“Brother Ass”

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It was St. Francis, most likely, who first spoke of our bodies as “Brother Ass.” This has been one of those days when that name has been particularly fitting. C. S. Lewis commented on this description of the body, observing:

Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.

I won’t go into the earthy details of why this name seemed appropriate today. Let’s just say, I learned one more thing this 68 year-old body doesn’t handle well–the closest adjectives Lewis used that applied are “infuriating” and “pathetic.” It absorbed attention and energy that I might have devoted this evening to a review of a book on the theology of Jonathan Edwards. I’ll put that off for a day.

I must confess that, like the ass, my body has been incredibly useful for those 68 years. Through it I’ve encountered a myriad of other embodied persons including my companion in life with whom I’ve been married over 44 years. I’ve dug and harvested gardens, driven and cycled and hiked and run and climbed. I’ve listened to glorious music and sung choral works and painted pictures and written–oh, I’ve written! And I’ve barely scratched the surface of my body’s usefulness.

I’m kind of amazed how sturdy it is. I’ve lived longer than any of the machines and devices in my house, and longer than the house. I’m amazed at teeth, the forces they absorb, and that with proper care, they last a lifetime. There is the heart, the muscle that never rests until its last beat, that we only attend to when it is racing or otherwise troubling us or the doctor takes our pulse. And if my body takes more attention than when I was younger, so do reliable old cars!

I’m also aware of its laziness. My resting state is in a soft chair with a good book, great music on the stereo, and a drink at my side. The apostle Paul speaks of disciplining his body and making it his slave (1 Corinthians 9:27. I feel the tug of the reins, the lifetime tug of war between indolence and industry. Were it not for good parents, I’d probably be a slug!

Obstinate. That’s what I call that fat around my middle. Or the fingers far too prone to make typing mistakes. Or the eyes that refuse to focus on some things with or without glasses. Or hair that grows where it shouldn’t rather than where it is wanted.

Patient. None of us have cared for our bodies as we ought–food, rest, exercise, appropriate and timely care. They often bear a lot, letting us get away perhaps too long with bad habits, sending us quiet warnings, and shouting if need be.

Bodies can be infuriating at times. They don’t always do what we want, and sometimes things we don’t want. They remind us that we are not in perfect control. There are the erections of teenage boys at inopportune times and the impotence of older men who would give anything for their teenaged self. Funny creatures we are!

We are indeed both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. Sometimes there is indeed pathos when a man or woman has beautiful physical qualities but relies upon them rather than wisdom and character and proper ambition to make their way through life. Sometimes it seems that our beauty is absurd–how often have you gazed at yourself in the shower and seen both the beauty and the absurdity–and it is all in this package that is us.

Even when my body frustrates me, I marvel that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Often those frustrations come from failing to heed the wonder. More incredible yet, we are invited both to offer “Brother Ass” as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1) and to be bodily temples for the Holy Spirit, God indwelling us (1 Corinthians 6:19). Most incredible is that one day, we will be bodily raised with bodies something like Christ’s resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15).

So, it appears that God has deep affection for “Brother Ass.” Lewis says you don’t revere or hate an ass. I think of the futility of the body sculptors who seem to revere their own bodies. And I think of the sadness of those who hate their bodies. Instead, I receive my body and the life of the body as gift, one to be tended, protected, and used well, and accepted when it doesn’t do as we wish. A lovable old donkey–Brother Ass!

Food Security

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I live in central Ohio and the big news here is the Intel ground breaking last Friday, September 9, 2022. This was made possible in part by the CHIPS Act, signed into law recently by President Biden, who spoke at the ground breaking. The talk is of 10,000 new jobs plus 7,000 construction jobs, and who knows how many other jobs that will be attracted by the presence of this tech giant. Everyone speaks how important this is to achieve microchip security, jeopardized by our recent supply chain issues where chips for everything from automobiles to refrigerators were in short supply. Our area colleges are re-shaping curricula to provide the training for the technicians, programmers, and engineers the company will need. This is being made possible by a significant flow of money.

