Friday, November 27, 2009

Walking On The Beach

Longer ago than I care to admit, during the pre-children, early years of our marriage, Lori and I would go to Myrtle Beach during the winter months. Her parents would rent a condo for January, February, and part of March to escape central Pennsylvania winters, and we would visit as often as we could. Many times, when we were there, we would take ambitiously long walks on the beach. These days, just walking to the beach seems like an accomplishment, but back then we would walk miles. Sometimes we would pick out some distant highrise along the beach, and resolve to walk to that point, then turn around. There's a funny thing about assessing distance on the beach. The tall building we would choose as a goal was always, in reality, much farther away- a much longer walk-than it appeared to be. We would walk and walk and walk, and the building would seem to get no closer. There was little sign of forward progress. When we turned around to look where we had come from, though, we clearly had walked a long way. Our starting point had receded, and looked small and distant, but forward the building seemed as far off as when we started walking. There were usually numerous beach walkers strolling the Grand Strand. The weather in January, while comfortable, was typically not warm enough for laying in the sun, or diving into the waves, so most folks walked the beach, each at their own pace. There were some athletic types who ran, and they would pass us by in seconds. Others would pass us by in that Olympic style speed walk, that looked more like a waddle. Some ambled slowly, holding hands, looking at shells, in no hurry at all, and we would catch them, and pass them by. Often, we would see people ahead of us turn to leave the beach, and it was tempting to think we were more dedicated walkers than those folks. Actually, though, we didn't know at all where they began. People entered the beach at a wide variety of places. We sometimes walked beside the beach itself, on the boardwalk near the center of town, then moved onto the sand when we ran out of boardwalk. We would join others that had entered the beach farther north, and more people began their beach stroll from the streets we would pass by, or from the many hotel decks that lined the beach. But unless we walked side by side from start to finish, we had no way of judging the distance others had traveled.
Last evening, the circle of friends with whom I have met most recent Mondays had a discussion about our individual reactions to the word ''Church''. All of us have been seeking, growing, and refining our understanding of Christ and His Church over the last ten weeks, or so. Our reactions to the word ''Church'' today are probably all different, or more complex, than before this recent exploration began, but it was stunning how nearly universally the word ''hypocrisy'' is among the primary descriptors. We all nodded knowingly as examples of blatant hypocrisy among self proclaimed Christians were shared. I, too, find myself trying to discern authenticity in those who call themselves believers. But as we chatted, I felt a new perspective emerging on this problem of pervasive hypocrisy. It is too easy to assume that certain people we encounter, who behave in a particular way, are, despite their own claim, not authentic Christians. The reality that crept into my mind was that most of us, if others were to see some isolated fragment of our lives, could be judged as hypocrites. The reality of the Church is that its authentic participants are all walking along the same beach, aiming toward the highrise of Christlikeness. The reality is, we've all entered the beach at different distances from that goal. Some folks arrive on the beach with little darkness around them. They have led clean, honest, relatively pure lives, and the end goal is only a brief stroll. Others, probably most of us, begin their walk at places of brokenness, real darkness, and ugliness and gradually, incrementally, surrender fractions of our nature as we are made aware of those areas we still cling to. Still others come from starting points so dark, twisted, painful, and evil that even after long, earnest forward progress, surrender, and reconstruction there is much yet to travel. And, at times along the way, many of us walk the wrong direction, and slip back towards where we came from. Even Paul, who most of us would agree was an authentic believer, said in Romans ''I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.''We can, perhaps, infer that if we happened upon Paul, at just the right moment, a moment in which he was doing what he hates, we might conclude ''Aha. Another one of those hypocrite Christians.''
The very nature of Christianity, the reality that Christ takes us as we are, then begins a work of transformation of varying magnitude makes it also a reality that the outside observer will see us incomplete projects as hypocrites. We should be very cautious, as part of the Body, in applying that label, unless we have walked side by side along the beach with the accused.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

a bigger picture

If, like me, you were around during the sixties and seventies, and participated in activities and behaviors typical of that period you would prefer not be itemized, that list would probably include listening to the late Frank Zappa. For the uninitiated, Frank Zappa, as leader of the band The Mothers of Invention, and later by himself, produced a giant body of music that, I guess, would best be described as avante-garde. Zappa, father of four children of noteworthy names- Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen- was often described as a genius. Certainly he was prolific. He definitley was creatively different. But genius? He was often profane, and vulgar and his schtick included flirting with the limits of offensiveness. I always suspected that among his fan base, there was a certain degree of Emperor's New Clothes syndrome going on-only the smartest people “got it”, and of course everyone wanted to be counted among the smartest. I didn't get it. I owned only one Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention recording, 1971's ''Fillmore East'' (on 8 track!), that was good for shocking the unfamiliar with it's vulgarity. But like jazz ''geniuses'' Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, free verse poets like Allen Ginsberg, and expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Frank Zappa's art is over my head. Is it possible Pollock and Zappa privately laughed at people who “got it”? Were they, perhaps, secretly amazed anybody took them seriously? Maybe not.
But my intention here is not to critique Frank Zappa's work, it's to draw an analogy from one of his album covers, pictured at top left. Look at it a second or two. What is it? Most observers would conclude, if only aware it was a Frank Zappa record, that it is a Z and an A, part of a larger, unseen spelling of Zappa. The title of the album is “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.'' Now what is the picture? (I must confess, I removed the word ''ZAPPA'' from the top, and the title from the bottom.)
So, what's the analogy? We often draw conclusions based on, to borrow a photographic term, our limited ''Angle of View''. I've been wrestling with some theological questions of late, questions that have been asked repeatedly for thousands of years and by millions of people. Questions about suffering, and free will versus predeterminism. While satisfactory resolution has remained, thus far, elusive, I take a certain blanket comfort in these issues by admitting that I only see part of a Z and the tip on a A, and conclude it's a ship and a hat. The infinite Creator, with His infinite ''Angle of View'' sees so much more-infinitely more- than I, and it's presumptuous on my part to question His love and wisdom. I am unable, when the placid surface of the water is disturbed by what I perceive to be a tragedy or horror, to see the effect of the ripples that flow across the lake surface. The perfect example, of course, is the horrors poured on Christ Himself. Then and there, His followers' limited ''Angle of View'' caused them to weep and mourn, but the ripples that flowed out from that event are still circling the globe, carrying hope and redemption to all the world. So, when we can't see why things happen the way they happen, and no explanation seems adequate, and we question the very nature and sovereignty of our God, we must remind ourselves there is a much, much bigger picture.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mr. Fix-it

There are key landmarks, turning points, in the ascent of man. There is the harnessing of fire, the discovery of the wheel, the development of written language, the invention of frozen pizza, and the invention of the TV remote controller. Similarly, there are landmarks, key milestones, in our individual lives: becoming potty trained; learning to drive; marriage; our children's arrival; and starting to get mail from AARP. I have a new item to add to this list of milestones, for both humankind and me individually. I have successfully repaired our dryer. Not everyone, I'm sure, will share my conviction that this accomplishment equates with the wheel, or childbirth. But me successfully repairing anything is so out of character that it warrants inclusion on such lists. The odyssey began Thursday morning, when Lori shouted down the stairs, “THE DRYER WON'T TURN ON”. It wasn't unplugged, but acted as if it was. It was totally comatose. She checked the breaker box in the basement, but none were tripped. I relegated the announcement to the background, subconscious processing part of my brain, went about other business, and waited for my cerebral cortex to propose a course of action. I fully expected the conclusion would be to call the Maytag Repairman, wake him from his nap, wait two days, watch as he gloomily shook his head and said, ''you need a new dryer, sorry, that'll be $129 please.” Unexpected crises, such as this one, seem to arise at the most inconvenient time. Flat tires seem to happen when the trunk is stuffed full of suitcases and it's raining. And dryers fail when there is laundry piled to the ceiling, and there is an oversized load of newly washed wet towels and sweat pants needing to be dried. The upstairs hallway and our bedroom were transformed into a surreal wonderland of wet wash hanging everywhere it could hang-from the ironing board, from the treadmill, from the bedposts, coat rack, and chairs. I suddenly decided, “I can fix it!” I was probably delirious from the high level of laundry chemicals in the bedroom air, but nonetheless that was my plan. It's important to note, I don't fix stuff. It's not among my skill set. But I rounded up some tools, pulled the dryer away from the wall, and set about figuring out how dryers work, and more specifically, why this one did not. An hour or so later, the dryer's hood was up, like a cubic white Buick, and there were dryer internal organs scattered about the laundry room. I had formed a hypothesis, aided by internet sites like Appliance Repair for Morons, that the trouble was in two things called thermal breakers, and successfully removed them. Friday morning I went to a little store in West York that sells appliance entrails. The man behind the counter peered over his glasses at me with disdain, probably expecting me to say “My dryer don't dry. How come?” But I confidently, and correctly ask for the parts I needed. His demeanor changed, as he apparently mistook me for an authentic member of the Guys Who Fix Stuff fraternity. “Twenty Six bucks, buddy.” That evening, I successfully reinstalled all the organs, and closed the hood. I noticed one leftover screw. A big one. So, the hood came open again, and in short order,I had located the screw's home, installed it, and closed the hood again. The internet education I received on Maytag dryers urged the cleaning of various passages where lint accumulates, and leads to the failure of the very parts I replaced. So, with the shop vac, I removed enough wads of furry lint to make several cats, and closed her back up. And you know what? It worked! I threw in some damp socks that had been hanging from the laundry room door, pushed the start button and it rumbled to life! All weekend, I made Lori repeat how impressed she was. I told her, probably, five times, we saved a lot of money. And I think she is proud. Or at least surprised. I'm sure she expected I'd put it back together and it would still be comatose, and I would beat the dryer with a sledge hammer until it was scrap metal. I'm not sure how long the radiant glow of successful repairs lasts,or the half-life of the boost to self confidence, but for now anyway, in this one tiny area of life, I'm pleased with myself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trouble in Milwaukee

This was written a couple months ago, before Harley Davidson's announcement last week that they were dropping the Buell lineup, and plan to try to unload their MV unit, bought in '08. This was in response to an accelerating shrinkage of Harley's sales figures. Clearly, new Harley execs see the turn around strategy very differently than I. They say they plan to focus on their “core strengths”, and make money with the Harley brand other ways. I guess that means coffee mugs, pocket books, and clothing. We'll see. I hope they're right and I'm wrong. But there's a Wall Street saying that goes, ''The trend is your friend.'' The trend in Harley has been downward, and I fear this new strategy will accelerate it.

