Monday, November 23, 2015

When Death Tries to Defeat Love, Death Loses

My circle of friends and family have been mourning the premature and altogether tragic death of a good and honorable man. Terry Read, just 57 years old, was struck and killed by an automobile while walking his dog near his home in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Linda, serve as full-time ministers in the Community of Christ, a small denomination with international headquarters in Independence, Missouri. Together with their daughter, Andrea, they are a remarkable family committed to their faith, to community service, and to each other.

Terry was a giant of a man, hovering over almost anyone he encountered, but carrying the most humble and gentle spirit imaginable. He spoke softly, listened intently, and touched tenderly. He was tenacious and yet considerate on a basketball court, quickly lending a hand to those he knocked over, couldn't help himself, graciously apologizing. He is one of those people about whom one never hears a bad word. Truly.

This reflection is not intended as a tribute to Terry or his family, although I could write into the night about their lives and accomplishments. There are already many hundreds of those on their Facebook pages, soon rippling into the thousands, demonstrating the constellation of relationships that grace their lives. There one will also find the remarkable words of his beloved wife, Linda, and their wonderful daughter, Andrea. They are each embodying what Henri Nouwen called the "wounded healer," distilling from their grief words of hope and redemption that comfort others.

Terry, Andrea, and Linda Read
I have found my own response to be more tears than words, unusual for me. I tend to look to language as my way of working through difficult times, but instead I found myself inconsolable for a while--disbelieving, unaccepting, angry, denying, pounding my fist and erupting with "No, no, no!" I cried out for justice: "This is as good a human being as I know. Why Terry? Why this family that gives so much of themselves? It's not right! It's not fair!"

When I write it down like that it sounds like a petulant third-grader with a lower lip curled out declaring the world to be unfair because their little brother got a bigger scoop of ice cream. And I suppose in the grand scheme of things, my cry for justice is about as shallow as that, although it didn't seem so at the time the telephone call pierced the night with the horrible news.

Terry is not letting go of me. I am haunted by the fact we share the same birthday, although not the same birth year. Photographs of him are popping up everywhere and they speak to me  of his life, not his death. I hear his voice, I remember conversations we had at camps and retreats, walks in a nearby neighborhood when he came to town, projects we worked on together, some going back decades. The other day while I was looking up some things about Terry, I came across a letter he and Linda wrote me several years ago at a particularly needful time. It touched my heart then, and now, over a decade later, it touched me again as if he was beside me, arm over my shoulder, speaking those words of love and support.

It may sound like we were the closest of friends, inseparable. But that is not so. I'm sure there are hundreds of people who would speak this way. Terry had only friends; there were no enemies.

That's where love comes in. When you give it out, it comes back. It is not just that it survives, it thrives. Given my initial soul-sobbing, fist-pounding, death-denying, love-ignoring response to this tragedy, you can imagine my surprise at reading the hundreds and hundreds of responses from family and friends who saw only love, who looked at it the way Terry would have seen it, not with anger or questions or despair, but with gratitude for this gentle man and with love for the community that embraces him. It was as he had been taught and as he had taught.

I should have known. I do know. I guess I just forgot for a while. None of this is to take away the profound sadness, the terrible hurt, the numbing sense of loss. But already, those are being overcome by a family choosing to be healers, knowing that the healer will also be healed.

"Oh death, where is thy sting?" That question is posed in I Corinthians 15:55, and is answered by Terry Read and by those who love him. And here is the answer: "Death, you came up against love, and you lose."

Love wins. Every time.

Rest in peace, Terry Read, awash in the love of those who have been loved by you, and assured that your wonderful family will be enveloped in the love you saved up for them. Stay with us awhile and you will see.

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Oh the Losses I've Seen. Glory Hallelujah": The Spiritual Significance of the World Series

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory, Hallelujah

Sometimes I'm up, sometimes
I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

The old Negro spiritual describes a horrific kind of suffering, but in the process it also manages to define the human condition itself, both in its sorrow and its redemption. The spirituals sing of life in its lowest moments, in its deepest despair, but within the same verses embody faith ("Glory, Hallelujah") and hope ("oh yes, Lord"). These powerful lyrics have been sung around the world, applied to all manner of trouble and all forms of salvation.

I certainly wouldn't want to equate baseball to the conditions that birthed the spirituals, but it does offer an analogy that helps explain what is going on today, especially in Kansas City, but many other places as well. Last night, as the clock ticked past midnight on the east coast, a band of lads in blue erased three decades of baseball futility, bringing a World Championship to Kansas City for the first time since 1985. A significant number of those players were not even born when the pain began.

I'll be quick to acknowledge that sports is an imperfect metaphor for ruminations about life, marked as it is with greed, cheating, mistaken priorities, and moral ambiguity. But since life suffers similar shortcomings in virtually all its expressions, we can probably let it serve without undue apology.

I am a lifelong fan of the grand game of baseball. I truly believe that the kind of game it is, the multitude of human stories that are played out in every contest, and its respect for its own heritage and tradition, infuse it with meanings beyond itself. Some say "baseball imitates life." Others go further, claiming that "baseball is life"--a tad pretentious, perhaps, but I respect the sentiment. At the very least, the game offers parallels to life that are useful and worth pondering. I think that is evident on the streets and airwaves of Kansas City today. What happened isn't just silly playfulness. It is about people allowing a game to speak to the hole in their souls.

Today there are scores of writers and pundits pounding out elegant descriptions of the World Series and its meanings. The game lends itself to literary endeavors; there are dozens of anthologies that collect thoughtful prose about America's Pasttime. It's just that kind of game.

A year ago I wrote several pieces about that enchanted season that foreshadowed last night's triumph. The 2014 Wild Card Game, still the greatest game I've ever seen and arguably the best ever played, prompted some musings about "baseball and the soul." And the excruciating loss in the seventh game of the World Series led me to a "joyful lament" about what had been gained and what had been lost. I was clearly captured by the quixotic journey out of the wilderness. It had provided a salve to year after year of 100-loss-seasons, embarrassing video lowlights that reminded one of the Katzenjammer Kids, and where baseball's classic promise to "wait till next year" became a cruel hoax. Such angst triggered reflection, hence the blog posts.

I was a little surprised therefore to discover that during this historic season of winning--seven straight victories out of the box, sole possession of first place in the division for virtually the entire season, and the best record in the American League--I had hardly written anything about baseball, and then only tangentially. It's as if defeat was worthy of attention, but I had nothing much to say about winning.

My initial thought of a title for this post was "When Losers Win." But somehow it felt kind of like a junior high kid in a schoolyard spat calling another kid "Loser!" It didn't capture the intent.

But the truth is that this baseball season, with its Houdini-like escapes, its personal drama (three Royals players lost parents in the last few months), and its embodiment of what national commentators came to call Royals-style baseball, has been about losers becoming winners. In doing so, legions of fans, many of them newly-minted fans, have sensed something personal--that amidst disappointment comes hope, within despair there is nested joy, and "the trouble I've seen" is not my trouble alone.