It might be questioned why all these chips have become so necessary and ubiquitous in our lives. But what I’ve been thinking about quite a bit of late is why a similar focus is not being placed on the security and sustainability of our food supply. Some of us grew up in a world without chips, but none of us have grown up or can long survive a world without food.

What concerns me is where food comes from. Do you know where the food you ate for breakfast came from beyond your local grocery? I cannot say I do, but when I’ve been able to find out, I’m often surprised the distance that food has traveled to my table and the processes it has undergone during that journey. What I wonder if we’ve thought about is how “breakable” those complex logistical chains are. We tasted something of that with particular products during the pandemic. Recently, some infants were left without the formula they needed due to allergies when there were problems at ONE manufacturing plant. Part of the stop gap was shipping formula from overseas in huge transports.

Of course, all of this is has a large carbon footprint–from the fertilizer and farm machinery to the transport, refrigeration, processing, and more transport to local groceries. I wonder if it is a dangerous assumption that this will always work.

There was a time when most of our food came from within 50 miles of our home. If we lived in the country as opposed to a town or city, much came from our own land. Even during World War Two, “Victory Gardens” were popular and people grew a sizable part of their food in their backyard, canning some of it to last through the winter.

I suspect most of our states could feed their own people if agriculture was set up that way and still create a national reserve to meet shortages. Once you are out of any town or city in Ohio, for example, about all you see is farmland, particularly in that part of the state west of I-71, which is flatter. The eastern part of our state is more suited to livestock and orchards–we are the land of Johnny Appleseed, after all. What is striking is that most of what you see are just two crops–corn and soybeans. In most cases, we don’t see these crops at our dinner table–they are hidden in ingredients or used for feed or even used for biofuels like ethanol. I suspect much of it is sent somewhere else, while much of the food we eat was transported from outside the state. While this may make sense in terms of the current economy of large scale agriculture, it might be questioned whether it makes sense in terms of the food security of our nation in the long term.

It’s significant to me that none of our state’s universities are launching innovative new agriculture programs and there is no comparable investment to that being put into the tech sector. It’s fascinating that one of the reasons Intel moved here was our plentiful water supply, needed in significant amounts in chip manufacturing. The significant twenty year drought in the American Southwest and signs of changing and drier climates in other parts of the world that have been critical in food production mean that significant reassessment of agricultural possibilities and methods are needed everywhere. What stands out to me is that our state could feed itself with food to spare, but no one is looking at how that might be done. No one that I know is looking at how a diverse and nutritional mix of food could be produced, less vulnerable to diseases and pests than our monocrops. And no one is celebrating the intelligence, entrepreneurship, and work ethic of farmers.

I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry of late and he makes more sense than ever. Perhaps the answers are local–really local. As more of us choose to support CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), plant our own gardens and convert other spaces to gardens, we not only multiply our opportunities to grow and eat quality food, we enhance the food security of our communities and perhaps lay the groundwork for the day when this could be a greater necessity. Our church sits on an old farm property, with a spring providing water. Our building occupies less than a quarter of the space. Most of the northern side of our property is now community gardens. I love that we are a place that nourishes people both bodily and spiritually!

I suspect there are some who are more knowledgeable who see all kinds of flaws in what I’ve written. Mea culpa! I’m in a place more of asking questions about our assumptions about food production and security than having the answers. One thing I do know is that the issue of our food security is of immense importance, and our past abundance should not lull us into complacency. Beyond that, we haven’t even talked about the quality and safety of the food on which our lives depend, perhaps a topic for another post! At very least, I know that man cannot live on microchips alone…

Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II in March 2015, Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence Derivative: nagualdesign – defenceimagery.mod.uk, Licensed under OGL 3

Today is the first day in my life in which Queen Elizabeth II is no longer the Queen of the United Kingdom and the nations of the British Commonwealth. I am 68 and she was Queen before I was born. I’ve seen so many world leaders come and go. Churchill, de Gaulle, Khrushchev (and Gorbachev), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. And always there was Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer reminded me that this day would come. Yet I was among those who said, “God save the Queen” because I didn’t want it to come yet. But her absence from many of the festivities suggested the increasingly fragile nature of her health at age 96. I suspected it would not be much longer before she followed her husband Philip.