This is the kind of essay that can get ya hurt. More, even, than insulting someone's wife, girlfiend or Mom, disparaging words about Harley Davidson are fightin' words to some. First, I must establish that I am not, by inclination, a Harley basher. I know there are some commited bashers though, folks who for whatever personal reasons would never be caught riding a Harley Davidson, wearing a Harley T-shirt, or even speaking positively of the brand. That's not me. I've owned four of them. And from about 16 years old on (that's a LONG time) I have spent probably an unhealthy amount of time with my nose buried in Harley oriented magazines, brochures, websites, and books educating myself on current offerings and the history of the brand. I've taught my sons, at an early age, to tell a Flathead from Panhead from a Shovelhead from an Evo from a Twin Cam. I've memorized, and quiz myself from time to time on the evolution of Harley models. Last rigid frame? ('57) First Knucklehead? ('36) First year of the K model? ('55) There is no product in all of commerce that has so fascinated and appealed to me as Harley Davidson motorcycles. So, having hopefully established myself as one not interested in criticizing Harley because I dislike them, I think the Motor Company has deep problems. Milwaukee has lost its mojo.
First, the obvious. Harley Davidson motorcycles, like boats, vacation homes, and pool tables are discretionary purchases-stuff that, in times just like these, we can do without. I can hear some folks, the ones with the most Harley logos inked on their bodies, boasting “No, for me a Harley is a necessity.” And there are probably the obsessive few who put their motorcycle on equal terms with their homes, utility bills, car payments, and college tuition. But most of us who participate in the real world will do without a motorcycle if the finances require it. Here in 2009, a lot of finances require it! So demand for all motorcycles is down. That's not a unique Harley problem, of course, but it is a problem.
Second, Harley, like the automakers, and more so the home sellers, have pigged out on the all-you-can-eat easy financing buffet for years, but, for now anyway, that buffet is closed! Suddenly credit scores matter, and down payment, and debt to income ratios, and all those factors that once opened the door to, or prevented, sign and ride financing are important again. Also, Harley enjoyed resale values that were unheard of in many big ticket purchases-they still do have better than most. But the supply/demand curve that once allowed dealers to get thousands over MSRP, and the seller of a one year old Fatboy to get all his original purchase price has shifted dramatically. Now you can pay under list in most dealerships, and MSRPs have been flat for years. New V Rods sticker now for less-a lot less-than when they were introduced! A new FXDI-the base Super Glide- is much improved over, say, a five year old one-bigger motor, standard fuel injection, beefier front end,a sixth gear, but has not increased in list price. All that has taken at least some of the wind out of the secondary market. So to a lienholder, the lender behind the sign and ride easy financing, the chances of recouping their money on a repossesed Harley bought with 100% financing are now slim. Just when Milwaukee needs lenders to step up, they are doing quite the opposite.
Third, and here is where the threats start coming in, it's product, product, product. Despite the claims of Harley's advertising regarding “new models” there hasn't been a truly new product since the V Rod. The displacement has been bumped, there are flat black versions, various seat, fender, handle bar combinations, polished and unpolished cases, different levels of farings and luggage, but there, really, are only Sportster, Dyna, Softail, Touring, and V Rod. Just because your brunette girlfriend wears a blonde wig, she's not a new girlfriend.
Harley certainly has the bases covered in heavyweight, air cooled, V twin cruisers. They own the category. They certainly have cred in the heavyweight Tourer segment as well. After all, before the FX in the early seventies, that's what HD was, except for Sportster. (OK, I know, they offered some lightweights-the Italian built Aermacchi stuff badged as Harleys. They, to say the least, earned Harley no cred.) But the world of motorcycling is so much broader and deeper. And the growth, at least at the moment, is in places Harley has no presence. If Harley Davidson is going to refill its customer funnel as age, economics, and changed tastes drain it, they must broaden and deepen. They need entry level, lightweight or middleweight choices. They need a credible Sport bike. They need a Dual Sport, something that likes dirt roads as well as interstates and boulevards. They must attract young riders. They're not doing real well in that regard. The domestic auto industry gave away a huge chunk of an entire generation by offering Pintos and Vegas to compete with Civics and Corollas and Rabbitts. Many of those early Civic buyers have bought Hondas and Acuras ever since. Vega buyers, rightly so, probably never set foot in a GM showroom again. Today's 20 somethings are entering motorcycling via Kawasaki EX250s, or KLR650s, or Honda CBR600s, or Suzuki SV650s, or dozens of dirt bikes. Harley's entry point is the $7000 solo seat, no passenger pegs Sportster 883. What young guy wants a motorcycle he can't take a girl for a ride on? Too many of those young riders will stay with Honda or Yamaha and never consider HD.
There are, I'm afraid, deep systemic, cultural obtacles to this transformation happening. The evolution of Harley's product has always been slow, gradual, incremental. Nothing remotely like the pace of change at the big four Japanese brands, or even, now, at the revived British threat Triumph. And there may never have been a “brand” with as clearly a defined look, sound and image. Just look at the controversy and cool reception in some quarters to the V Rod. But if the “don't mess with it” forces prevail, for fear of a “new Coke” debacle, Harley's target, or default, demographic will shrink. To advocate abandonment of the Harley tradition would be suicidal, but growing the line in new, unHarley like ways would not.
There are some positive signs. The Sportster XR1200, while certainly traditional HD in many ways, has been well received by the Sport bike press, and may bring new and different people to Harley showrooms. And, there is interesting thinking at Buell. Adventure Tourers. Sport bikes. Contemporary concepts. I've thought for a long time that Buell was the place Harley could redefine their product lineup without messing with the Harley name, but Buell sales volume is tiny. Now, though, they have 2 models powered by a liquid cooled 1125cc, 146 horsepower engine built by Rotax. This is interesting in that they were willing to go outside the company for a credible engine, and, like V Rod, bends the definition of a Harley-even if it's called a Buell. Erik Buell, who's approach is certainly out of the box, has been anchored down by having to use Sportster engines. Maybe we'll see a 600 cc version of that Rotax engine. Or a V four, or an inline four, or a $ 4500 replacement for the laughable Blast. (Even Buell is laughing at it now that they've mercifully pulled the plug for '10). Who knows? At least Erik Buell isn't hyping a flat black paint scheme as a new model. (the Nightling?)
Also interesting, but leading as yet to no conclusions, is Harley's acquisition in '08 of MV Agusta and Cagiva, premium Italian motorcycles with strong high performance heritage. Will we see those products in Harley or Buell dealerships? Or is this more about Harley gaining a bigger share in Europe?
Neither brand can in any way help the “entry level” void, but could, potentially, allow Harley to compete with Ducati or Aprilia in the high end.
BMW was once a motorcycle brand that, like Harley, had a tightly defined approach to bikes. Air cooled, opposed twins. Change was slow and incremental and they had a loyal ownership. Over the last ten years or so BMW has completely reinvented themselves. They still build top quality, dependable, not inexpensive motorcycles, and continue to sell “boxers”-opposed cylinder engines that are instantly recognizable as BMW, and appeal to their loyal base. But look at the BMW website today, and you'll see models that are nothing like the traditional Beemer. There is a 450cc enduro, a 650 parallel twin dual sport, and an 800cc version, a 650 single, and other new, exciting, broad appeal offerings that are not what anyone would have expected from BMW ten years ago. BMW has shown it can be done. A brand can redefine itself without abandoning tradition. They had to. Harley Davidson has to, or it will, over time, gradually, incrementally lose market share. The recession will end. Sales of motorcycles will rebound. But Harley can not count on a revived economy alone turning their numbers around.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Boring Economic Stuff

