praying.

My only regret is that I don’t get a cool soundtrack when I pray like Conan had.

Letter to Dad – 2020

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Dear Dad,

Well, it’s been about a year since the last time I wrote and I suppose you noticed that the world has become something of a disaster since then. I think you ought to know that IT WASN’T MY FAULT. I haven’t been to China or, for that matter, Minneapolis or Atlanta or Seattle or even Washington D.C. You can check my credit card receipts if you don’t believe me. For the record, I have no idea what my sisters have been up to since March.

It could be worse, as you well know. You weren’t yet six when the Great Depression began and that cataclysm was almost concurrent with surviving the Dust Bowl years on the farm in Missouri. I’m sure none of that compared to hunkering down in a foxhole somewhere in France in the middle of the night with bombs going off overhead and knowing in your heart that you weren’t going to see the next morning. That kind of lends some perspective to our current troubles.

Well I for one am very glad you saw that next morning, and it goes beyond the knowledge that I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. I learned a lot from having you as a father and most of it was good. Much of what constitutes my own moral compass came from watching you. Be honest, keep learning, treat people with respect unless they prove they don’t deserve it, don’t be afraid to give out second chances, be willing to apologize (if you have to). I learned a lot from Mom, but most of the ABCs of manhood came from you. A lot of those ABCs I don’t do as well as you did them, but the nice thing is that I can still keep striving toward the ideal. Never give up. That was another thing you taught me.

I expect you noticed those three words I threw into that last paragraph, “most of it.” I’ve tried to improve on your weaknesses. It’s just danged hard. What I find is that when I’m not making the same mistakes you made, I’m making a whole different set of mistakes. Manhood, fatherhood, being a decent human being, none of it is easy. I guess it’s just another reason to keep striving and not give up.

Taken as a whole, you left a good legacy and I’m proud to be your son. Thank you.

Well, I know you prefer that I keep these short. I know you’d probably prefer that I make them less sentimental. We both know that character flaw was Mom’s fault. Try not to hold it against her.

Ian and Deborah are still doing well, and if all goes as expected, Ian should have his doctorate by this time next year. You would be so proud of both of them.

God bless you!

Dave

Fixing Racism

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Back when I was a teenager, every now and then my dad would walk into whatever room he found me (fortunately, it usually wasn’t the bathroom) and say the words, “We need to have a talk.” By “talk,” I knew he didn’t mean “dialogue” or “discussion.” What he really meant was, “I need you sit in your chair and listen quietly while I lecture you about the latest stupid thing you’ve done.”

“We need to have a talk.” I used to dread those words worse than I dreaded death.

So when the talking heads in media tell me, “We need to have a serious discussion about race in America,” I get uncomfortable. I assume that whoever is telling me that really means, “I need to lecture you about how you’re a really bad person until you agree with me just to make me go away.” That may be unfair. The media person who says this may actually have pure intentions. I have my doubts but, for the moment, let’s assume they really mean it and dive into my viewpoint. Warning! I am about to get religious on you. Sorry about that, but at it’s core this is a spiritual problem and you aren’t going to solve it with riots and protests and stern, one-sided lectures.

As a Christian, I am taught that there are no racial distinctions in God’s eyes. Galatians 3:28 is the first verse that comes to mind documenting that point, but there are other verses and this isn’t a Bible study, so look them up for yourself. And we are also taught to love your neighbor as yourself and we are given a very broad definition of the term “neighbor.” Basically, we are to strive to see everyone the way that God sees them.

That’s the ideal, but we all know it doesn’t exist. And the phrase “doesn’t exist” also has a very broad definition. It doesn’t exist anywhere at any time in human history. Show me any country in the world and I’ll show you racial or ethnic distinctions that are injurious to one or more racial or ethnic group. Racial distinctions as a cause for distrust and animosity have existed ever since there were enough humans to divide into groups. One theory on why this exists is that tribalism is a part of our genetics, that being a part of groups that mistrusted other groups improved your chances of survival, so people having the DNA that told them to stay in and defend those groups were more likely to survive. Or you could take the easy way out and say that tribalism is just another way that our sin nature manifests itself. It doesn’t matter. Both explanations are just complicated ways of saying that the problem of racism is really hard to fix.