I remember a youthful Queen. I collected stamps as a kid, and upon her coronation, every country in the Commonwealth at that time printed stamps with her youthful, crowned profile. I remember a young mother with children around my age or older. In pictures of her over the years, I saw a maturing, and then aging monarch, always self-possessed, but bearing like all of us, the marks of advancing years. That mental montage of images including the frail Queen with youthful incoming Prime Minister Truss on Tuesday remind me of the arc of life we all follow.

What strikes me, as it has so many, is how she persisted in fulfilling her royal duties from her youth, even while Princess during the war years until this very week. She once said, “Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.” She traveled more than any monarch in history, visiting Canada twenty times alone. And this from one who, while Edward VIII was king, did not expect to reign. In the end, she reigned longer than any British monarch.

I think part of her longevity had to do with her resilience. Think of what the past seventy years have brought: the end of Great Britain as one of the greatest powers, the end of empire, advances in technology, changes in moral standards, the shift from industrial to technology driven economies, and so much more. Media shifted from print to radio to television to the 24/7 news cycle, and the internet. Historians and biographers have and will point out mistakes made by her and her family negotiating the traditions of monarchy in such rapidly changing times. What stands out is that she learned and she lasted. Can any of us do more?

I’m reminded of her courage. She and her family could have fled to Canada during the war. Along with Churchill, they stayed and gave support to those who faced untold trials. She faced the dangers of public life, including at least two attempts on her life.

I think of her faith. Formally the Queen was ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. I sensed there was more. She was not just a Christian monarch but a monarch who was an openly professing Christian. This was evident in her annual Christmas messages, that I made a point to listen to once they were on video. In 2000 she said:

“To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Yet she was never parochial or intolerant, practicing warm inter-faith relationships.

She combined representing the Kingdom and the Commonwealth with dignity with setting people at ease. When World War Two ended, she mingled unknown among the celebrating crowds. She could do that no longer once Queen but many pictures showing her setting people at ease, whether children, soldiers, ordinary people, or foreign dignitaries. And who of us will forget how she did this with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee.

Ma’amalade sandwich Your Majesty?

As an American citizen, she was not my Queen. And yet, in both her Jubilee and her passing, I believe in some sense she became the Queen of all of us and today I feel the loss that she is no longer with us, the first day this is so in my life. Her passing reminds me that all of us, even monarchs, are mere mortals. All of us run a race with a finish. The Queen ran hers to the end. Now, may she discover all that she in faith believed and defended. And may she Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

It’s Time For an Intelligent and Equitable Plan to Fund Post-Secondary Education

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I’m writing this on the day the President announced a plan to forgive $10,000 in Federal student debt for anyone earning less than $125,000 a year. My point in this article is not to debate this politically volatile proposal but rather to observe that it is symptomatic of our dysfunctional system of post-secondary education. This concerns all of us, no matter our party.

The United States has invested in public education in one form or another since before we were a country. The first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1635. Building on that precedent, Horace Mann, secretary of education for Massachusetts established publicly funded education throughout Massachusetts. The practice spread throughout the country during the 19th century, but the first real step toward equity in public education was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which helped fund equal educational opportunity for all students.

There was a day when most jobs required little more than a high school diploma and this investment in public education provided the literacy and math skills as well as hands on skills that prepared graduates for most jobs and the growth of the U.S. from an agrarian to industrial society.

The G.I. Bill after World War Two led to an explosion in post-secondary education, with many veterans, who otherwise may have not had the chance. This, in turn led to a technological explosion in many fields and propelled the U.S. into space, helped create the computer revolution, advances in health care and life expectancy, and a variety of other societal advances.

The point is that investment in education is investment in the public, and not simply the private good. My basic contention is that we need to face the reality that a post-secondary degree or license in one of the various trades is the equivalent of a high school degree a century or even fifty years ago. And if you care about national greatness, this is a vital place to invest that will repay many times over the investment.