Most people, when conversation turns to economics, find their eyes glazing over and rolling up into their heads. It just isn't rivetingly interesting. But for some reason, probably warped and twisted reasons, I find it fascinating. The “cause and effect” principles that are behind arcane economic equations are like the song we learned as kids..''the ankle bone's connected to the...shin bone, the shin bone's connected to the...knee bone. Only in economics it's...''the money supply's connected to the...inflation, the inflation's connected to the ... dollar, the dollar's connected to... the price of oil, the price of oil's connected to the.... consumer,...and so on. I can watch the babbling heads on CNBC theorize about currency valuations, the fed's M1 and M2 money supply numbers, and LIBOR rates for hours, although admittedly, I understand about the same percentage of the conversations as when I watch the Spanish channel.
Unfortunately, real, pure, unspun economic information, these days is rare. So much of what masquerades as economics, especially the ''pop'', sound byte economics of TV, has a political or business agenda hidden in it. Knowing full well that most folks are oblivious to, or simply not interested in how the decisions of politicians and business leaders echo through society, affecting the wealth and well being of all of us, they typically recite only lopsided, skewed, half-truth statistics. The televised hearings when fed chairman Bernanke testifies before Congress, are like a tug of war between an economic theory purist, and the partisan bloviates who try with every question to score points, and corner poor Ben into saying something that supports their ideology, or undermines their opponents'.
The real thing, though, observations and forecasts based on unbiased data is like a lie detector test for the practices and policies of governments and business. Perhaps the rarest of the rare, in terms of TV talkers, are the apolitical, PhD level of economic knowledge types who also have the ability to communicate and illustrate their understanding in accessible ways so empty skulls like me can grasp it.
There seems to be a common thread emerging among these impartial observers, that the U. S.of A, in terms of economics, is on a dangerous trajectory. There is considerable debate, a daily point-counter point, between pundits as to whether the recovery underway in our country, and, in fact, most of the world, is real and sustainable. On the extremes of this debate, and the most vocal, are those with a horse of some sort in the race-bankers, stock brokers, fund managers, and elected officials. These positions aren't based on dispassioned observations, but on selfish motivations. The purists, though, seem to be aligning with the “things ain't as they oughta be” side, and that is cause for alarm.
Recently, I heard an economist make an analogy between the Cash for Clunkers program, and the economy as a whole. The very weak-pulse auto business roared back to vitality for about two months while the government subsidized retail sales with up to $4500 per transaction. But now that the program is over, the car business is back in a coma. The entire U.S. economy is currently the beneficiary of, literally, trillions in subsidy. Besides the controversial ''stimulus'' package, which was near a trillion alone, the federal government has made giant investments in banks and financial services companies like Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, AIG, and dozens of smaller regional banks. The government has invested about $81 billion in GM and Chrysler. The federal reserve has been pumping newly printed money-over a trillion dollars-into the economy, in an effort to lower borrowing costs and stimulate activity, by buying Treasury Bonds and mortgage backed securities. Think about that previous sentence a moment or two. The United States government is financing a big chunk of its operations-it's deficit-by borrowing money from Bond buyers. That's not new. But they are buying the bonds themselves-through the Fed, with printed, not gold backed, ''good faith'' dollars. This is the same thing as paying one of your credit cards with a cash advance from a different card, then paying the bill on the second card with an IOU. Just like Cash for Clunkers, all these ''stimulative'' programs are temporary. They have to be. Every time the government adds a new dollar to circulation, the ones in your wallet decrease in real, purchasing power value, by some tiny increment (…the ankle bones connected to the....knee bone...) A trillion printed here, a trillion printed there, and soon we're talking real money! Soon, people around the globe who have, for a long time, stored their wealth in dollars-oil sheiks, foreign governments, corporations-watch their $100 bills become $98 bills, then $92 bills, then $85 bills. They defensively begin to trade their dollars for Euros, or gold, further pressuring the dollars decline in purchasing power as demand for them fades. Doomsday thinking? Hardly. Drink enough coffee to watch some CNBC, or read just the headlines of the Wall Street Journal and you'll notice this vicious cycle is well underway. Why is a gallon of gas 60 cents higher than the end of '08? Because oil is back from a low of about $30 to a current $78 per barrel. Why? Because, the people who sell us oil must receive $78 per barrel to have received the same real value for their oil as when the more valuable dollar could buy a barrel for $30-35-40. (….the knee bone's connected to the...thigh bone...) Many smart people believe the collapse of the real estate market began when marginless, financed to the eyeballs consumers, became unable to keep their house of cards standing when fuel prices hit their peaks in mid 2008. The tiny bit of slack over-financed homeowners had in their personal budgets was more than absorbed by the cost of filling their tanks, and heating their homes. Debt defaults spiked, and down came the national, global even, house of cards.
So, there are several elements that could collide, or are colliding now, to form a perfect storm. The fragile, debatable, largely jobless recovery underway, weak as it is, is propped upped by a giant Cash for a Clunker Economy stimulus program that someday, somehow, will end. The ''recovering'' institutions, the ''too big to fail'' financial firms like Goldman and Wells Fargo are profitable now, but that is in an environment of an artificial, temporary zero percent federal funds rate. You don't have to be a very skilled banker to be profitable when the government has relieved you of bad loans, lends you money at 0%, and you lend those funds at 5 or 6 or 7 percent. How will they fare in a normal, market environment of a 3 or 4 percent fed rate? And, nearly every talking head on the business networks, says the key to real recovery is the consumer. In other words, we need Americans to return to spending like drunken sailors on cars, homes, and appliances again. While Americans have notoriously short memories, it could be a long, long time until conspicuous consumption is fashionable again. Even if it were, 10% of the American consumer is jobless. Many more are drowning in credit card and other debt. It is inevitable that inflation creep back into the formula to some degree, perhaps severely, as the dollar declines and food, fuel, and health care costs increase. Don't expect the American consumer to rescue the automakers, the home builders, or the refrigerator sellers anytime soon.
It is not, of course, a done deal that the American economy will implode while Europe, India, and China take center stage as the new economic dynamos of the world. There are very smart people, economists, who have the understanding and vision to suggest the necessary course adjustments and correct fiscal policies. But as long as our economic planning and strategy look no further than the next election, and respond to the desires of narrow, self-serving special interests, wisdom will be ignored, political expedience will guide decisions, and we, as a country, will stagger towards our demise. But at least we can watch it on CNBC.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Dilemma

Again last evening, some friends and I discussed nagging questions in our small group setting. (see 2 posts ago-The Gospel of Larry) This weeks discussion centered around the issue of how God deals with, or will deal with, the zillions of people throughout history that have had no exposure to the Gospel message. Most of us around the table were troubled by the possibility that these folks could face eternity in Hell. It seems unfair, and a contradiction to the nature of God as loving and forgiving. Sort of like being told you won't be receiving your high school diploma because you didn't take the required Latin, and the school doesn't offer a course in Latin. There were other parallel, related questions having to do with the eternal fate of good people who do not believe. While interesting and important, that issue, in my feeble mind, is not as troubling as the question of those who have had no opportunity to choose to believe.
I've heard this question a number of times over the years, and, in fact, posed a version of it myself in a Foundations of Christianity class about 20 years ago. I thought I knew the answer. A few weeks ago, when our small group assembled a list of questions we would like God to answer, and this one was put on the list, I smugly thought “I know this..” Well, in the subsequent weeks my understanding of the passage wherein the answer is supposed to be has blurred. I'm referring to Romans 2, where the dilemma is addressed, and to Romans 3 where the apparent solution in 2 seems confounded. 2:13 says,'' is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law....” 2:14 says, and here, I think is the potential solution,...''[those] who do not have the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law,(15) since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.''
So, what does that say? That the information the Jews received from God, through Moses, the Law, in a general sense is already “written on the hearts” of all those without access to Moses' teachings. It says people know without the Commandments not to steal their neighbors wife, or donkey, or snowblower. It says we know our parents deserve honor. It says we know murder isn't a good idea. And it says our consciences tell us when we are out of line. So Romans 2 tells us all those non-Jews have a measurement, a way for their life to be assessed. Listen to what 2:29 says ''...a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.'' More encouraging news, it appears.
Then, though, as one continues into Romans 3, things look dark again. In 3:10, 11, and 12 Paul quotes The Old Testament: ''There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'' (emphasis mine). Listen to 3:20, '' Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather through the law we become conscious of sin.'' And 23, ''for all have sinned and fall short...''.
The Good News, of course, is that Jesus Christ fixes that dilemma for those who trust Him. But Paul seems, in Romans 2 and 3, to extend that dilemma to the whole world, those with the law ''written on their hearts'' as well. And many millions of individuals over thousands of years never, as far as we know, ever heard of Jesus Christ.
I need help understanding these passages, or perhaps coming to terms with what they say. Talk to me!!!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tales from Brewster Street