Eric Hosmer dives headlong to score the tying run in the ninth
inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, an 
improbable dash
 that led to the first KC Royals World Championship in 30 years.
Last night with one out in the ninth, a loss was imminent. The opposing pitcher had dazzled the boys of virtue and truth throughout the entire game. The crowd was roaring, mocking, waving flags, urging the scoundrels on.

Then came the convergence of every moment into one moment.

A kid who was born to play baseball stood at third base, down by one run, remembering in a nanosecond everything his dad, his coaches, his baseball heroes, had ever told him, buoyed by scouting reports about the range of the shortstop and the arm strength of the first baseman, aware not consciously but instinctually of the speed of his feet and the length of his stride.

A slow ground ball on the infield was handled routinely. The defender checked him, looked him back to third, then threw to first. The kid’s body coiled, his instincts prickling, his timing impeccable. He broke down the line at warp speed, launching his body headfirst toward the plate, his arm stretching, stretching, the ball threatening to beat him there. And failing.

And then his hand found home. The game was tied, and soon to be won. The dugout erupted as he lay face down on the ground.

I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

And then Eric Hosmer was up again. Human again. A winner again. For the first time again.

And so are we.

Glory, Hallelujah!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Taking the Fork in the Road: The Words of Yogi Berra and Pope Francis

It's unfortunate, in a way, that the death of baseball's philosopher-king overlapped as it did with the visit to the United States of the "people's pope." Yogi Berra is one of the most beloved baseball personalities in the history of the game. Pope Francis doesn't have as many years in the limelight, but he is making his mark in the world, even among those not members of the Catholic faith.

Both of them have a rightful claim to the world's stage and on another occasion they would only have had to joust with Donald Trump for front page news and airtime on the network broadcasts. Trump would have been buried in either case, and that is a break all Americans needed, however one might feel about this aspirant for the presidency.

I suspect Trump would have been highly interested in Catholicism if he had heard about the canonization of a new saint. Among other things, you are supposed to have been credited with two miracles to qualify. He could easily cite the last two Gallup Polls as evidence of Trump fulfilling that requirement. Since he also recently claimed that he had nothing for which to ask forgiveness, it would appear that Donald Trump could well be a candidate for sainthood. Better a saint than president, one is tempted to observe, at the risk of sounding snarky.

I have been transfixed by the arrival of Pope Francis, his first visit on American soil. The reception by the 78 million Catholics in the United States is perhaps predictable, although the church has been experiencing significant losses as a result of the sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, and the resulting coverup attributed to the church's hierarchy. Pope Francis has moved resolutely to resolve the problem, beginning with asking forgiveness of both God and the victims.

But it has not been just Catholics rejoicing in the visit of this good and humble man. The media, usually jaded by matters religious, has been almost fawning in its coverage. One suspects that reporting on the American political scene leaves one yearning for words of hope, softly spoken, and sincerely lived.

Which takes me back to Yogi. If it is the use of words that gives the Pope the ability to encourage and inspire his followers, it is the misuse of words that gave the Yankee catcher the charm to state things that everyone could understand, despite the malapropisms that made English teachers cringe.

Now some spoilsports at the New York Times have done research that shows that some of Yogi's sayings didn't come from Yogi at all.  In some respects it doesn't really matter; we don't just read those quotes, we "hear" them and it is always Yogi we hear. Even he acknowledged that he may not have been the source of all those sayings, admitting such in a book entitled, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!

I recognize that it is a little unusual to be mentioning Yogi Berra and Pope Francis in the same sentence, especially in reference to their use of words. But listening to the message being eloquently delivered by the Pope this week, I think there are a few Yogi-isms that are Pope-worthy.

  • The Pope declared that he was anxious to engage in a time of listening and sharing. Yogi said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
  • The Pope talked about the direction of the church. Yogi cautioned, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
  • The Pope invited the faithful to keep moving forward. Yogi warned, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
  • The Pope acknowledged that many had erred and made mistakes. Yogi commiserated, noting that "If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be."

And finally, the Pope took on his critics and at the same time impressed the faithful with his openness and his loving spirit.

As Yogi said, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why the Reasons Joe Biden Should Not Run for President are the Reasons He Should

Vice President Joe Biden on Late Night with Stephen Colbert,
September 10, 2015.
Vice President Joe Biden’s remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, an unforgettable moment in only the third episode of Colbert’s new late-night show, was a powerful demonstration of the soul of American democracy in a political season that has generally exhibited its underbelly. Whatever one thinks of the Vice President or the current administration, I think most will agree that his open heart and honest feelings are the very qualities we most need in those who would lead the nation.

The interview between Colbert and Biden was a meeting of two men who had both suffered extraordinary pain and tragedy. Biden lost his wife and 19-month-old daughter in a 1972 automobile accident, and most recently his 48-year-old son to a brain tumor. Colbert, similarly, was ten years old when his father and two older brothers died in a 1974 plane crash in North Carolina.

If the shared experience between the two men established the evident rapport in the interview, the crescendo of response overnight makes it clear that they touched a universal chord that resonates with the entire human family. It makes one wonder why this should be. Why are we surprised and touched when a politician shows up with feelings on his sleeve and tears in his eyes?

I don’t know whether Joe Biden should run for president or not. If he chooses to do so, he has my ear. I have always admired him as a person, appreciated his broad domestic and global experience, and chuckled at his occasional good-hearted gaffes. He has always been the real deal.

Vice President Joe Biden with his son, Beau,
who died earlier this year.
But the tortuous road he has traveled to a decision has given us an even deeper insight into the human being behind the political persona. One has to believe that many other politicians have gone on similar journeys; they have just chosen to make it an inward sojourn, perhaps thinking they would otherwise appear weak or indecisive. Just the opposite is true.

Meanwhile, the ship of fools that is the 2016 presidential campaign paddles on. This morning, in the wake of the beautiful and heartfelt experience of Biden/Colbert, we hear about whether Carly Fiorina is attractive enough to be president, whether Donald Trump’s hair resembles a squirrel, and whether Hillary Clinton’s handlers should have leaked that she is planning to be more spontaneous.

I understand fully the reasons why Joe Biden hesitates to take on a national campaign while his family is awash in the life-changing, life-questioning, life-affirming experiences that shape what it means to be a human being. We feel their pain, and not in a sloganeering way. We truly feel their pain.

The problem is that that is exactly what we need in a president -- somebody who feels our pain.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

And the Walls Came Tumbling Up

"Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind." (Costica Bradatan, "Scaling the ‘Wall in the Head,’" New York Times, November 27, 2011.)
The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 after separating
East from West for 28 years.
Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.  It was built in 1961 to prevent citizens from the Communist-controlled East Germany and East Berlin from escaping to the West. Over time it had become a stark symbol of the Cold War, no more so than in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan stood at its foot and demanded that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

To see this wall coming down brick by brick was a slice of history I didn't want my boys to miss. After all, as a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family relocated here from Canada when I was twelve years old, I had been schooled in the inscription appearing on the Statue of Liberty: 
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So, having lived in a free Canada (though not tired, poor, huddled, or wretched) and in a free United States, I found the notion of a wall along national borders to be somehow incongruous, not to mention impractical.