A few thoughts that likely will reveal my lack of expertise in public policy but that I think we all need to wrestle with:

  • Post-secondary is not just college. There is a huge need in the skilled trades which are requiring even more skills as we develop smart homes, buildings and vehicles. For many, training in these fields is a far better option than college and crucially needed. No call center in another country will help you solve a plumbing or HVAC problem. The push to get everyone to go to college is misguided. And we need to recognize the intelligence that supposedly “blue collar” jobs involve.
  • College costs do need to be addressed. Many of the increases in cost have come outside the classroom in terms of residence and recreation facilities. Some of these improvements are necessary, particularly in developing sustainable campuses, but few taxpayers want to invest in the costs of college not directly linked to education.
  • There needs to be equity in education investment, providing those with the least in resources the same opportunities for education. The celebrity admissions scandals reveal we are far away from equity.
  • Stringently regulate for-profit schools, who have accounted for significant student debt and typically have much lower graduation rates.
  • Investment in education should be coupled with some form of state residency and/or national service. Since public education depends on a combination of state and national funding, this makes sense. It may come in the form of an agreement to work in the trade or field one has prepared in for a period of years, where one may pay forward that investment in the services they provide and the taxes they pay.

I’ll stop here. If we truly are committed to national greatness and equal opportunity, it is time to figure out how to extend our model of public funding to post-secondary education.

A Fantasy Thought…

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I had a crazy fantasy thought the other night, in the wake of the latest mass shooting incident in Highland Park. What if instead of trying to pass more gun safety legislation, we just banned men from purchasing or possessing guns?

I know there are all kinds of constitutional issues that make this utterly unworkable. But statistics suggest that if we could do this, mass shootings and gun violence would drop dramatically. Over 90 percent of mass shootings are committed by men, most with legally obtained weapons. Over 80 percent of all gun violence is committed by men. Men also make up 86 percent of all firearm deaths. Men own three times as many firearms as women. And 52 women a month die from gun violence at the hands of a male domestic partner. (Source: Men Against Gun Violence)

A question I wrestle with as another man against gun violence is why gender is such a major factor in gun violence. In all the back and forth about gun violence, I hear very little discussion about why men are so drawn to gun ownership and far more prone to resort to gun violence, including mass shootings. [It does need to be acknowledged that there are many responsible gun owners but I also think even responsible, law-abiding gun owners need to examine the psychology of their gun ownership and what kind of person they become as they make this choice. I cannot judge this choice for another, but suggest each needs to honestly judge his own choices in this regard.]

I don’t have answers to these questions. I have questions. I refuse to chalk it all up to testosterone. Why, particularly are so many men choosing to resolve a dispute, their road rage, or a nursed sense of anger with a gun? All of us get angry, but most of us learn to control and channel our angry impulses, precisely because we realize how destructive they may be. Yet it seems that an increasing number of men have discarded the restraints on anger that most of us practice. Why is that?

This seems an important matter wrestle with in our churches, our schools, and our community organizations. I also think the social isolation, and the distorted ways of thinking that arise, fed by “dark web” sites, are factors in mass shootings desperately needing to be recognized and understood and addressed.

At this point we are a society determined to maintain our “right” to own guns and the maintenance of this right means that nowhere is safe–our schools, our houses of worship, our groceries, our parks, our restaurants, our parades and public events, our shopping districts and malls, our neighborhoods and our homes. For those who argue that an armed presence, a police presence is what we need–all kinds of public safety forces were present at the parade in Highland Park. No doubt they saved lives in their rapid response but seven died and twenty or so were wounded by the 80 rounds fired in the brief period before the gunman needed to flee–some with devastating wounds that will take months or years to heal, if they ever fully do. This is the price of our freedom.