Brewster Street, in the early Sixties, was a neighborhood in its adolescence. It was, then, only 2 blocks long, and had roughly as many vacant lots as homes. Ten years earlier it was all cornfield. But as the postwar boom in new, G.I. Bill funded homes spread, someone decided it was a good place to put a street, and, one by one, modest single family homes began to sprout. We lived at 33 Brewster Street, in a two bedroom brick, with an attached one car garage, sort of the Brewster Street prototype. There were several in a row, including ours, that if you looked closely were the same house, but slightly disguised by moving the chimney to opposite sides, or putting the garage out back, or having a carport instead of a garage. Our side of the street was solid, from the Spanglers at one end all the way to the Lippys at the other. The other side, though, was sparse, with only a handful of homes and empty grass lots between that allowed a view from our picture window of the elementary school a block away.
I knew the names, then, of the occupants of every house on Brewster Street, and many of the names of people on adjoining Mumma Avenue, Center Street, Sanford Avenue, and Glendale. My best friends lived at 27 Brewster, the Williams. There was also a kid my age at the Wentz home, an unusual two family rancher at 21 and 19 Brewster. But there was one home, one family, on our street that was, to say the least, unusual. That was the Bostions at 23 Brewster Street.
A passer by, even a stranger to the the neighborhood, would likely do a double take if they spotted the Bostion home. They would have to be observant, though, because a casual glance was not enough to reveal there was, in fact, a house at 23 at all. Their front yard, or where one typically was, was a rainforest of shrubbery, and plantings, and trees that had never, ever been pruned or thinned or trimmed. These plants, while perhaps the same genus as the orderly, shaped, mulch bedded ones of neighboring homes, had grown and evolved and intertwined and conspired to completely eclipse the dwelling. To the casual observer, the sidewalk in front passed an undeveloped lot that neglect had allowed to become botanical Hell. The lone clue that humans dwelled within this jungle, was a flagstone walkway that bisected the parcel, and pointed towards the front door.
I visited the Bostion home fairly often. They had a son, Benny, that was about a year younger than I, and we sometimes played together. Each time I visited, I would pause at the intersection of the sidewalk and the flagstone path, gather my courage, and remind myself there were probably not any tigers or pythons in Hanover. But I didn't dally. No, I would jog to the door, just in case there were more localized predators I hadn't considered lurking in the thick, dark forest.
Inside, Benny's house was an over flowing museum. The Mom, Catherine as I recall, collected those lamps that were the ticket in about 1960 that slowly rotated, displaying a back lit, animated scene. In their living room there was one of a forest fire, several of waterfalls, one of a river, and one of waves breaking on a beach. She also had several wall hung pictures of similar scenes on those hollow, 6 inch thick plastic boxes that lit up inside. They, too, were a decorating fad for about a week in 1960 or '61. Their house was also a shrine to the Washington Redskins. There were footballs, and banners, and autographed pictures everywhere. The Dad, Archie, was a maintenance man at Dickinson College, where the Redskins, then, held training camp, so the whole family were obsessive fans. The biggest fan, though, was Linda, Benny's older sister, who was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. She usually wore a Redskins jersey, often with shoulder pads underneath, and sometimes wore a Redskins helmet while just sitting around. She would go door to door in the neighborhood, demanding all the kids between 5 and 18 report to the elementary school yard to participate in the football game she was organizing. She assigned positions, made the rules, and quarterbacked. And if you objected, she punched you in the gut.
When Linda was about 11 or 12, she decided she would like to have a horse. Now, the properties along Brewster Street were not farmettes. They had no outbuildings, except the occasional detached garage. These were 50's subdivision sized lots, 1/3 acre probably. So, the Bostions got a horse. Not a pony. A full sized, in fact intimidatingly large, brown, poop manufacturing horse. It lived and grazed in their backyard, which was slightly less jungle like, slightly, than the front. Linda shifted her attire from football player, to cowboy, er cowperson, favoring pointy boots, jeans with a lasso hanging off the belt, and plaid snap front shirts. She would ride the horse up and down the alley that connected the back of all the houses on our side of Brewster Street to the envy of all the neighborhood kids, and to the disbelief of our parents. Sometimes she would offer to sell rides on Thunder for a quarter, but most of us couldn't come up with a quarter. I think Thunder only lived on Brewster Street one summer. One day, he was no longer there. Either the Bostions came to their senses, or township authorities, summoned by alarmed neighbors, ordered Thunder's exile.
As long as I knew Benny Bostion, he was fascinated by spiders and snakes and other odd pets. In his room, there were hermit crabs, and a small glass tank with a furry fifty-cent piece sized spider inside. We often went “snaking” together. We would wear old sneakers and walk in a nearby creek, overturning rocks on the creek bottom and try to catch what ever wriggled out from under. He usually had a snake or two, captured on these expeditions, in his room. One day Benny came to my house, all excited, to summon me to come see his new pet. His parents had gotten him an Eastern Racer, which, for the zoologically uninformed, is a quite large, though harmless, Black Snake. They were keeping him, until they figured out a longer term plan, in the bathtub with a window screen and a brick preventing his escape. It was time to feed his new baby, and Benny had a white mouse in a cage he let loose in the tub with the snake. In time, Mr. Snake would seduce the poor little mouse, squeeze him until his red eyes popped out, them eat him. I recall being troubled by the idea, and making up some obligation that wouldn't allow me to stay and watch the moment of truth. Maybe next time.
One summer Saturday morning, I was lying awake in bed, waiting until 9:00 am. when Mighty Mouse came on to get up. From across the street, I heard three BAM BAM BAM cannon like shots, and ran to our picture window to investigate. Neighbors were hurrying toward the recently finished, newly occupied house diagonally just across the street. The Storm family, a twenty-something childless couple were the new occupants, and I guessed Mr. Storm had blasted his wife, or vice versa, and hurried out the door, barefoot and dressed in my Lone Ranger pajamas to join the other neighbors nosing. Being nosy, in the late fifties, early sixties, black and white TV era was perfectly normal and acceptable. It was expected. Nosy was the opposite of aloof. Anyway, I ran around the back of the Storm's house where the others had gathered, and there on the cement slab patio was a spilled laundry basket, Benny Bostion's black snake, now in three pieces, and a stunned Mr. and Mrs. Storm, staring at the white, aluminum siding wall of their new home, riddled with holes-dozens of them- from the 12 gauge shotgun blasts. Noticeably absent from the gathering of neighbors were the Bostions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Gospel of Larry

Recently, as part of a small group setting in which participants are encouraged to openly ask those nagging questions that trouble them, and possibly inhibit their faith, a question was posed about the sometimes contradictory theology espoused by different denominations, groups, or churches within the broad spectrum of Christianity. More specifically, the questioner was troubled by the intolerance often on display between groups which hold opposing opinions regarding some aspect of theology, and their mutual claim to exclusivity of truth. Sometimes one group will assert that some other is, in fact, not authentically Christian because they hold some erroneous view.
Our group batted that issue around, then moved on to the next nagging question. It became apparent, as we touched on a variety of the often-raised questions and objections, that however many people were gathered around the table, there were an equal number of differing versions of theology. Like the larger Church-the entire body of believers-this little group was fractured along many of the same troubling, arguable, eternal questions and the variety of ways each person chooses to answer them. It seems, that in addition to the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, et al, we also draw our truths from the Gospel According to Larry, or the Book of Gus. It seems many of us write a Gospel we are able to accept, that is palatable. And we align ourselves with a body of similar minded believers, or silently reject or modify parts of the teaching of our home congregation that we just can't, or won't, subscribe to.
Examples of these divisive issues include: infant baptism, to practice it or not and its efficacy if we do practice it; our duty, or lack thereof, as Christians, to evangelize and seek converts; the role of women in ministry; how we are to view homosexuality; the type of music that is appropriate in worship; how we are to view the Biblical accounts of creation, the flood of Noah, and other Bible “history”; how we are to view the Biblical prophesy of end times and Christ's return; and many, many other questions for which there are varied and numerous “answers”.
While we certainly didn't open up all these issues around our table, and the exchange was cordial, it was clear we come to reconciliation with troubling questions in different and individual ways. There is a Gospel of Linda, a Gospel of Louise, a Gospel of Bob, and the Gospel of Jeff.
As the Church, as the body of believers, we would be well served to continue seeking answers to these questions, to continue mining God's Word for enlightenment, but to strictly avoid defining each other by our differences. If we believe in a spiritual enemy, in a power that seeks to undermine the credibility and attractiveness of Christianity, we must recognize that division and disunity over these important but non-core questions aids the cause of the enemy! We must be unified and consistent on who Christ is, why He came, why He died, that He was resurrected, and our necessary response. All the rest, in the end, is a red herring, a misdirect, an obstacle.
It's tough, as the flawed, ego driven creatures we are to not argue in advocacy of our own personal Gospels, our Book of Larry. And, a two thousand year track record of splits and splinters and factions and denominations reflects just that tendency. But, according to the gospel of Jeff, mass changes, new paradigms are the sum of individual and personal transformations. If we could each hold firmly to the essential, non-negotiable, core Truths, and allow that some nagging questions may have more than one answer, we would be a stronger, more inviting Church.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finding Joy

One of the fruits, one of the “you'll know them by...” marks of a Spirit filled life, we're taught, is joy.
But for many of us, even after coming to faith in Christ, a prevailing joy is not our default setting. Like other “Spiritual disciplines”- regular time in the Word, consistent times of prayer and meditation, loving those we don't like, selfless generosity to those in need of resources we have, these things take intent and effort on our part to become our nature. We don't, at least not most of us, enter into relationship with Christ as our Lord on one day, and wake up the next filled with Christlike love, compassion, gentleness, and joy. The transformation, the manifestation of the new creation we have become, develops over time, a lifetime, as God incrementally convicts and steers and enlightens and reveals, then refines and polishes the jagged edges of our human nature. Sometimes, these transformative steps are only a matter of changing perspective-seeing the same reality a new way, from a different angle. Such it is with joy.
Consider Route 322, the route many take to State College. The stretch of highway from roughly Newport to Thompsontown is, perhaps, one of the most spectacularly scenic drives in all of Pa. The road runs adjacent to the Juniata River, and from the Northbound lane, high above the river, you can see the brown ribbon of river winding into the distance, and the forested, rolling mountains stretching toward the far off horizon to the west. I've made that drive at least a hundred times, probably more. Most times I see only guardrails, tractor trailers, the white broken stripe between the lanes, and the green interstate style signs. Most of the time I just want the drive to be over with. Most times if I could teleport past the whole thing and just arrive I would do so. But every once in a while, on those unfortunately rare times when my mind is focused on the here and now instead of the next place, the view out the driver's side window is stunningly majestic and beautiful.
Joy, I believe, can become a more frequent reality when we bring our mind back from some imagined destination, look out the driver's side window, and allow the “getting there” to be, at least, half the fun. We aim our awareness, too often, on some as yet unrealized future place and time where we might find joy- when that promotion occurs, when we're finished school, when I can finally afford a new Softail, when we retire. Or we “live” in some idealized past time, our “glory days”, when we were the star running back, when we had no bills other than gas in the Camaro, when there were far more years ahead of us than behind us and our life was mostly a blank sheet of paper. We travel through the present, the only Earthly reality truly available to us, seeing only the guardrails, the stripes on the road, and the exit signs, missing the spectacular scenery, the fountains of joy all around us.
At almost any moment, regardless of the ambient stresses and worries that may underlie our present circumstance, we can pause, take in our surroundings, and allow ourselves to be thrilled by them. We are, round the clock, all our lives, immersed in generous beauty and wonder that we need only notice to begin having joy as our default setting. Look around. There are comfortable homes, the company of family, indulgent food, too many clothes, sunshine, storm clouds, a wet nosed dog, majestic trees, Famous Hot Wieners, a star filled night sky, the smell of baking, beaches, a motorcycle ride, toys, the magic of modern communication, mowed lawns, friends, cool sheets, an endless variety of music, medicine, people who need us, people on whom we depend, uncountable books, the collective knowledge of all mankind for all history at our fingertips, and the means-a plan-where by we can live forever with the Creator of the Universe.
Surely, all of us, at any given time, can cite reasons why joy, for us, is a distant concept. And all those things, the trials and torments of life, are very real. But I believe, with practice and intent, and the help of our tranformative Savior, we can develop the ability to notice, and experience, and savor, and find joy in the abundant, infinite, spectacular world we, for now anyway, must live in.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Symphony of the Universe