Which is why most of the solutions being proposed are so general as to be worthless. I had a friend on Facebook that suggested that we needed to pass legislation, so I asked for some specifics. I never got an answer (although to be fair, he’d moved on to other topics), but I did get a feeling from some of the other responses that the “there ought to be a law” crowd really thinks that somewhere out in the wilds of Washington D.C. is hiding a magical law that is going to fix everything. As it happens, we’ve got a bunch of laws prohibiting racial discrimination and police brutality and even murder. We even have a few constitutional amendments on the side of racial justice and we still have the Derek Chauvins of the world out there killing the George Floyds of the world. One more law or ten more laws isn’t going to stop evil. It’s just going to put more power into the hands of the authorities. You know. People like Derek Chauvin.

So what to do? While I don’t think that there’s much to be done legislatively, I do think there are policy changes that could be made. I saw a Tweet by Jane Coasten of Vox (a political liberal, by the way) that made three suggestions, which I sort of endorse. They were 1. End qualified immunity, 2. Curtail the power of police unions, 3. Fewer laws. I agree with the last two wholeheartedly and I’m a little less thrilled by the first one. Qualified immunity basically states that a government official can’t be sued if that official is acting in an official capacity and not breaking the law. We live in a highly litigious society and if we allow good people to be sued out of their homes if they make a mistake, then you’ll have fewer good people willing to become cops or teachers. Probably some modification to how and when qualified immunity is imposed is in order. I am all for curtailing police union power. Derek Chauvin had a long history of complaints against him, and yet somehow he was still in uniform. At some point the union has to be willing to say that a troubled cop shouldn’t be a cop anymore. If the union isn’t willing to do that, then cities should have the capacity to ignore their defense of that cop. As I mentioned earlier, having lots of laws just puts more power into the hands of the people who enforce those laws and some of those people are corrupt. I don’t suppose the percentage of evil people in police forces across the country is any different than it is in the general population. For obvious reasons, that gives me no comfort at all.

Of course, none of that fixes racism, because racism isn’t fixable by changing laws or policies. Given our genetic makeup (or our sin nature, whichever you prefer), racism may not be fixable without changing the human heart and that’s above my pay grade. Remember that broad definition of the word “neighbor” that I mentioned earlier? Maybe a good place to start is for each of us to consciously try to treat each person we meet as we would like to be treated ourselves.

It won’t fix the problem, but it seems like a good first step.

25

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Friday was our 25th wedding anniversary. That sounds pretty special and it is in most circumstances. However, I think we can all agree that the situation this year is unique. Brenda struggles with back pain and is barely ambulatory under the best of circumstances and three days prior to the event, she messed up her foot. Even if she’d been perfectly healthy, it’s not like there’s anyplace to go, what with the corona virus ravaging the countryside. Here in our little section of flyover land, the restaurants are slowly opening up, but other entertainment possibilities are still highly limited. I took the day off from work, but we spent the bulk of the day doing yard work. I finally finished the frame for the raised bed garden she wanted, so I guess that could be considered an anniversary gift. By the time I was done, it was pretty late and we were expecting a guest later in the evening, so I went to Subway and picked up a couple of sandwiches. That was our anniversary dinner. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m not exactly an expert on the romance stuff.