This is not the country I grew up in but it is the country we have become. Simone Weil contended that when we speak of rights, we need to speak first of obligations. It seems to me that our contemporary insistence on rights is devoid of the obligations that accompany any right. I wonder what our young men are learning about the obligations and responsibilities that come as they make the transition from boys to adult men. Are they learning only that no one should constrain their freedom, which the power of a gun makes more irresistible? Or are they learning that the exercise of our rights ought never impair the rights of others and especially the most vulnerable among us?

We cannot ban men from owning guns. But we can ask what kind of men we are raising our sons to become.

Could We Just Stop Using the Label “Pro-Life”?

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I did not have a book ready for review today and so jotted down some of my own thoughts about the Texas school shooting and the claims of our politicians to be pro-life. If this is more controversial than you like, here’s your chance to take a pass.

The shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas have reinforced my conviction that as a nation we have decided to sacrifice our children on an altar of guns. And it is not just Uvalde. There has been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year. We have more guns than people in this country. You cannot turn on the news in my city without reports of a shooting, often resulting in one or more deaths. Most of those both killing and dying are young.

And no neighborhood is safe. I thought I lived in a “safe” neighborhood until a woman was murdered in her front yard by a stalker. This was little more than a block away. I heard the shots and thought they were fireworks. Until I saw the news the next day. No place is truly safe when there are more guns than people and people seem angrier than ever. I’ve learned not to respond to aggressive drivers. They could be carrying. Some live with this all the time. I predict more of us will.

What is most disturbing in my state and many others is that the very people who have aggressively promoted pro-life measures are the same ones removing all the safeguards on gun ownership. We now have a permitless carry of concealed weapons law in our state but there has been no action on “red flag” laws that would allow a court ordered restriction of the access of someone with mental health issues to a gun–a measure the overwhelming majority of the American public favors. Such orders may be sought by family or law enforcement, require a court ruling and due process, and have limits protecting civil liberties. Yet even such measures do not impair law abiding citizens from buying any gun they want.

That is why I want politicians to stop using the label “pro-life.” Almost none that I know are consistently pro-life. They are only pro-life in the areas their base wants them to be pro-life. Which, from what I can see is “pro-fetus.” I wonder how much most of them really care for mothers and the life they are bearing. I say all this as someone who is pro-life in this sense.

What would it mean to be consistently pro-life?

  • Protecting the life of the unborn, unless this endangers the life of the mother.
  • Pro-life means access to all mothers to good pre-natal and post-natal care and affordable, quality daycare.
  • Pro-life means access to quality health care for all of our citizens, no matter your zip code or economic status. Good preventive care may actually save money as well as lives, especially for urban hospitals where the emergency room is the doctor’s office.
  • Pro-life means addressing issues of mental health. Often, mental health is something discussed by those who oppose even sensible gun measures, but then nothing is done to provide good mental health care, especially for those whose conditions might lead them to harm themselves or others.
  • Pro-life cares about our addiction crisis. Over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the US in the period ending in April 2021.
  • Pro-life cares about elder care. The warehousing of the elderly and the high numbers of COVID deaths early on in the pandemic in congregate care settings points up the lack in our care for our elder population.
  • Pro-life cares about the world we live in, the air, the water, and the climate. In some parts of the world, extended droughts threaten life as do prolonged high temperatures.
  • And pro-life is committed to substantive measures to reduce gun violence. As long as guns are ubiquitous, so will be gun violence. Pro-life asks, “why do we want guns?” Certainly there are legitimate reasons, but I believe that when many buy a gun, they make an implicit decision that they are willing to take a life. Sadly, most often, it will be the life of someone they know, or even their own life. Guns turn a momentary angry or self-destructive impulse into a fatal act.

I know few politicians who affirm a consistent pro-life ethic covering all of life for all people, no matter their status. So I wish they would stop saying they are pro-life because in my ears it is a hypocritical statement. At the same time, the politicians we elect reflect the people who elect them. For most of us, we cannot claim to be consistently pro-life either. We are selectively pro-life. We are not terribly disturbed that people in another zip code in our city have a much lower life expectancy, just because of where they live, or that some small island nations may have to find another place to live because their homes may be submerged.