Imagine, if you will, our universe as the subject of a magnificent symphony, played by an orchestra of ten thousand instruments spread across a massive, curved stage, hundreds of feet across. At the center, all in white, the infinite God, the Creator of it all, conducting. Behind the stage a screen that spreads all the way from stage left to stage right and reaches up seemingly to the stars displays the visual wonders of the cosmos as the orchestra plays. The Conductor sweeps His right arm from side to side, then slowly raises both hands and all the instruments roar to a crescendo as the screen shows the collision of two galaxies. Purple, and gold, and blue clouds fill the screen as a million stars explode, and as a dozen tympani pound and throb, jets of energy, massive geysers of Gamma rays streak out 1000 light years from the collision. The Conductor closes His fists, and at once the instruments are silent and the screen goes empty. As he raises His left arm, cellos and trombones whine and growl rhythmically as on the screen we see a black hole, a dark iris in an oval sea of stars that circle clockwise around the dark center. Nearer the blackness, stars spin in an increasingly furious frenzy. The innermost stretch into semi circle streaks, then disappear, as if down a drain. Again, the Conductor closes His left hand into a fist, and instantly the orchestral sound changes to the bright chirps and tweets of piccolos and soprano clarinets and saxes. The percussionists tingle their triangles and rustle their chimes, and on the screen we see a solitary hydrogen atom, its simple core and its lone electron, like a gnat, whizzing around in circles.The view zooms in toward the nucleus, and the rest of the woodwinds blend in as we see the separate pieces, the proton and neutron. The orchestra takes a mischievous, cartoon like turn, the oboes and saxes honking discordantly, the brasses laying an iambic rhythm as we zoom inside the proton to the realm of the quarks, those specters, those phantoms, those shadows of matter that follow none of the rules the rest of creation must follow. We don't really see them, but we know they're there. The Conductor brings His arms to His chest, pauses, them flings them out to His sides, and instantly again, the music and the screen are transformed. Now all the instruments play together, a sustained C major chord. The drums play gentle rolls, the kettle drums a heart beat. On the screen the blue-green ball that is Earth comes into focus. It slowly rotates, and we recognize the continents and the oceans. As we zoom closer a man made satellite, a tin can with antennae and solar panels zips by. Closer still, and we see rivers, then cities, then skyscrapers. The C chord stops, and the violins alone play just a few bars of a bittersweet melody. The Conductor reaches toward the screen, His arms outstretched in front of Him, His palms up, as if to say “Ahhh, look there...” Then the palms close, the screen goes dark for just a second, and one lone violin weeps. Then ten thousand players are on their feet, their instruments angled toward the sky and blasting out a cacophonous finale as the screen becomes, again, a broad expanse of space, with clouds of galaxies, streaks of color, giant explosions and collisions in every direction. The Conductor waves both arms left to right, then back again. He points at instruments and coaxes still more out of them, and the screen grows more full. He sways with excitement, growing the sound, filling the sky. Dust becomes stars, and stars become dust. The finale will go on forever, just as it has. Forever.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama

Reading this autobiography today is an unavoidably different experience than to have read it in, say,
1996 when Barack Obama was not yet on the public radar. His notoriety, then, was limited to some relatively small academic circles because of his selection as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There are probably not seven people on planet Earth today without some knowledge or opinions of who Barack Obama is, and, to some extent, his biography. So it becomes necessary to approach this book with an intentional effort not to filter or color his words with what we expect to read. It has to be seen as the honest, forthright words of a young man's struggle to understand the complexity of race, and his own identity and heritage.
Similarly, this is a book that could not be written today. Not by Barack Obama anyway. Since The Speech in 2004, when he went to dead center on the public radar, the handlers, and advisers, and packagers, and pollsters, and consultants would never allow it. The forthrightness would be diluted into the familiar cliches and platitudes the entourage thinks people want to hear, or should hear.
In the narrative, Obama honestly discusses his early realization that his skin color caused people to react differently to him. He suffered rejection and ridicule in the mostly white private school he attended in Hawaii, but when he gravitated toward the other blacks, he found himself an outsider to their perspective as well. He was raised by his white mother and grandparents, and didn't share the disdain for whites he found in many other young blacks. The theme, then, of the book, as we follow Obama through his childhood years in Hawaii, and from age 6 to 10 in Indonesia, through his college years in Los Angeles, then attending Columbia in New York City, then to his years working as an organizer in a housing project in Chicago, and finally to Kenya to “find” who his father was, is the search for personal belonging and truth. The honesty on these pages is engaging. He openly discusses his youthful attraction to drugs and alcohol. There are, of course, anecdotes of white folks' exploitation and rejection of African Americans, but there is also an honest examination and revelation of misguided, erroneous ideas, attitudes and behaviors within the black culture as well.
Arguably, the most interesting section of the book is Obama's time visiting Kenya. His father, also Barack Hussein Obama, was mostly an enigma to him, as other than a month long visit when Obama was only 11, his knowledge of his father, and his entire paternal history, came from stories his grandparents and mother told him. After being accepted at Harvard, he left his job in Chicago to spend a few weeks in Europe, then with his extended family of sisters and brothers (different mothers) and cousins and grandmother in Kenya. As he explored Luo tribal culture and tradition and listened to his grandmother's detailed recounting of his family history, modern African culture, specifically Kenyan, took on a metaphorical parallel to Obama's own blended identity. While the people cling to many tribal beliefs and customs, and there is pride in their heritage, there is an unmistakeable dilution and blending, both from the influence of the colonialist period, and the modern world gradually seeping in. Dress, diet, economics, and attitudes all reflect non-African influence. Barack Obama's ethnic heritage is not singular or pure, but Africa shows there may be no such thing.
There is a temptation when reading from these early Barack Obama thoughts to point to passages as “AHA!'s”, to connect these early, less guarded, developing views as the seeds of an ideology we may or may not agree with. And that may be true. But an honest reader must note the book is 15 years old, and the progression of the experiences cited here much older still. None of us, if we're old enough, would want every idea or observation we expressed at 18, or 25, or 45 years old to define us now, and it would be unfair to apply that to Barrack Obama. Taken as a chance to see race in America through eyes very different than our own, it's a great opportunity and a good read.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Morning Joy

This is a post about...nothing. It's about the simple joy of a cool morning, a shining sun, the aroma of coffee, a colorful variety of flowers all around-in planters and hanging baskets and beds, of a tiny but growingly bountiful garden-heavy laden with tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and cucumbers. More often than not, these abundant reasons for celebrating life in its simplest essence go unnoticed. More often than not, even when just out of bed, our brains are obsessed and distracted by our duties and tasks looming large, by over due bills, by unsolved dilemmas, by imperfect relationships, and all the burdens we carry. But on that rare morning, like this one today, when all those things are, for unknown reasons of biology and psychology, deep in the recesses of consciousness, just sitting and smelling and sensing is, however briefly, a joy. On these special occasions our skin registers the cool, dampness of the morning air, the palette of nature is noticeably more intense-oranges, and blues, and reds, and yellows, and many shades of green, and the often unseen detail is in focus-butterflies, chipmunks, the creak of the porch swing chains, the wasps in the corner, the adoring stare of the dog. The peaceful time window, however,begins to draw short, and from the edges, awareness of the day at hand begins to seep in, bringing with it the familiar anxiety of life. If only I had the power, or self control, to regulate the presence and onset of worries and stresses. I'm sure some do, but not me. That flaw though, that weakness, makes rare times, such as this very morning, more joyful, and reminds me that life is a wonderful gift full of lavish beauty.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength

I just finished Tony Dungy's book Quiet Strength. Tony Dungy is, of course, the head coach, now retired, of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts. More than just about any other NFL coach, Dungy became familiar to even non-football fans because of his success as a coach, his faith driven character, and the personal tragedy his family faced. In preparing to share thoughts on this book, I gave some thought to the yardsticks by which I measure a book.
First, was it a compelling read? Was I anxious, in each opportunity to spend time reading, to return to the narrative? Did I wish, when it was time to turn off the light and go to sleep, I could continue reading? In this case, most definitely yes on all three counts. The earliest chapters, the growing up bio, were somewhat less absorbing than the rest, but the behind the scenes NFL anecdotes-the story of his years in Tampa Bay, then Indianapolis made the book hard to put down. There are glimpses of marquee NFL players and coaches we might otherwise never see without Dungy's insider's recollections. And there is an ever present thread of everything Dungy does measured and tempered and guided by his faith in God. As probably anyone who would elect to read this book already knows, the Dungy family faced the suicide death of their 18 year old son Jamie in 2005. Even though the reader knows its coming, it would be hard to be human and stay dry-eyed reading Dungy's recount of the events surrounding his son's death, especially the “homegoing” service. Dungy's personal struggle to reconcile the tragedy with his faith is equally moving. Thankfully, he admits to not fully understanding God's bigger plan and, like so many Christians, having only weak answers for the question of why bad things happen. It would not ring true, or seem real, if he were able to neatly dismiss his personal loss by balancing it with some greater good. That his faith endures, even without complete “answers”, is admirable enough.
Second, does this book teach something? Does it impart new knowledge? Does it inspire new, different thinking? Yes, yes, yes. I'm not a football junkie, so much of the “history”-the dramatic games, the big wins, the disappointing losses, are all new information to me. Beyond that though, the real life application of his faith in all decisions makes the reader, this one anyway, question or examine the degree to which we seek to glorify God in all we do. Do we live what we profess? Skip through all the football stories, and the book is still a story worth reading, if we seek to truly model Christ, and seek His ways in all things. Early in the book, a team chaplain refers Tony Dungy to the Old Testament book of Nehemiah as a primer on leadership, team building, delegation, and focusing on manageable steps in a seemingly overwhelming task. Dungy found guidance from this little sliver of a book in the monumental task of rebuilding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first head coach job. I visited and read Nehemiah, based on Tony Dungy's recommendation. I doubt I would have found the leadership theme on my own, but with Dungy's illumination, Nehemiah became meaningful and applicable.
Third, is the book one which I feel those people who's opinion, judgment, and perspective I admire need to read? Are they missing an opportunity for enrichment if they don't? Do I feel compelled to urge others to read it, confident they'll, too, not want to put it down? Yes,on all counts. I suppose, if someone detests, loathes, is sickened by professional football and any mention of it, this would not be on their short list of must reads. Similarly, if one rejects, and is offended by, faith in God as a prevailing theme, this is not a book on which we'll agree. Otherwise pick it up and read it. I assert you'll not want to put it down. Your knowledge of NFL history will be enhanced, and your faith will be measured.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Doggie Playground