By the way, here’s a little bit of marriage advise. Never, ever, let your wife watch instructional gardening videos on Youtube. The pain and heartbreak it can cause just ain’t worth it. Brenda saw this video on building large raised bed gardens using corrugated metal for the sides. The video explained that this could be accomplished for less than $100 and in about an hour. The truth was that it cost over double that estimate and I spent the better part of three weekends trying to piece together this monstrosity, although I should add that someone with actual carpentry skills might have knocked it out in around a day. Self flagellation would have been more fun, and possibly more productive. Over those weekends, we probably had more arguments than we’d had over the past year, but at least they were outside so the neighbors could enjoy them as well. We should have sold tickets.

So it’s been 25 years and I confess I’m still not very good at this marriage stuff, although maybe marriage works best when it’s performed by amateurs. When you don’t really know what you are doing, you fall back on the strategies that endeared you to your love even before the wedding. Brenda’s two big love languages are service and quality time and the raised bed project, much as it made me want to blow up abandoned buildings for the sheer joy of destroying something, was an activity that translated into an expression of love because I was actually doing something for her. The fact that I took a day off from work to finish it was just icing on the cake. This may sound crass, but if you know your spouse’s love languages, you can get away with all kinds of stuff. Sometimes, I almost feel like I’m scamming her, although it’s not really a scam if the other person is in on it. She knows what’s going on.

I tell myself next year I’ll do better, but I’m not that naive. It likely won’t be better, but I think it will still be good. Just praying that’s good enough.

Memorial Day – A Confession

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They say that confession is good for the soul. Well, maybe. My own soulful experiences with confession have been a decidedly mixed bag. Certainly, confession is necessary to gain a measure freedom from the sins that dog us, but good? Well…

I have never served in the military. This is neither a boast nor a statement of contrition. It simply is. However, I have spent my entire professional career working at military bases as a civilian, first at a Naval base then at an Air Force base. So whenever I go to the movies or to some stores and I pull out my wallet, the cashier will often notice my base ID and ring up a military discount. When I catch it (and sometime I don’t), I always gently correct the cashier and explain that this discount should be for people that have actually earned it and that definitely does not include me. The closest I will likely ever come to putting my life on the line for my country is if that office paper cut on my index finger gets infected. Most times the cashier charges me the full price, but sometimes they’ve already rung it up and just tell me to take the discount. When that happens, I’m enough of a sociopath that any guilt I’d feel vanishes.

But there was that one instance. This was six years ago and my father was undergoing cancer treatment at a nearby VA hospital. It had been a long day and Dad still had about ten minutes of treatment to go and he asked if I would get him something to drink after he was finished. Well, the nearest working soda dispenser was on the first floor and we were on the third, so I headed off to the elevator. I got in and it was just me and one other guy in the elevator and maybe I should add that the elevators in the Wichita VA hospital are the slowest elevators in the world. It’s been tested and certified by the International Slow Elevator Association. I could have taken the stairs, gotten the soda, gotten back upstairs, and taken a short nap before the elevator reached the first floor.

So the elevator started down and the stranger and I waited and waited in an increasingly uncomfortable silence. I noticed that he was occasionally giving me quick, nervous glances, but I only noticed because I was giving him quick, nervous glances. Finally, after what seemed like a couple of hours, the elevator slowed down as it neared the floor and the guy looked at me and said, “Thank you for your service.”

Then the doors opened and I had to make a quick decision. I could and probably should hold the doors open as I explained to him that I wasn’t a veteran. Then I realized that this guy had just drummed up enough courage to thank a total stranger. It was probably the toughest and nicest thing he had done all day. I could ruin that moment with an explanation or I could try something else. I turned to him and smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” Then we got off the elevator and never saw each other again.

I felt pretty guilty about that, guilty enough that I never told Dad the story. Still do.

So on this Memorial Day weekend, I want to apologize to those in the military, both past and present for my indiscretion. What you did and what you continue to do both awes and humbles me and makes me want to be a better person to deserve your sacrifice. And for the loved ones of those who gave their lives in defense of this country, words cannot cover my admiration for your sacrifice as well. I pray that it was not it vain.

I took the stairs after I got the soda. No reason to tempt fate.

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