Maybe as a country, we need to face that we have embraced a culture of death. We celebrate it in our videogames, television, and movies. We seem relatively indifferent to the 100,000 drug deaths or a million COVID deaths or the gun violence occurring every day in any major city. It makes me wonder how quickly we will forget the 19 beautiful children and two dedicated teachers who died in Uvalde. Already, those who died at the Topp’s grocery store in Buffalo are fading from view. Equally, we are indifferent to the nearly 42 million abortions in the U.S. between 1973 and 2019.

Little wonder we do not have consistently pro-life politicians. They are simply a mirror reflection of the people who have elected them. They are a reflection of us. Let’s stop pretending.

Living Under a Nuclear Cloud

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I’ve lived my whole life under a nuclear cloud, as likely most of you had. Recent events in Ukraine, and the nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia’s president have brought this to the fore. Most of us with any understanding of European history have a sense of how this conflict could escalate in some truly horrendous ways. In a statement widely attributed to Albert Einstein, it has been observed: ‘I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

“I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

-Attributed to Albert Einstein

My 36 year old son asked my wife and me how we dealt with the nuclear tensions of the 1960’s. It’s plain all this has been bothering him. It’s been bothering us as well, triggering all those memories of civil defense drills of crawling under desks or going down to the subterranean designated shelter area in our elementary school. I watched President Kennedy on our black and white TV show overflight pictures of Cuban missile bases 90 miles from our southern borders, bases from which much of the eastern US could be reached in minutes. I remember the tense days when we wondered if these would be our last. I remember that my parents did not have much to say to assure us, but that my dad continued to sit with me as I prayed my nightly prayers, talking until I dropped off to sleep. I didn’t know what the night or tomorrow would bring, but for the moment I felt a measure of safety. Perhaps that’s all we ever have.

My wife and I looked at each other as we took in our son’s question. We both said, “This is worse.” Is it that we know more, and have seen so many more instances of the unthinkable happening? Is it our apprehension of the volatility of a war in east central Europe, amid a cluster of nations, knowing past histories of how more and more became embroiled in what became “World Wars?” Is it apprehensions of a Russian president who has assassinated political enemies, violated sovereign borders, and crossed moral bright-lines of protecting non-combatants and medical facilities?

How do I deal with it? I think I try to limit the amount of time I give it without ignoring it. But I woke up the other night thinking of how serious this all is, and all I could do was pray myself to sleep–praying that God would restrain evil, confuse the efforts of evildoers, and to pray for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and the safety of those seeking to flee to refuge. I also pray for our leaders and others in the world. How does one communicate firm and believable resolve and yet work to contain and quench a fire that could destroy much of the world, without fanning the flames? I’ve known God to give wisdom in the moment, and so I pray that God will give in spades that kind of wisdom to those who act on our behalf.

Having said my prayers, all I know to do is get on with my life, to keep showing up in my work, to sit down with gratitude to meals with my wife, to tend to our home, cleaning up fallen branches and reveling in the coming of spring. There are the evening walks, rejoicing in sunsets, watching children play and praying over the homes in my neighborhood the blessings of God. I remember that we never truly have the promise of tomorrow, only this moment, and the opportunities of the moment. For all I know, the garden I plant and tend may be left to another. One day, for sure, it will be. But there is goodness in this day. And I will keep tending that garden in hope of flowers and vegetables.

The day of my birth marks both the anniversary of Hiroshima and the Transfiguration. I live between the powers of destruction and the one who makes all thing new. Some wonder how one can press forward under the cloud. I do as well. How do you live when the push of a button can wipe out our efforts? The Transfiguration reminds me that all our efforts aren’t about results but are at best foretastes of what’s to come, and more often, I think, simply rehearsals for our work in the new creation.

Do You Hear Your Mother’s Voice?

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Do you ever hear your mother’s voice in your head? I do at times, and one of the messages I hear most often is, “you don’t have to say everything you think.”

I’ve gotten tripped up more times than I’d care to admit when I’ve ignored that voice. It might be that testy thought that I share in a discussion with my wife when it would have been better to hold my tongue and use my two ears instead. It could be that unkind word about a colleague who is not in the room that gets back to them, leading to a much longer discussion.