In fact, walls and fences usually generate negative images. A few years ago a neighbor built a five-foot high wooden fence around their backyard because they had acquired a large dog and needed to keep it penned up. I understood the reason but was saddened by the loss of a clear expanse of land across the lots that covered our side of the cul-de-sac.

The Great Wall of China stretches not only across the miles
but also across the millennia.
I have long read about, and subsequently had the opportunity to visit, the Great Wall of China, which was built in fits and starts over the centuries. What is commonly thought of as the Great Wall today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took several hundred years to complete. If you count all sections of the Wall that ever existed, the process took over 2000 years. Obviously, it wasn't a short-term solution to the problem of keeping out the Mongols, Manchus, and other lowlights.

The present election season has ushered in a non-stop volley of nonsense about walls and immigrants that, while it generates both cheers and chuckles, has some serious and troubling issues at the core. Some of it tracks back to the 2012 election when Michelle Bachman proposed a fence to line the U.S./Mexico border and Herman Cain one-upped her by suggesting the fence be electrified. I guess the idea was to hear the hissing sound of illegals hitting the fence, just like mosquitoes make a similar sound when they fly into those bug zappers we put on our decks.

The 2016 candidates are all having to cope with explaining how sealing off a 1900 mile border with a 10-foot high wall is both feasible and affordable. Meanwhile, one of the candidates has now suggested that he would be open to building a wall to secure the U.S./Canada border as well. (Trust me on this, folks, I know a lot of Canadians and none of them have ever expressed a desire to slither on their bellies from Saskatchewan into Montana so as to be eligible for our healthcare system.)

Another candidate was inspired by a FedEx commercial and noted how they tracked their packages so efficiently. Why not apply that principle to immigrants who come in with legal visas but overstay their time limit, he asked? I suppose we could tattoo a barcode on their rump and just have them scan that wherever they go so we can track them down if they're overdue on their visitors pass. Or their library card.

This is great material for the late night comedians, but taking this either too lightly or too seriously has its own problems. I understand that we have an issue with securing borders and I know we are in dire need of immigration reform. But we are dealing with a 1,954-mile border and untold billions of dollars of unbudgeted costs, not to mention constitutional questions, profound issues of land acquisitions, environmental impact statements required by law, and fistfuls of problems that are already known, let alone those not yet known. Simply declaring that it can be done doesn't get it done, no matter how much bravado accompanies the declaration.

There is another deep-seated issue here, one I am not qualified to do anything about other than mention, deferring instead to psychologists and other specialists. But we have learned in school and life that we need to break down our walls. They prevent us from knowing ourselves, keep us from understanding one another, and cut us off from the Source of our being. This is the personal cost being exacted by a national agenda. Soon we will be walling off our cities, enclosing our homes, and locking ourselves in rather than locking others out.

There is something wrong, even slimy, about all this talk of walling ourselves off. It is starting to feel like the kind of society we have deplored, always pointing instead to our freedoms, our cultural melting pot, our respect for others. But now we are demonizing other countries and cultures and buying up bricks and mortar to build walls of exclusion, a fool's errand unlike any I have seen.

In a global society where our place in the world is more important than it has ever been, we are choosing walls instead of bridges. This is starting to have a deleterious effect on our national psyche. We are applauding crudity, disrespecting cultures, living in false fears, and making a laughing stock of our country around the world.

Walls are symbols of our failures. We talk of building walls because we have been unable to solve our problems with word and deed, and now we build a wall of blame that will become a wall of shame.

If we do this, some day in the not far distant future a Reaganesque leader will stand at this border and in a voice with a rising crescendo declare, "America, tear down this wall!"

And the world will cheer.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Garrison Keillor's America vis-à-vis the Dark Vision of Donald Trump

Saturday night my wife and I attended a stirring program at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City, featuring Garrison Keillor and members of the cast from his long-running radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. It will likely be the last live performance we will witness. Keillor has announced his retirement after a 41-year run. 

Over that time, which began the year our oldest son was born, we have listened to hundreds of his weekly programs, acquired numerous tapes and CDs, attended several live performances, and  in 2006 enjoyed a memorable cruise to Alaska which featured Keillor and his entire cast as the entertainment for the week. (In fact, that was the year I started this blog and here is a link to my post about APHC and that cruise, way back when.)

Keillor is an American original, a genuine folk humorist blessed with a musical capacity that bridges the genres and mixes it lightly with a comedic sense, impeccable timing, and self-deprecating charm. He is a storyteller par excellence. Sometimes when he starts one of his classic tales from Lake Wobegon, the mythical Midwestern town at the heart of his artfully created world, you wonder if the story will find its way back to an ending that is worthy of its telling. But usually, by hook or crook, he traverses the landscape he has imagined and lands adroitly on a moral point that is centered in the America he loves. And we love it too.

There will be a plethora of reviews, tributes, and retrospectives by the time Keillor hangs up his red shoes for the last time. Far be it for me to presume to assess his place in American culture, confident though I am that it will be notable indeed.

But there were some other stirrings in my soul the other night as I began to have a clearer sense of the kind of America Garrison Keillor paints for us each time he sits down on his stool in front of a microphone and begins to spin through skits, songs, and stories, a world that his audience recognizes in its heart, and yearns for in its head.

Unfortunately, my joy in the moment was tempered by an inner dissonance. I found myself contrasting Keillor's America with the one being bandied about in American society these days, led by an egocentric billionaire for whom money is the sole measure of value, force the pathway to security, and ridicule the commerce of diplomacy.  

His is a dark vision. It appeals to our baser selves. It is all prose and no poetry. It is a world without boundaries for those with their own helicopter, their name emblazoned on its side. It is a vision where every humiliating affront is declared as "just boys being boys." It is a vision composed of walls and armies and demagoguery. It is a society where building casinos is likened to building cathedrals. It is a dark and make-believe world that is being created and fueled by fear and empowered by hate. And this traveling salvation show is driven by one who declares there is nothing in his life for which he needs to ask forgiveness.

This is a dark and terrifying vision of America. 

But there is a better way.

Garrison Keillor also skewers American life and all its foibles. He makes fun of his religious upbringing and the strait-laced virtues of small town Lutheranism. Then he leads the audience in singing "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord." No malice here.

He would make fun of the notion of building a gigantic wall to keep “illegals” out, then put a perspective to it by returning us to old, familiar campfire songs like: “So wide you can’t get around it, so tall you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, you gotta go inna the door.” (That’s the way I learned it, anyway.) Somehow, this wall would so much more powerful in its symbolism if it wasn’t accompanied by the list of building supplies to be picked up at Home Depot.

Garrison Keillor lampoons bureaucrats in Washington, DC, with the best of them. His satire is incisive and just as penetrating, but it is not filled with personal loathing, as if every federal worker was stupid and on the dole. There is a difference between criticizing and demonizing.