There's a wonderful facility near our house, part of John Rudy Park, we call the “doggie playground”. It's actually called Canine Meadows, I think, but it consists of 3 huge fenced in areas where dogs can run and play off leash. There's an area for the little, fuzz ball, under 30 pound dogs to play (the kind the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko said are for spraying with Endust and chasing under the bed where the mop won't reach) and a separate area for the over 30 pound real dogs. It's a great place to just chill on a bench or a rock while our dog runs, tumbles, chases and wrestles with the other dogs. Usually I have to chuckle at how dogs socialize, and the variety of very different “personalities”. Dogs don't know how silly they are- sniffing each other's butts as a greeting, obsessing over a stick or tennis ball, and pausing to pee or poop whenever the urge arises. They're raw and pure and uninhibited. On more than one occasion, while watching the dogs play, Lori and I have laughed at how funny it would be if people did some of the things dogs do. For example dogs will, whenever they run out of gas, just flop down and lay where ever they feel the need. Imagine people waiting in a long checkout line at Wal Mart laying on the floor until the line moves, or worse, sniffing the butts of the people nearby.
Tuesday evening we took Little Bear to the doggie playground about 7:00, poor guy had been in his pen most of the day and he needed to unload some energy. It was busier than usual-lots of dogs, lots of people. This trip I noticed less the funny things the dogs do, and more noticed how strange a species we humans are. First, the whole concept of one kind of animal owning, training, and nurturing another animal is weird when you stand back and look at it. We project imaginary personalities onto our dogs, and bond with them, often, more readily and deeply than others of our own species. It seems, at least sometimes, people have chosen a dog that reinforces an image they wish to project. The “biker” fellow at the doggie playground, the guy with the Sturgis T-shirt, a bandana, a long braid, and lots of tattoos was playing fetch with his Rottweiler. Would he be seen with, say, a toy poodle? Neither would he drive a pink VW Beetle, or smoke Virginia Slims. I noticed one girl watching her dog whose hair was striped-like a parfait. There was a couple inches of burgundy, a stripe of blonde, a stripe of brown, and so on. Now, far be it from me to decide if an approach to hair is good or bad, but if there were 25 people there, there were 25 different ways to arrange, color, and display hair-hers being the most original of the 25. But I'm fairly sure not a single dog there had hair color other than the ones they were genetically intended to have. Many of the dogs, ours included, had been trimmed or styled, but I doubt one single dog gave even a second's worth of thought to whether their hair looked nice, or their nails could use clipped, or whether their collar was the right color. It's, at least partly, so the other “Moms” will say, “Ahh, doesn't Fifi look nice pretty! Who does Fifi's hair?” Some of the dogs dive right in to the mix of other dogs, and run and play in groups. Others sort of watch the whirlwind of dogs from a slightly removed, safer perimeter and follow the pack just outside of the action. Others hang close to their people, watching but too shy to join in. Similarly, when people arrive some walk straight to the core cluster of people and engage them in dog-talk. “Say, is that a Blue Tipped Weimerheimer? I've always liked them. Mine's a Mongolian Boar Hound.” Others, me, smile but avoid real engagement, and quickly find a bench or rock slightly removed, at a safe perimeter from the mingling. Rarely, but once in a while, a dog is too aggressive and the snarls and teeth baring go beyond the pseudo violence of playing, and is “encouraged” to leave, at least temporarily banished from the park. And there's usually 1 or 2 dogs who aren't interested in getting the stick or ball, as is the object of the game, but are actually interested in humping every dog who inadvertently stops in front of them. Other owners are generally less than subtle with their displeasure, so the predators are reprimanded, but usually are repeat offenders. Now, I did not witness any parallel human behaviors to violent or sexual aggression while at the doggie playground, but a few minutes with the evening paper afterward certainly reveals that such behaviors are too common in the human playground, where we run off-leash. And the news is full of somebody taking the stick that belongs to some one else, and running off with it. So, we humans have learned to style our hair, resist sniffing butts, poop privately, and maybe slobber a little less, but we're more like our dogs than we may care to admit.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Deal or No Deal

I read today that 71 year old Bernie Madoff has begun his 150 year sentence at a low to medium security federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Unless you just emerged from a cryogenics chamber, you know he's the fellow who's fraudulent investment fund managed to evaporate 1.2 billion dollars of other people's wealth. His sentence does have some good behavior incentives built in which could allow him to drop as much as 20 years from his stretch.
So here's a question to toss around in your gray matter a bit: Suppose somehow or other (just play along, ok?) you were given the opportunity at, say 25 years old, to have unlimited wealth-a Visa debit card with a billion dollar balance. If you used up the billion, you can reload another billion. You can have a million dollar Park Ave. pad in Manhattan, a muti-million dollar Palm Beach, Florida home, a Gulfstream jet, a Ferrari, and a Mercedes SL. You can fly to Paris for lunch, then to Rodeo Drive to shop, and tan on the beach in Fiji. But at some predetermined age-say 65-it all went away, you would be penniless and alone, and you would spend your remaining years in a minimum security prison-would you take that deal? Would you trade 40 years of material Nirvana (or 30 years, or 20 years) for 10 or 15 years of shame, poverty, and imprisonment?
I posed this question to Lori, over salads at Marinos, the other evening, and she thought it was absurd-she asserted that no one would take that deal-it's a no brainer. I disagree. No, I don't mean I'd take the deal, no no no! But I think there's zillions of people who would trade anything for 40 years, or far less, of limitless wealth, comfort, and self indulgence. Very few people would admit it, but I think many people, like in the legend of 30's blues guitarist Robert Johnson who met the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi and traded his soul for the ability to play guitar, would in fact sign that contract in a heartbeat!
What do you think? Would you make that deal? Or do you think Lori's right, that nobody would, that people are not short-sighted, self centered, greedy fools? Hmm?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Little Bear

We were sitting on the porch this morning, Lori and I, enjoying coffee and Oreos and the pleasant, cool, blue-skied morning. As is usually the case on Thursdays, our days off coincided, so we were, as my friend Ty says, “getting up slow”. Joining us in this prelude to the day was our goofy dog Little Bear.
Little Bear is, as Lori often says, our gift from God. He was, when he moved in back in May, a five month old Labradoodle, that was in need of a home. The young couple who had originally gotten, and named, Little Bear was splitting up, and neither of them could, or would, keep their puppy. When the girl half of the couple shared their dilemma with Lori, we had just become dogless. Our precious baby girl Maddie had just died, so we happened to have a hole in our family approximately the size and shape of their puppy. For dog owners, or dog lovers more accurately, there is a symbiosis between a dog and his people. They, our dogs, are needy and almost helpless, and they fulfill the programmed need in some of us to be needed, to be depended on, and to receive wet-nosed kisses and wagging tails in appreciation. So the aching need for that special relationship with a dog was filled when Little Bear came to stay.
But he is funny looking. He has a bad perm, feet the size of oven-mits, his head is too big for his body, his snout is too wide for his head. He looks like a Sesame Street character, Snuffleupagus, or a cartoon caricature of a dog. I learned, through the magic of Google, that Labradoodles were “invented” in Australia by some guy whose goal was to create a service dog that folks with allergic reaction to dogs' shedding could use, as Labradoodles don't shed. Yeah, right. Despite what Wikipedia says, I think what really happened was, this fellow, Wally Conron, was sitting around the kennel one night with some buddies, having a few too many Fosters, and the conversation turned to “wouldn't it be funny if...” Next thing you know, Mrs. Fleeglehorn's Standard Poodle is in the pen with Mr. Goodermuth's Lab, and sixty days later there is a litter of cartoon puppies.
The internet also informed me our new child was intelligent and easily trainable. Well, after all the hours and effort invested in teaching LB to shake, he should have received a Bachelors Degree, rather than the training treat blob of synthetic liver he got. We're working on “Lay Down”, but he looks at us like we're asking him to do Logarithms. There is no way on this green Earth this dog could be trained to help someone cross the street. Also, listed among the traits typical of Labradoodles is “an affinity for water and strong swimming ability”. Just last week we were sitting by the Juniata River, throwing a stick in the water for Bear to retrieve. He did good, chasing the stick with enthusiasm, as long as he could touch. If he couldn't reach the stick on foot, Lori would have to wade out and get it for him. But that's o.k. We've told him he doesn't have to be a straight A student, just do his best. His real job, after all, is leaning against me so I'll rub his belly, licking my ear in the morning to tell me he's done sleeping now, and wanting to hang out with us as much as possible. He's excellent at those skills.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My Lord's Prayer