Then there are the comments in online discussions. I’ll see that patent falsehood or cruel remark about another person. And it is SO-O-O-O tempting to jump in. Usually, that is a great way to waste a day, leaving me thinking, “why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut.”

I’m the admin for a book page on Facebook (also called Bob on Books). Most of the time it is a pretty pleasant place and most people participate to get away from the unpleasantries of the world, or even the rest of Facebook. We have a “no ad hominem attacks” policy toward any person–politicians, authors, or each other. Yet I still find I have to deal with the comments of the person who uses the most innocuous post to attack a public figure they don’t like (but that others might). I find myself wishing they’d heard their mom saying, “you don’t have to say everything you think.” She probably did at some point.

Then there are the people who like to spoil others’ good time. We may be talking about mysteries and in the middle, someone feels they just have to let us know, “I don’t like mysteries and never read them.” Couldn’t they have just scrolled past?

The one thing I wish I’d asked my mom would have been “when do you speak up about what you are thinking?” There are times when our silence is assent to something that is terribly wrong and against what we hold most deeply. I recall a time in an online conversation where a person known to me in real life as someone who shares my religious convictions was mocking someone for a physical disability. I felt I couldn’t let that pass and wrote that I felt this was unbefitting of his professed faith. I still saw political statements I couldn’t agree with, which was fine–the world doesn’t have to agree with me. But no more like this, and thankfully we are still at least Facebook friends.

Then there are the times when a thought or an insight as your team grapples with a difficult question may be helpful. My own approach tends to be the “reflective observer” approach. I like the saying, “I read books and I know things.” Sometimes, it is actually important not to keep them to myself but to put them out there, not as pronouncements but as proposals: “I wonder if something like this might help…?”

I think what our mothers (and our wives!) were (are) trying to teach us is what is often called EQ or emotional intelligence. My wife will sometimes turn to me after a social gathering and ask, did you see what was really going on in that room? I’m learning that when you don’t say everything you think, you end up paying more attention to your context, what is really going on, and not just what is being said, which may not be the most important thing. Then you have a better chance that when you do speak your thoughts, they are worth hearing.

I don’t think not saying everything you think will solve global warming or bring world peace. It could make the online world a bit more pleasant. Often, though, the best reward may just be all the time you save by not having to clean up your verbal messes or trying to defend them. Mom knew what she was talking about.

The New Wave of Book Banning

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I’m interrupting my usual posting of book reviews to write about a troubling trend occurring in towns and state legislatures across the country. Book banning. There have long been challenges to books selected for school classes, usually centered around race, gender, and sexuality. In the past, it was a parent or group of parents. Rarely was a book actually banned. Rather, it was challenged. I joked that it was really just a ploy to sell that book. Booksellers featured “banned books,” sometimes bolstering the sales of books that likewise would have not gotten a lot of notice.

It’s not a joking matter any more. States are threatening criminal charges against librarians who place certain books in circulation. Books, such as The 1619 Project, which chronicles the presence of slavery in our country’s earliest history, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have been banned by state legislatures on ideological grounds. It extends to novels as well, including Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and even, in Washington State Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, recently voted the best book of the last 125 years by The New York Times Book Review.

It seems to me that the fundamental notion is to protect students from exposure to certain ideas and materials. The problem is actually a version of my joke about bans promoting sales. When Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic fiction work Maus was recently banned in a Tennessee school district, the book immediately topped Amazon’s best-seller lists. One comic bookstore in Tennessee has offered the book free to anyone in the school district.

What is most troubling is the use of state power to dictate what books will and will not be permitted in libraries and classrooms. I am troubled because it seems that the targets are often frank discussion of matters of religion, of race, and sexuality. To limit the ideas that may be explored and discussed seems to me to be a profound abridgement of the First Amendment.