If one vision of America is centered in personality and ego, Keillor's is self-effacing, his hair windblown but not intentionally so, his wardrobe often unfashionably askew, his ego undoubtedly fluffed by audience adulation but without illusions as to how important that really is.

Garrison Keillor's patriotism is inclusive. His concert tour lifts up the beauty of America, "from sea to shining sea." His audience is not a bunch of different people; it is one people under a canopy of heaven, singing songs we all know, laughing at ourselves, and celebrating the vast community that is America. The other vision is about "just us, not them." It appeals to an American exceptionalism that has winners and losers, and a puppeteer determining which victors get which spoils.

I am not an innocent drawn to quixotic causes, but I am a dreamer. I have been blessed to see a lot of this world, to experience its beauty and its brokenness. I have seen the worst and the best of people. I have seen the world changed by the simplest of persons, and I believe that leadership is a sacred gift proffered to us so as to help us be about good work in the world.

Leaders unite, they do not divide. Leaders respect, they do not ridicule. Leaders sing hymns, not their own song.

Garrison Keillor is not running for president, but his vision of America laughs, cries, and sings its way into our hearts. Sing along, lest we all get swept away into the darkness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The 17th Candidate

Here are the 17 Republican candidates in alphabetical order, except for Jim Gilmore,
who apparently got in too late to meet the graphic designer's deadline.
I’ve been wondering what it must feel like to be the 17th candidate in the crowd of 17 running for the Republican presidential nomination. They vary from poll to poll — one day it’s Lindsey Graham, the next it’s Bobby Jindal, only to be supplanted by Jim Gilmore or George Pataki. It’s a tight race for the 17th spot, and there are quite a few deserving contenders.

I think too much attention is given to the front runners. Most commentaries focus on the absurdity of Donald Trump leading the pack or the stunning fall from grace of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. Some zero in on the internecine war between Rand Paul and Chris Christie or the unexpected surge of Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina. But what about the guys that are polling at 1% or less? They are the ones desperate to find a niche, willing to consider almost any scheme to be discovered. The battle to be dead last may be the most overlooked story of this presidential campaign.

I have heard some cynics dismiss all these Republican candidates as losers. This is grossly unfair to those who have fought hard for that designation and deserve the right to reap the fruits of their labors. Some have crafted carefully-considered position statements on the issues and posted them on their website. This is important, because Americans can go to that source and read what the candidate believes, after which they can then declare with full approbation, “Geeze, that guy is a loser.” It is lazy and unpatriotic to arrive at that conclusion without knowing what stupid positions they hold.

The fight for last place also gets confusing when we hear that some of the contenders have been endorsed by God. Some of us who believe in God tend to think He would go for somebody at least in the middle of the pack, if not the top five. I’m not suggesting God would line up for Trump just because he’s in first place — there are simply too many mixed metaphors in that relationship. And I would understand if He had trouble going with someone named Jeb, although God has worked with Esau and Nebuchadnezzar, so I suppose it’s possible. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve always thought that God looked with favor on teachers, so Scott Walker is probably not going to get the nod.

I could go down the list, but I just think that it is possible that the 17th spot is still in play for God’s support. The word on the street is that there are a number of God-centered Super PACs being formed. Some long-time contributors to Republican causes are murmuring (a biblical form of muttering) about the requirement that a 10% tithe comes right off the top of every political gift and goes straight to God. This has not been expected of Republicans in the past, but some of the candidates vying for the 17th spot are apparently willing to cut the deal.

Off the record, political insiders have said that lining up God’s endorsement brings with it a number of volunteers experienced in going door to door. However, seasoned political operatives are expressing concern that some of those canvassers are wanting to include their own pamphlets listing the social behaviors that will result in one’s eternal damnation to the firey pits of hell. Several of the candidates that the polls list as likely 17th-placers denied that they had agreed to this, indicating that negotiations were ongoing.

The other thing that must be disheartening is the ubiquitous publication of polling results in graphically embarrassing ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bar chart, a pie chart, or a line chart. When you are a tiny blip on a chart published on the front page of USA Today, surely you hope like the dickens that the girl you asked to the high school prom isn’t sitting there thinking, “Geeze, what a dweeb you turned out to be, Lindsey.”

Things are surely awkward at Thanksgiving and Christmas if you’re the 17th candidate. “So, what are you doing these days, George?” inquires a favorite aunt, feigning any awareness that you’re running for President of the United States but are trailing Bobby Jindal in the “Looks Presidential” poll on CNN. It’s a tough spot for families. Most want to be supportive, but nobody wants to back a loser and look like a fool. In politics, blood is thicker than water, but only if it’s distilled water.

To be in the trenches with the 17th candidate must be a tremendous head trip, if not a spiritual epiphany. It’s you against the establishment, the nay-sayers, the political pundits, the elites, the donor class, and your own desperation. But onward you go, bottled water in hand, and prognosticators be damned. “The last shall be first,” you declare, citing the Bible or Shakespeare or Judge Judy.

For the 17th candidate, there is one big danger. There is always the chance that you will be misquoted or misunderstood, and thereby come off sounding wise and interesting, accidentally setting off an unintended firestorm that catches the attention of Morning Joe or causes Donald Trump to belittle you. Then you will climb up a few points in the polls, lose your claim to the 17th slot, and be lost to history forever.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Five Things That Should Be Undebatable

No one should pay much attention to what I think about the candidates who debated on Thursday night, whether from the prime time stage or the losers table (for those who didn't make the Fox News cut).

There is very little likelihood that I will be voting for any of that group, so disgusted am I with the Republican obstructionist tactics over the past seven years. The disdain for the President is palpable and began the day he took office, thereby negating any argument that their disagreement is principled or policy-based. 

I have a point of view as to what drives the antipathy, but it will take some years for us to see it clearly. History will be generous to Barack Obama. Had the Disloyal Opposition honored the judgement of the voters in 2008 and again in 2012, and simply engaged in a good faith, bipartisan debate on the issues that prevailed in the election, this country and the world would be in a far better place.

But now, seventeen of those naysayers are asking the country to send them to the White House and, if successful, they will undoubtedly be expecting the graciousness and patriotism they denied their predecessor. If one of those aspirants to the Presidency is successful, I will be reaching down deep into my soul to find the wherewithal to give that person the support that any recipient of America's greatest treasure--its vote--deserves, and that Barack Obama was denied. Flawed human that I am, I probably will not be gracious. But I will try.

But in the meantime, we need to take a look at the process that we are now engaged in and speak some truth about what is happening in this electoral season. Here are some brief observations about five things that should be undebatable in a civilized society.

Politics as Theater. None of us should be under any illusion that politics is not, in part, theater. That is how politicians get attention, it is how parties generate enthusiasm, and it is how policies get cooked for human consumption. What we must understand, however, is that theater does not make a leader and, when used improperly, can destroy a leader. Like the Wizard of Oz or the emperor who has no clothes; it is all theater. So far, the Republican campaign has been driven entirely by a candidate who believes his words create reality and his bravado is his message. It's all theater. 