Father God, our Father in Heaven, my Father here beside me and all around me, Holy is your name. Hallowed is your name. Sacred, unique, the only real, true God, source of all truth and knowledge, Creator of all, the generous spring from which all the blessings and comforts and joys of this life flow-Holy is your name. Thy Kingdom come. Bring your rule, your perfect justice, your Kingship, to this broken, fallen world, and let your perfect will sweep over the whole world, here on earth, just as it is in the invisible realm where you are. You have been so very generous, showering us with abundance, and we want for nothing! You've allowed us lives of plenty. You've never failed to provide my family's daily bread, yet I am so often void of thanksgiving and praise, focusing on frivolous desires, and trusting in my own efforts and conniving instead of trusting you. So, Father God, give us this day, again,our daily bread, and hearts filled with thankfulness and praise. Father forgive us our trespasses-all the things we do that are disobedient and sinful. Forgive our evil, sinful thoughts, our coarse, foul language, our times of doubt, our persistent failure to love our neighbor, our idolatry, and our own unforgiveness. Teach us to forgive, as we seek to model Christ, And, Father God, be patient with us, as you have been, because we do these same things, these same failures, over and over again. Father, deliver us from evil. Protect us, wrap your arms around my family and keep them safe from the treachery and deceit and destruction that is all around us. Help us keep our eyes straight ahead-looking to You, and not at the temptations of this world that lead us away from you. Give us strength, help us make correct choices, remind us that many things that go on around us are not from You, that they dishonor You, they separate us from You, and lead to our harm. Deliver us from these evils. And, dear God, draw my precious sons to you, and make them yours. Renew them, save them, and deliver them from evil. For all we see, all we don't see, the beauty and complexity of this world, the infinite cosmos, the atoms and the galaxies, all of history, the present moment that unfolds around us, and the future as yet unrevealed are under Your Kingship. They all have come into being out of your perfect will. You, alone, orchestrate and direct all of reality yet You pause to hear us when we are lost, have run ourselves aground, and cry out, or whisper, for help. You are King. You are Power. You are Glory. And that will be so forever.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The First Time I Saw Him, The Last Time I Saw Him

I have, for the greatest part of my adult life, managed to keep the subject of my biological father closed, out of mind, and buried. But like toxic waste, stored for decades, that eventually seeps out of its storage drums and bubbles to the surface, I find myself of late, and with increasing frequency, dwelling on various scenarios from the past that include him. Not sure why. It may be because when I look in the mirror, I see him. It may be that as I grow older there is an emerging, natural need to put personal history in order. It may be that as I look at my own life, the worst parts of me, the parts I don't like, especially my temper, are clearly echoes of my father. At night, when my head is on the pillow and sleep is evasive and my mind is in that free-form state where private hauntings that are daily drowned out by the minutiae of life float to the surface, revisiting memories of my father, some of them 50 years old, has been happening more and more often. There was a conscious, intentional decision long ago to drop all connection, all consideration of that aspect of my life, to acknowledge no influence, and to allow no false sentimentality. But like on a computer hard drive, deleting something doesn't mean it's gone.
My father was a bad man. He was dishonest. He was a con. He was lazy. He was irresponsible. He was a liar. And, most of the time, he was absent. As a child, though, none of this, except the absence, was apparent to me. In fact, my earliest memories of him are of a big, burly, coarse whiskered, flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, cowboy boot wearing, tractor trailer driver who would show up unexpectedly at our house, and immediately pick me up and put me on his shoulders. He was a larger than life super-hero to me. He drove fast, exciting cars, showed up on motorcycles, bought me cowboy hats, took me along in his truck, had real guns, talked about horses, knew how to shoot pool, and simply was everything a single mom in 1960 could not be for a 5 or 6 or 7 year old boy. I idolized him. I loved when people would say to my Dad, ''Who's your little helper? He looks just like you. Little Leon.” I longed deeply for him to stay. But he would only be around 2 or 3 days. I'd check in the mornings if he was still here, and when he was it was my dream come true. But after a few days, he'd leave in his truck, and tell me he'd be back next Saturday, or some such promise, but months would pass.
We all, no doubt, have particularly hurtful incidences stored away, things we have trouble looking squarely at ourselves, much less sharing frankly with others. One of mine is a time when my father told me, point blank, I'll pick you up Friday morning, and we'll go fishing. I got my tackle box and rod ready the day before. Friday morning I got up early and sat on the arm of the chair by the picture window where I could watch for him to pull up. He never came. Nobody said a word. Mom was at work, my Grandma was there with me, but what could she say? They surely knew he was unlikely to show, but I would never have accepted that. By about noon, I had given in to the reality, and was heartbroken. It still hurts today.
Like that particular day, all the conflicting emotions I felt regarding my Dad were mine alone to sort out and internalize. In our home, the subject of my father, why he didn't live with us and where he was, was off limits. It was simply not something we talked about. Even as a 5 or 6 year old, it was clear to me that Mom didn't share my adoration, and seemed dismayed and disapproving when he would show up. Often, in fact usually, when he was with us for a few days it would include a loud argument punctuated by swearing and door slamming. Sometimes police came. Once my grandfather hurried us out the front door and we all crouched behind the car in our driveway while my father wielded a rifle inside. The fights were always about money, child support I guess-or lack thereof-but in my naivete, I just put my pillow over my head, and wished it would pass so he wouldn't leave.Against that background, there was no point in expressing to Mom my deep desire for him to stay, or the embarrassment I endured with neighborhood kids, in scouts, and in school.
In, I think, 6th grade, after increasingly long gaps between appearances, my Mom told me she was finally going to seek a divorce. That was about 1968. The next time I saw him was Memorial Day weekend, 1976. My Mom called me at my apartment and said, “Your father just called. He's in York, if you want to see him he'll be in the North Mall parking lot in 1 hour.” When we met, he was driving a red and white GMC tractor trailer, now had white hair and a goatee, and in mere minutes my adulation had resumed .For the next few months, I saw him nearly everyday. He taught me to drive a truck. After all these years, I had a relationship with my father.
At twenty-one years old, I was only slightly less impressionable and willing to suspend disbelief than at 7 years old, but there began to be chinks in the armor. We had dozens of conversations about “the missing years”, and his version of the years he was married to my mother, and I spotted the occasional inconsistency or contradiction. Slowly, over weeks and months, the chinks in the armor became gaping holes. I met his other kids, not too much younger than me. I had asked him about “Shirley”, a mistress I heard fights about when I was 5 or 6. He told me she died of cancer. Then, a few weeks later, Shirley, mother of the other kids, dropped them off to visit their Dad! I learned from the oldest boy, Mike, that my Dad lived with them, in Camp Hill, all those years when I'd see him 6 or 7 days a year. I learned that he was not, as he had told me, living in Florida prior to returning to York in May. He actually lived on South Queen Street in York, and made no effort to contact me, or my sister, for more than 7 years, but had regular visits with the other kids. Like Dorothy and the Scarecrow, et al, seeing the pathetic little man behind the curtain pretending to be Oz, I suddenly, completely, definitively saw him for what he was. He was a habitual liar-about all things big and small. He was a fraud, who pretended to own things he didn't own. His “war stories” were made up. He'd make countless promises he'd not only fail to keep, but not even remember he'd made. For a time, I told myself this was my father, and after all those years of longing for his involvement in my life, I'd make the best of it, pretend I believed him when he manufactured facts, and maintain a civil, but arms length relationship. But, for the first time in my life, with opened eyes, I saw him.
The last time I saw him, a year or so after the reunion, he was living in a row house in a very bad part of the city-a house he told me he bought as an investment, and was renting out the other side. The house was actually owned by an Aunt I hadn't seen in 10 years, who left him live there. I went there with my girlfriend to show him the Harley I'd just gotten. I can see him now, sitting on the front stoop, telling tall tales about his motorcycles, and I knew, then, whatever bond I'd tried to maintain, or create, or imagine was gone. He was as irrelevant to my life now as he was when I was 5, only now I knew it. My Mom had it right. She knew he would only let you down, and she let me find that out for myself.
In 1988, I was mowing our lawn, and saw Lori standing on the side porch waving the phone at me. “It's your Mom”. She was calling to tell me my father had died. “Thanks for calling, but I need to finish the grass.” My father “passed away” a long time before.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

the vigil

...11:07 on the clock radio beside my bed. He's supposed to call between 11:15 and 11:30, when the movie's over, then come straight home.... better get the phone, and put it on the night stand so I can answer it quickly and not disturb Lori any more than necessary...
...11:47... dosed off for call...walk to the bedroom window, make sure he didn't get home already and forget to call. No car. Open the window, strain to see the dark end of the driveway...could be parked there... no car. The night air is cooler now, was quite humid earlier. Open some more windows get, some cool breeze flowing...I'll sit in the chair by the window where I can see cars approach. Dial his cell phone...straight to voice mail...apparently phone off...seeds of suspicion now planted. We had a very overt, repetitious conversation at 8:30 when he left for a 9:15 movie...straight home after the side, you can't go to Tyler's resistance, complete agreement, anticipated complete compliance.
...12:09 on the phone's display screen....bedside clock a little fast, was within 10 or 15 minute margin of error, but no more. No math gets us to 12:09. 9:15 movie start, 10 minutes of previews and fluff, 2 hour movie, 10 minutes to exit and say goodbye to buddies, 15 minute drive puts him in the driveway before 12:00. Suspicions sprouting, that burning in the gut of fear and anger and powerlessness beginning to simmer. Should I go looking? Other than the movie theater I have no clue where to look. Call his cell again, fourth of fifth time, straight to voicemail.
.....12:20. Traffic thinning now out front, only occasional flicker of approaching headlights...I watch each car pass. Is this him? No, an SUV. Here comes one...too fast, he'd be slowing to turn into the driveway. Here he door neighbor, getting home from work, brief uptick of relief, now rage and panic rising. Hit the redial button, again...voicemail.
.....12:38. All the possibilities are bad. I've come to the tentative conclusion he did, in fact, go to Tyler's sleepover, and made the calculation to absorb my anger as a trade-off for hangin' out with his friends, and turned his phone off because he knew I'd call him and unload. Slow car...right size shape and color...nope, passed by. Beginning to rehearse the inevitable scene that's coming in my mind. Such a stunning defiance...hours ago we both appeared to be thinking the same, that those scenes, frequent of late, are horrific, and let's not have a new one, and trust is rebuilt one good decision at a time. I'm getting sleepy sitting here-I've been sitting here staring out the window almost an hour. I realize I'd be much angrier, or more nervous, if I wasn't sleepy-but my emotions are attenuated. I can't go to sleep. What if I wake up at 6:00 a.m. and there's still no car? But what do I do if I sit here until then? I have no plan. Wait...stew...speculate...replay.
...12:50. I've moved to the porch. The cool air has washed away some of the sleepy fog. The plastic, fake wicker chair is cool against the skin of my back and arms. I've turned it toward the street so as to see the flickering, dancing, headlight beams of approaching cars cut the darkness and assess from the sound and speed if it might be him. There's lots of stars visible in the slices of sky between treetops, and a streak of pale gray clouds against the charcoal background., motorcycle. Redial. Voice mail.
....1:09...Sleepy long do I sit here? Have to get up about 6:30, and it's after 1:00! Headlights...brake squeal...yes! It's him. Some relief...a range of possibilities, all terrible, is now dismissed...but I'm guessing I won't be back in my bed real soon...I've got a few questions first.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