Political Correctness.  Donald Trump, confronted with misogynistic statements he has made about women, declared that he didn't "have time for political correctness." That answer received a raucous applause, encouraging him to repeat that defense in post-debate interviews. In fact, he worsened it by attacking the female interviewer who had asked the question in the first place. How much "time" does it take to refer to someone as a "woman" instead of a "fat pig?" Of course, there are some who take this to extremes, but Trump's name-calling is not about political correctness. It is about being rude, gauche, and demeaning. 

Respect for People. One of the foundational principles of our society is that people have worth, that ideas are fair game, but people are respected. Look back at the memoirs of political leaders over recent decades. Lyndon Johnson was one of the most ruthless legislators when he was majority leader of the U.S. Senate, and his arm-twisting techniques continued into his Presidency. But he also had respect for his opponents, befriended them and their families, and had the most formidable list of accomplishments of any president since FDR. At the same time, he genuinely cared for people and their needs, choosing to help the disadvantaged rather than demonize them. There are many criticisms one could level at LBJ; disrespect of people is not one. How one wishes that it would be so today.

Respect for Culture. In the 911 era, our country has moved from celebrating a rich, multi-cultural, melting pot to a time of distrust of other cultures and religious movements. Some of this is understandable, but it requires more of us in order to distinguish between cultures of hate and cultures of peace. Pride in American exceptionalism often leads to American exclusivism. We see this in the immigration debate, in the suspicion focused on mosques in American cities, and even in attitudes toward allies like France and Germany. Cultural diversity is a central tenet of American society and we should expect our political candidates to articulate and explain those differences rather than exploit them.

Faith and Culture. The Constitution built a wall of separation between church and state. Sometimes we forget that was to protect the state from the church as much as the church from the state. Our task, especially in a political season, is to honor and respect a candidate's faith without being expected to make that faith normative for the entire country. It gets tough when it comes to issues like abortion, but distinctions between personal beliefs and public policy must be made. There are several candidates in this race who believe they are called by God to public service, including running for president.  An anonymous quote I like is, "Seek out the company of those who are searching for the truth. But avoid at all cost those who claim to have found it!" Theological humility serves us all well.

The political year is off to a rough start. In the midst of many issues to be debated, perhaps there are some that ought to be undebatable--separating politics from theater, using words with care, respecting people and culture, and properly using our deepest faith commitments.

With foundation stones like that, we can have an election worthy of the American people and our place in the world.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ode to an Old Soul

About twelve years ago we snatched a skittish calico cat from a premature end of life, she having outlived her grace period at the animal shelter that had received her from owners unknown. She had not been treated well by those owners. She learned to trust ever so slowly, but eventually became a beloved member of our family circle.

She slept on our bed at night; sometimes I would awaken to find ourselves nose to nose. She plunked herself down in the midst of our granddaughters' play, bemusedly tolerating their petting hands or allowing herself to be carried from place to place. She blended in with the bedspread, her calico colorings almost like a camouflage suit, allowing her to sleep undisturbed throughout much of the day.

Maggie was an old soul. Her eyes always seemed dark and brooding, as if a pool of understanding was rippling in there, just below the surface. I tend to stay up late at night, and Maggie would usually find her way into my library, jumping up onto my lap with a little guttural sound and pressing her forehead against my hand. Cats are often nocturnal, but Maggie's black mask made her seem even more like a creature of the night.

Yesterday, having noticed some irregularities in her breathing and other behaviors, we took her to the vet to get her fixed up. Little did we imagine that we would come home without our beloved Maggie. Details aren't needed here; suffice it to say that she was much sicker than we imagined and there was no turning back.

We had tears to cry. We had Ashley and Ayla to talk to once again about life and death--they had lost a family cat within the year. Amidst their own tears, they said some unbelievably sweet and sensitive things to us. Their parents lovingly led them through it, answering their questions as best they could, recognizing that we all have to live through the pain and we can't make it go away from them or us, as much as we might wish it could be so.

I don't know how to write about this without it coming out predictably sentimental and maudlin. Pets are deeply personal. I know she will be a ghost here in our house for months to come; I will see her where she usually is, even when she isn't there. I will hear her little yelp as she jumps up onto the bed when I'm turning in, but she won't be there, waiting for my head to lay on the pillow.

Her compatriot, a gray tabby named Snuggles, who arrived in our home from the same shelter on the same day as Maggie, is without her friend and we can't find the cat words to explain it to her. But she knows, as she pads along after us, meowing, lonely.

Here's the thing we know. Love cannot exist without pain. It's just the way it is. If you choose to risk love you are also choosing pain and loss. Today, we miss our friend and there is no doubt we are hurting.

But Maggie, you are worthy of every tear, and you are and always will be loved. You will forever be the Old Soul of our family's heart.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Embracing the Ebb and Flow of Life

Three seemingly unrelated things that tell us something about ourselves and our world...

First: I recently began to reread Alas, Babylon, a classic apocalyptic novel published in 1959. The author, Pat Frank, captured the worst fears of the Cold War by depicting life in a small Florida town that miraculously survived a nuclear holocaust that destroyed most of America.

I can't really explain what provoked me to pick up the book. I had a copy in my library for decades, but it apparently did not survive the occasional culling that goes on now and then. But it has been reissued and I had Amazon send one my way.

The first night I started to read the book, we had a tornado warning. For one hour, I read the novel with a storm siren howling in the distance, our ears tuned to the weather report, flashlights at hand, readying ourselves to hurry to a reinforced area in the center of our basement that serves as an emergency shelter. It was surreal. I didn't pick the book up again until the sun was shining.

Second: A couple of weeks ago, my brother-in-law died after a five-year battle with a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. The last ten days of his life were spent at a hospice house, his wife and daughters at his side. The vigil was healing in some ways and difficult in others. One cannot feel good about a life that was taken too young and with things yet to do.

But a few days later his church was filled with family and friends who came together to celebrate and learn from his life. We heard things we had never heard before, laughed aloud at stories that captured the beauty and uniqueness of his life, shed tears that had been welling up for a long time, and celebrated through song, story, and prayer the richness of his life. It was redemptive.

Third: A few weeks ago a series of remarkable events gave many of us reason to feel new hope for America. The Supreme Court upheld provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act that would have cost millions of Americans health care coverage had the outcome been different. Then came another ruling that declared same-sex marriage to be constitutional in all fifty states. While there are still deep divisions within the country on both issues, the Court reflected the changing cultural consensus and set in place a framework by which these issues can be processed.

At the same time, a tragic shooting spurred by racial hatred turned a historic African-American church into a house of forgiveness and reconciliation. In South Carolina and elsewhere, courageous leaders stood up to the forces of hate and led to the removal of a flag that was for many a symbol of slavery and racism. And in the midst of it all, President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy to the slain that artfully and sensitively captured that powerful transformational moment.

A friend wrote me and said, "It is a great week for America." I agreed and my heart soared with a sense of hope I had not felt for some time. I have been distressed by the direction of the country--the horrible electoral gridlock, the obscene influence of money in politics, and an increasing income inequality that threatens the well-being of our country. I wrote about my malaise earlier this year. So my pleasure at these landmark moments was palpable.

Then came Donald Trump, spewing words of racial hatred, imposing his megalomania on all who would listen, turning his delusions of grandeur into some kind of political platform. It was like he turned and spit into the fountain of goodwill that had been filled during a remarkable few weeks in the summer of 2015.

I had to pause and think about how we are shaped by the ebb and flow of our lives. Good times replace the bad, pain gives way to joy, moments of insight are blunted by stupors of thought. It is just the way it is. If we understand that, we can live in hope, aware that this too will pass.

And so it is that a scary apocalyptic novel can be better read in the full light of day. Pain over the loss of a beloved family member is salved in part by the awareness that we shared a slice of his life and we are better people for having done so. And we must remind ourselves that buffoons will come and go, particularly in politics. But they will not stand because voices of dignity, reason, and humanity will ultimately drown out the haters and quell the designs of those whose egos dwarf the country they would presume to lead.

In Missouri, we often say that if you don't like the weather just wait a bit and it will be completely different. And so it is in the ebb and flow of life. Tomorrow is always another day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Best Medicine

[This post was published in Facebook and in essentially this form on June 12, 2015, but I neglected to include it in my blog at that time. I am adding it here so that it appears in my blog in proper chronological order. This is not a new post, although I added an update at the bottom so that readers will be aware that the outcome has been very positive.]

Ashley, age 7, is Papa's best medicine

On Monday, I had a Minimally Invasive Lumbar Laminectomy. I had always wanted to have one of those until I discovered it wasn’t a dessert served at a chic restaurant on the Plaza. You know what I mean. — the kind of thing they set afire just before bringing it to your table.

But NOOO! It turns out that it’s a surgical procedure on one’s back to address a nasty little situation known as spinal stenosis. For the past several months, I’ve been experiencing an extreme amount of pain in my back and difficulty in walking. After x-rays, MRIs, and consultation with a neurosurgeon, this seemed to be by far the best alternative.

Surgery was scheduled for yesterday morning, and during the prep time I met with the anesthesiologist and she discussed the possible side effects of the procedure. They included short-term pain at the site of the incision, nausea, loss of appetite, and dizziness. Death was also mentioned.

Upon hearing of that potential side effect, I immediately experienced nausea, loss of appetite, and dizziness. But I decided to go ahead with it since I had already been fitted for the gown.

So far, the results are encouraging, although my Decathlon plans have been put on hold. My legs are feeling better than they have for a while, but I am experiencing pain in the lower back around the incision, which is normal and expected. As of this writing, the post-operative pain has become more severe and I am reluctant to walk without assistance. I am told by the medical staff that this is not unusual. Obviously, this is a process that needs to be played out. As to the death thing, I appear to be within the survey’s margin of error.

I am grateful for the support from so many friends and family. My wife Joyce tagged along after me making sure I was properly cared for. I spent one night in the hospital and was released the day after the surgery. I cannot say enough about the physicians and staff of the Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute, located within the St. Luke’s Hospital complex on The Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri.

During the course of that first day, I had many medicines put into me by pill, injection, IVs, and any other mode you can think of. But the best medicine of all was when my son Brian came up to see me at the hospital. I knew he was coming, but what I didn’t know was a surprise he had planned for me.

There was a knock on the door and I looked up and in came my seven-year-old granddaughter Ashley, chocolate milkshake in hand, fearlessly weaving her way through the hospital paraphernalia to give me a big hug.

I cannot find the words to explain the unconditional love that swept over me when that little girl came through the door. When I felt both her arms around my neck holding me tight, it was a transformational moment. Then she handed me a handmade card made by Ayla, her four-year-old sister, making the circle complete.

Modern medicine can do miraculous things, but healing begins with love.

[Update: As of 7/14/15, I can report that the nerve pain that was the occasion for the surgery has completely subsided. I wouldn't have minded if one procedure could have fixed all that ails me, but that would have required a full-court press by physicians representing a variety of specialties. We all have our aches and pains and I cannot adequately express how grateful I am to walk again without the debilitating pain that set me bopping off to the spine center. Thank you, Doc, and you too, Ashley.]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Civil Liberties Strike Out in Baltimore

The Orioles and White Sox played in an empty Camden Yards in Baltimore
on April 29 because MLB decided that civil unrest made the area unsafe for fans.

America's pastime staged a piece of theater this week that seemed bizarre at the outset, but ended up creating imagery that expressed better than words or deeds how fragile American society has become.

On April 29, 2015, for the first time in the storied history of major league baseball, a regular season game was played in a stadium absent of any paying fans. Those of us who have faithfully cheered losing baseball teams for many years know all about "near empty" stadiums. But this stadium was empty not because of fan indifference but because of a Major League Baseball edict.

For much of this month, the City of Baltimore has been caught up in public protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested on April 12 and died seven days later, apparently of spinal cord injuries suffered while in police custody. This week the civil unrest turned to riots in the streets with the full complement of looting, arson, smashed and fire-bombed police cars, and a number of law enforcement personnel injured by bricks and bottles hurled at them by demonstrators.

Over the past couple of days, the civil unrest in Baltimore was joined by solidarity demonstrations in other American cities, including Washington and New York, with some of those resulting in violence and arrests. The protests were driven largely by a lack of information about what caused this particular death, along with accumulating instances of police brutality being caught on videotape all around the country.

Anyone following the news knows as much as I do about the issues in play here. There are prognosticators and commentators, politicians and preachers, mothers and kids, finger pointers and finger lifters, looters and brick throwers, peacemakers and peacebreakers, all of whom have points of view, some of them informed and others not so much.

Clearly there is something amiss in this country. The social contract between law enforcement and the people they are supposed to serve is fractured and at risk of being shattered like a broken bat. At the same time, there are violent criminal elements out there who put the lives of those officers at risk every day they put on a uniform, The only answer to this problem is resident in the communities themselves, where neighbors rout the drug dealers, where families raise their kids, where cops become allies, not agents of fear.

Easy words to type, not so easy to do.

In the midst of it all, few people are thinking about the significance of an empty baseball stadium. But since I believe that baseball imitates life, I am able to see connections that are missed by those who foolishly subscribe to the notion that baseball is "only a game."

Consider this. The previous record low attendance of paying fans at a major league baseball game occurred on September 28, 1882 when only six fans showed up for a contest between the Troy (N.Y.) Trojans and the Worcester (Mass.) Ruby Legs at the Worcester Driving Park Grounds.

The fact that such records are preserved and accessible may appear to some as evidence of the decline of Western civilization. I'm borderline on that point myself. However, the response of professional baseball, arguably the most tradition-driven sport in the world, to a matter of civil unrest suggests that something deep and serious is going on here.

Ironically, on April 25 almost 37,000 fans at the Orioles/Red Sox game were locked down for about a half hour in Camden Yards because of "ongoing public safety issues" outside the stadium. A small group of protestors had targeted the baseball game as a good place to draw attention to their cause.