It's happening again. Flames are roaring through our home, racing up and down the stairs, burning from room to room, filling the air with thick, choking smoke. The fire is burning up the joy, and truth, and trust in our home. It lies dormant, smoldering out of sight sometimes, and then, as if some new gust of oxygen refuels the flames, the fire rises up and scorches every corner of our home, every niche of our lives, and threatens to consume the very faith that allows us to breathe. It's been burning a long time now. The smell of the fire, the heat felt through the walls and doors is the new normal, the ever-present spirit of destruction that resides in our home, watching for signs of hope or confidence or renewal so it can rise up and consume them before they prevail. I don't know when this fire started, or where it actually came from. Was it carried into our home from other burning homes? Have I sparked this fire myself? Did I build a tinder box, a home filled with dead undergrowth ripe for fire? Is this some perverse challenge to my struggle to trust in Christ, as we are told we must? Am I being shown that all our failed attempts to douse this fire are somehow prideful, self-centered efforts, doomed to failure because we have reached out to the wisdom of counselors and professionals and our instincts as parents? Is that it? Or are we just fools, looking for lessons and healing and reconciliation and rebirth from a cold, empty, heartless cosmos in which flames burn at random, without regard for faith or family. Is there a lesson here at all? Or just that we are powerless to keep the fire away, that it's bigger and hotter and more persistent than our hope. Is the truth of the world that anonymous individuals and families are just not that important, and in the grand scheme of things, they can be destroyed and forgotten and the cosmos just spins? The cruelest joke is that we have ascended, as a species, to the point where we are capable of deluding ourselves about our value. We carry around a default setting to pursue happy endings and resolution, when life itself, our real world, the petri-dish in which we struggle keeps taunting us that we're idiots for thinking that way. The fire in our home cares not one bit for us, it just burns because it's fire.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

thoughts on the killing(s) in wichita

Some subjects, some events, are so radioactive, so divisive, that rational discourse about them is nearly impossible. Sometimes, regarding a given issue, opposition or defense is so vehemently held that discussion devolves almost immediately into hyperbole, platitudes, and accusations, and ceases to be conversation. Such is the case with the recent shooting death, in Wichita, Kansas, of Dr. George Tiller, allegedly by a militant anti abortion activist, Scott Roeder.
It's nearly impossible to engage someone about that incident without revealing our own underlying stand on the hyper-divisive topic of abortion, and from that point forward, it seems, we walk a tight-rope of consistency of opinion and position, even though the truth of the matter, the reality, may well require compromise and nuance and acknowledging areas of gray. For example, it is very difficult to keep a pro-choice advocate listening, or hearing, after expressing the opinion that while I firmly denounce this murder as an unacceptable tactic for pro-life activists to employ, I understand how the conclusion could be reached, by a rational person, that Dr. Tiller had to be killed. Again, I repeat, that is not my conclusion. I would not advocate or acquiesce to murder as a means to an end, even a worthy end. But to anyone who holds the position that abortion is the murder of an unborn, preventing hundreds by committing one is likely to be considered. Most people though, me included, who respect the value of life, would extend that respect which leads them to oppose abortion, to Dr. Tiller's life, as well.
The futile, never-to-be-resolved political debate over abortion doesn't seem to allow for any position, any thought, any middle ground other than the polar opposite, only black or white, all or none extremes we see defended on the cable news channels. But those somewhere in the middle, like me, almost have to see Dr. Tiller, though, as an extreme, an exception.Those leaning to the choice side, one would think, would see Dr. Tiller, correctly, as a lightning rod for opposition to choice, just like those leaning toward pro-life should be appalled by his murderer's discrediting of a whole movement. Tiller was one of only a very small group of doctors, maybe 10 in the U.S. that would perform the most controversial of procedures. He would do late term, second trimester abortions, and performed many hundreds. There are, of course, those “health of the mother” cases, but many were just “elective”, a term his clinic included in their description of services offered. The procedure itself, the methodology, is so disturbing, so barbaric, so clearly the taking of a life, I'm stunned by the pro-choice side's apparently unanimous regard for Dr. Tiller as a hero, now a martyr, for their cause. It's also alarming to listen to his defenders, who have positioned all anti-abortion activists as complicit with, and supportive of, the accused, dance with their words around what Dr. Tiller actually did. They use a Nu-Speak of less repulsive terms, substituting “reproductive services” for "abortion", the phrase “the right to choose” is now the innocuous euphemism for the right to deny a 22 week fetus any choice, to inject it's head with a lethal cocktail, then induce a miscarriage, if you so elect. Again, if Scott Roeder committed the acts he's accused of, he's a murderer and should dealt with as such. But if the assembly line, mass killings that have gone on at Women's Health Care Services, in Wichita, are over, and fewer still “providers” are willing to fill Dr. Tiller's void, that's a good thing.
I sometimes think the efforts of pro-life activists are a spinning of their wheels, especially through the courts and through legislation. Every move seems to further entrench the other side, and leads to the no compromise, no chink in the armor, blanket advocacy of every “reproductive right”, including
those “rights” offered by Dr. Tiller's clinic. And if suddenly, the pro-life side were victorious, and abortion procedures were universally banned, the unintended consequences would be numerous, and horrific. Like narcotics, prostitution, gambling, illegal immigration, underage alcohol and tobacco use, illegal weapons and many other “crimes”, their statutory prohibition doesn't stop the activity. It just sends it underground, creates a whole new class of criminals, and opens a profitable new window for those willing to feed the appetite. The only way to effectively oppose any of these behaviors, or to win a convert to the pro-life side, is through individual transformation and renewal. A change of the heart, becomes a change of the mind.
Incidents like the murder of Dr. Tiller, if seen as if on a battle field in a war, may make logistical or tactical sense. But to someone who comes to value all life-of the unborn, of children, of the elderly, of the starving, of the lonely, of the poor in spirit, and of their enemy, because Christ said we must, then we must mourn for Dr. Tiller as well. Sometimes, the tight-rope goes in circles.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I want to be Norm Abram. Well, maybe I don't want to be him, I mean I don't want to look like him, or be married to Mrs. Abram (not sure there is one) or swap kids with him. But I want to be able to do the things he does. Who, you ask, is this Norm? He's the host of PBS's New Yankee Workshop, and, in his day gig, is the master carpenter on This Old House, ever since the Bob Villa days. New Yankee Workshop is sort of the Martha Stewart Show for men. Like Martha Stewart, the real purpose of this show, and hers, is to make us feel like inadequate, talentless schmucks. We watch Norm crank out pie safes, and highboys, and Adirondack chairs, and roll top desks from some boards on his shelf, just as Martha nonchalantly whips up a centerpiece made from recycled socks for tonights dinner party of 12, while the Beluga and Shitakke (from her garden) appetizer settles. Yes, the point of these shows isn't to teach us these skills, but to remind us, me specifically, that my gene strand is missing the beads that make such projects possible, even conceivable. I'm just not handy. I delude myself into thinking that with enough time, the right tools, and adequate planning I can actually do the summer projects I've been daydreaming about. Heck, I can enlarge a deck. I can build an outdoor fireplace. Can't I? Well, probably not. I have had some rare successes at handyman, do-it-yourself projects. I added a set of steps to a deck a couple years ago that haven't fallen down yet. It took me most of 5 days, and when they were done, everyone I knew had to come see the newest world-wonder I had built, as if these 3 steps were one of the great pyramids. Norm would have built those steps between breakfast and lunch. He does have the advantage of a workshop equipped with at least 100 grand worth of power tools, many of which I have no idea what they do. I know what a table saw is, but that's about all. It's the place you lay the hammer you used last week, and that triangular shaped measuring thing with hieroglyphics all around it, and the owner's manual to the weed eater. In fact, I often feel like I need a glossary to understand what Norm's talking about. Dado? Biscuits? Joiner? Huh? The realty is, tools or not, these are skills we either have or do not. That old saying, “measure twice, cut once...”....I can measure twelve times, but when I cut it will be too short. When I try to drive a screw with a drill, like Norm, it goes about 2/3rds of the way in, then the bit slips, mauls the screwhead, and I spend 45 minutes getting that screw the rest of the way in, or back out. If I were to glue some boards side to side, then clamp them together to dry, like Norm often does, they could dry for a week and they'd fall apart as soon as the clamps were removed. I recognize my limits. Thankfully, this isn't as sensitive an area as some inadequacies are to males. Thinning hair often leads to comb-overs, and questionable machismo might lead to Harley T-shirts. My Norm envy could lead me to carry a belt sander around, but it hasn't as yet affected my psyche to that point. In fact, I'll probably take on one or both of those summer projects. Next summer, or the following, when they're done, there will be a bus trip to our place to see them. Feel free, then, to call me Norm.