With baseball games and riots playing out on the same stage, the seemingly logical step to be taken if there was a risk to fans would have been to postpone the game and make it up another day. Baseball has done that with natural disasters, inclement weather, notable deaths, national tragedies, and a variety of other reasons.

Instead, the game played on with zero fans, overturning a 133-year-old record, and creating an iconic image for the deepening social divide in this country. Like the tree falling in the forest, one wonders if they had a game and no one came is it still a game? (Well, yes. It was on television, but that begs the point.)

Both the Orioles and Major League Baseball management have been criticized for seeming to make the game more important than the tragedy. But I kind of like the gesture. A quirky thing like playing a game without a fan in the seats is a wake-up call for America. We have a huge problem as long as kids are shot in the back, choke holds are applied to unruly citizens, volunteer cops can’t distinguish between their handgun and their taser, and certain economic and ethnic groups are targeted disproportionally for traffic stops and shakedowns.

Until that stops, the words of the Constitution will be as empty as the baseball stadium.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Misery in Missouri - The Tragic Consequences of "Show Me" Politics

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a powerful symbol of the
opening of the West.
I have been a resident of the state of Missouri for 55 years. For the most part, it has been a pleasant place to live. Located roughly in the center of the United States, it sometimes gets referred to as America's Heartland. It has a little quirky reputation as the "Show Me" state, has fostered silly arguments about pronunciation of its name (Missour-ee’ or ‘Missour-uh), and sometimes gets identified as the place where hillbillies from the Ozarks live. The latter image was turned to gold by the development of Branson as a country music destination second only to Nashville.

But those irksome notions are easily overcome by the state's more redemptive features. Mark Twain is connected with Hannibal and the Mississippi River adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Western Missouri is the jumping off place for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails and the majestic arch in St. Louis is a memorable image commemorating the opening of the West. The Latter Day Saint movement, the largest indigenous faith tradition in the United States, claims Independence as a place of historic and spiritual significance. The University of Missouri boasts one of the most prestigious schools of journalism in the country.

The Lake of the Ozarks and the small mountain range in which it nests, offers a particularly picturesque setting that surprises first-time visitors. Harry S Truman is Missouri's favorite son, a plain-speaking President beloved more after he left office than when he occupied it. I watched Thomas Hart Benton paint the majestic mural in the foyer of the Truman Library, and it was not unusual for us to see Mr. Truman walking to the Library in the morning, waving his cane at our school bus as we passed him on Delaware Street. St. Louis and Kansas City each have Major League Baseball and National Football League franchises, a claim few states can match. 

Missouri was a Border State during the Civil War and supplied troops to both the Union and Confederate forces, a form of bipartisanship in its own way. That was echoed well into the twentieth century. Although politics was usually defined by Democratic Party strength in the two urban areas and a more conservative presence in the rural areas, it also led to some spirited and healthy debate as moderate Republicans began to gain strength in the last third of the twentieth century. I remember being proud when our two U.S. Senators were Democrat Tom Eagleton and Republican John Danforth, both decent men who worked cooperatively for the good of the state and the nation.

Former senator John Danforth delivered the
eulogy at the funeral for State Auditor Tom Schweich
It was Danforth's appearance in the news today that prompted me to put these words to some things that have been troubling me and really came to a head this week. This was a horrible day for the state of Missouri, but this state has been dropping like a rock for several years now. 

Danforth, formerly a senator but also Ambassador to the United Nations, was on the television today because he was delivering a eulogy at the funeral for Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich, who took his own life last Thursday. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, delivered a powerful take-down of the cesspool that has become Missouri politics. It reminded me of how much I miss voices like that of John Danforth.

The death of Tom Schweich, a Republican, twice-elected auditor and recently announced candidate for governor, has sent shock waves throughout the state, but not enough of them for my taste. This is a terrible tragedy, but it is also a wake-up call for this state and its elected or wanting to be elected politicians.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich
Here is a link to a more detailed account of the Schweich suicide, but in essence this appears to be a case of a sensitive and perhaps thin-skinned man being unable to cope with a humiliating radio ad and a whispering campaign about his alleged Jewish heritage. He was not Jewish, actually an active Episcopalian, but was proud of some family roots in the Jewish faith. 

But there is a backstory here that is yet to be fully told. It involves the state chairman of the Republican party, the other announced Republican candidate for governor, a billionaire who has injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into Missouri politics, and untold allegations of corruption being alleged by Schweich. All of this has been more or less known, but now it is embodied in the death of a decent man. Something has to change.

This post is triggered by the Schweich tragedy, but is more broadly about the distressing fall of this state, now on our way to becoming a laughing stock because of the absurdity of the legislature, the ineffectiveness of the governor (a Democrat), and an increasing perception that we are a kind of cultural backwater over here. 

On the day of this funeral, many may have overlooked the report issued by the Justice Department regarding the racist culture present in the Ferguson police department, resulting in the tragic shooting and rioting last November. The report details disgusting jokes and scores of discriminatory actions by the supposed public servants. It is an account of Missouri in shame.

But that is only the beginning of our embarrassment. Here are a few illustrations of what we are experiencing here in Missouri:
  • 28% of the executions in the United States last year took place in Missouri, which tied Texas for the most executions in 2014.
  • More black elementary school students have been suspended from school in Missouri than any other state in the country. (14% compared to 7.6% in U.S,. and compared to 1.6% white in both Missouri and U.S.)
  • Todd Akin, campaigning to be elected senator from Missouri in 2014, advanced the notion that if she is "legitimately" raped a woman has the ability to "shut down" and prevent pregnancy. This proved too much for even Missouri. They reelected a Democrat.
  • The legislature has had on its agenda this year a proposal that if evolution is to be taught in a school the parents must be notified and sign a note agreeing to their child being submitted to this information.
  • Governor Jay Nixon, who has managed to get elected to several statewide offices as a Democrat in a red state, managed to embarrass us all by his inept handling of Ferguson, all of it played out on a very large national stage.
  • In 2012 the legislature honored a famous Missourian by putting a bust of Rush Limbaugh in the State Capital. Fortunately, it doesn't talk.
  •  The range of efforts to curtail lawful abortions has become so ridiculous that it can only be described as ludicrous.
  • Missouri managed to prevent many of its residents from benefitting from health insurance coverage by refusing to expand Medicaid and by attacking the Affordable Care Act at every turn, thereby denying Missourians significant benefits from federal subsidies.
It goes on and on. These are only suggestive of the kind of thing we have been coping with in this once proud state. 

We need some serious dialogue in this state around our dysfunctional political system, our willingness to succumb to the most barbarian of ideas without denouncing them as such, and by laying claim once again to being the heartland of America.

Lies, bullying, and ridicule by political officials and their take-no-prisoners consultants have resulted in a good man taking the most ultimate step possible to relieve his pain. I am ashamed to be a Missourian today. My profound hope is that people who care will take John Danforth's words and begin right now to clean this system of those whose names were not mentioned but whose identities are not a secret.

And then let's grow up and live in our own century. With our record these days we've got no business demanding anybody to "Show Me" a darn thing, as if we already know everything. It's time for us to go deep within ourselves and then hope we have something to "Show Them." Don't hold your breath. 


Literally as I was writing this piece, with my television playing in the background, the Rachel Maddow Show started playing a segment on the Tom Schweich story, including Danforth's eulogy. It is excellent and you can find it here

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Five Reasons for My Malaise in 2015

On July 15, 1979, with the country facing runaway inflation and long gas lines resulting from a frightening dependence on foreign oil, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation to discuss the dire issues facing the American people.

"The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways," said Carter. "It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."

The speech was one of the most significant of Carter's presidency, coming about two-thirds of the way into his term, which would end 16 months later with a defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. The speech described a flagging spirit in the country and called on Americans to sacrifice in an effort to stem the energy crisis and overcome our economic woes. Initial response was fairly positive, but soon thereafter political miscalculations and international issues started to take hold and the Carter presidency began to unravel, resulting in a humiliating defeat in 1980.

Then and ever since it has been tagged as his "malaise speech," although Carter never used the word in his address. In some respects it was an indictment of the American lifestyle, blaming consumption as a reason for the costly dependence on foreign oil. It was an unusual tone struck by the nation's leader; the president is usually expected to convey optimism and hope, delivering the message that all is well or at least that whatever ails us can be readily fixed.

Carter's speech came to mind as I have been thinking about what is going on in this country, trying to define a sense of unease, a fundamental discomfort, that I am feeling these days. Those words--unease, discomfort, a lack of well-being--are the very definition of "malaise." Maybe that is what I am feeling. If so, is it a justifiable response to the issues facing our American lives?

Here are some of the things that are informing my unease:

1. Money and Politics. This past weekend two billionaire brothers known for political activism around right wing candidates and causes announced that they planned to contribute and raise almost $900 million to support Republicans in the 2016 elections. This staggering sum is made all the more ominous when you realize that in the last presidential election the entire Republican National Committee and its two congressional funding arms contributed a grand total of about two-thirds of what the Koch brothers aim to infuse into the 2016 campaign. It is clear that the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to unlimited corporate funding of elections, has been even more disastrous than predicted five years ago. The source of my malaise? Our election process, once a pillar of our democracy, has been bought and paid for. It feels like nothing you or I can do will make a whit of a difference.

2. Income Inequality. Oxfam has reported this month that by next year the wealthiest one percent of the world's population will control over half of the world's wealth. A year ago a similar study demonstrated that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50%, totaling 3.5 billion people. These numbers are so overwhelming that we mere mortals have no framework with which to understand them. Perhaps this will make it more applicable: data compiled by the AFL-CIO and published in Forbes shows that in 2013 American CEOs earned an average of $11.7 million, 331 times more than the average worker and 774 times that of a minimum wage worker. Current indicators are showing that this gap is widening, sometimes in dramatic fashion. I believe this is perhaps the signature issue of our time and it will lead to severe consequences if it is not brought under control. The source of my malaise? The guiding principle of our constitutional democracy, that all persons are created equal, is becoming a sham; inequality is the norm and division of the economic classes is the dangerous status quo.

3. Beheadings. Let's cut to the quick and blow off the bravado that deems to persuade the world that we are unmoved by these terrorists and religious or political extremists, no matter how horrific their acts may be. I am haunted by these images, terrified by what they mean to our families, to our kids and grandchildren. It is not the question of whether this might happen to someone I know or within some close circle of people or institutions I care about. It is instead the increasing foundation of violence that emerges naturally from a world increasingly defined by such brutality. It means more guns, more children dying in the streets, more crazed teenagers with disconnects in their brains and machetes in their hands. The source of my malaise? They don't just chop off heads in Friday the 13th movies anymore; terrible things are done by people who don't care what happens to themselves, and I don't know that we can stop it.

4. Justice and Fairness. It has been a tough year for justice in the streets of America. The debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, highlighted problems with policing, but even more it pointed to the sorry state of racism in our country. Ferguson, along with similar cases in other cities, demonstrated how fragile black/white relationships really are, despite the progress made over the past few decades. Other issues reinforce that point. Economic disparities, especially unemployment, fall disproportionately on African Americans. Race and economic class have more to do with prison incarceration and capital punishment than do guilt or innocence. And, despite the seriousness of the conflicts, there seemed to be an absence of leadership around these issues. The source of my malaise? Although I may have more hope here than other issues, I still found it deeply disturbing to see a return to riots and looting as a way of protesting inequities. By the same token, some police actions were reminiscent of the racial conflicts of the American South in the 1960's. I thought we were past that.

5. Deflation and Inflation in Entertainment:  If I may be forgiven a bit more whimsical point, I take it with assurance that there is a serious issue at its heart. I am weary of our preoccupation with deflated Patriot footballs and inflated Kardashian bosoms. I am a sports fan, sometimes enthusiastically so, and I can certainly understand the appeal of an attractive woman. I am not a prude nor an advocate of Queen Victoria, of whom it is said she would awaken in the middle of the night, fearful that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. But the fascination with trivialities like "Deflategate" and the obsession with celebrity culture is troubling. I know people who can enumerate the dating partners of obscure Hollywood personalities, many of whom are without talent, character, or ideas. But they walk the red carpet and that is why they matter. The source of my malaise? We are easily diverted from important things by a celebrity culture that often offers neither worthy ideals nor adequate role models. But widespread media coverage of this nonsense gives me little hope that it will change.

I considered other candidates for my malaise list, but some of them give reason for hope, so they don't qualify. Our healthcare system is a mess, but millions of people now have insurance for the first time and health care is on the national agenda, unless it gets derailed by money and politics.

I was tempted to grumble about the ineffectiveness of the church in the midst of these crises of confidence, hanging as many do on mindless Biblical literalism. But more and more we are seeing people of faith discovering fresh understandings within the texts, opening pathways to social justice. We will miss Marcus Borg, who died this month, but left a legacy of scholarship informing faith. And Pope Francis? Wow! I didn't think I'd see the day when I would point to the Catholic pope, especially in this time of ecclesiastical scandal, as a reason for having hope for the Christian Church.

I came of age in the 1960's, not an era of goodwill and harmony to be sure. People died in race riots across the country. An unpopular war in Vietnam put generations in conflict, many thousands perished in the jungles of southeast Asia, and college students emptied the classrooms and protested in the streets. Women defined their status as second class citizens and social, corporate, and family institutions conformed as women's roles evolved. Communitarian experiments vied with traditional family structures to reshape the way we live in relationship to one another.

It was a divisive time, but it was not a time without hope. To the contrary, I felt confident about the future and empowered with friends and colleagues to be agents of change. And we did make a difference. The country changed, especially on human rights issues, and ordinary people made that happen.

I want to believe that is still possible, but I'm not sure it is. This is probably the most pessimistic piece I have ever written and that saddens me.

There is one ray of light, however, and it is a bright and shining one. It is called Ashley and Ayla. They call me Papa. It is their world that we are creating. How can we give up on it?

Begone, malaise. Begone.