I know. Years ago, I was associated with a group facing loss of its privileges for what I would call view point discrimination. One of our allies was a First Amendment attorney who disagreed with our perspective but believed we needed to be free to hold and advocate it. I believe the same applies with books. We may not agree with the content of books but I believe we need to fight to protect access to those books.

You may have wondered about the picture of the Bible associated with this article. At least some who are seeking to criminalize defying a legislative ban claim to be Christians. I wonder if they understand how vigorously through history many governments have banned ownership and distribution of the Bible, and people have literally died to make the scriptures available or to obtain even a portion of the Bible.

And it can happen here, especially if we cross the bright line of protecting free speech in written as well as spoken form. The Bible, if one actually reads it, is not a tame book. It has unblinking accounts of rape and violence as well as elevated discourses on the nature of love. I know those who believe it is actually a danger to society. And I can easily see that if it becomes acceptable to criminalize the distribution of certain books, the same argument could be applied to the Bible. And any student of our politics knows that the pendulum will swing. We, of all people, should most oppose bans on books.

In the past, at least, the solution for speech that offends is not to ban it, but to allow more speech, where this does not incite violence or slander or deliberately mislead to the harm of another. It is to allow discussion and protect difference. With students, it is to teach them how to think critically–to recognize fundamental premises, to understand various rhetorical devices and when rhetoric substitutes for reason and evidence. The sad thing is our social media echo chambers only allow for more speech that agrees, that echoes the prevailing view. The danger is that we want to turn schools and universities into the same kinds of places, echo chambers of the left or right, rather than examine argument and counter-argument, narrative and counter-narrative. And so we perpetuate and deepen the divides so troubling us.

Working in college ministry, especially in the age of the internet, I’ve learned there is no way to “protect” people from ideas. As a parent, I concluded that we could not protect our son from any idea. Rather, we talked about them. And if I didn’t like the choices of books in every instance (and many times I did like them and discovered he was reading things I was interested in reading), I would share about others I thought were better. The truth is that to this day, we don’t agree on some things, and I’m glad. I oppose cloning human beings, especially our children!

Ultimately, the use of state power to ban books seems both to open the door to tyranny and is a concession of the weakness of the ideas behind such efforts. Instead of the power of an idea, we resort to the use of force and threat. And what we have lost as we do so is our democratic republic. Tyrannies of both the left and the right are tyrannies. The banning of books is the first step in silencing and marginalizing the people we don’t like. It is but a further step to strip them of their rights, and then their humanity or even their lives.

As I conclude, I would speak to my book-loving friends, many of whom cringe at even the destruction of books that cannot be sold. We have varying tastes and varying convictions. At very least, we ought be committed to affording protection to those of others that we would want for our own. None of us wants to see a beloved book banned, whether that be Fifty Shades of Gray, The Invisible Man, Pride and Prejudice or The Bible.

We cannot take comfort with the libraries with which we’ve surrounded ourselves nor the friends with whom we talk books. If this movement grows, we too could become a danger to the state. These efforts need to be resisted, challenged in court, and subverted, as did the comic book salesman, or those who slip banned books into Little Free Libraries or those at great risk who have smuggled Bibles or as those in Fahrenheit 451, who memorized great books. After January 6, 2021, I’ve concluded that the unthinkable can happen. Edmund Burke’s warning does not seem cliche’: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Pandemic Reflections: The Omicron Edition

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I did not think that in January of 2022 that I would still be writing pandemic reflections. Now, I’m beginning to wonder when pandemic reflections will be a thing of the past. Right now, I wonder who else I will learn has COVID when I open Facebook each day (perhaps opening Facebook is my mistake!). I keep hearing Omicron is milder but we’ve never had so many in the hospitals where I live. Right now, over 700 are dying each week in my state. Tests are hard to get. I suspect there are far more infections than those recorded on our state’s dashboard.

Against this backdrop, it is hard for me to hear talk about “new normals” and “I’ve got to live my life.” When schools scramble to get teachers in the classroom and bus drivers to get the children there, when restaurants close because all their servers are sick, when sports teams cancel big games because of “protocols,” this hardly seems normal and I wonder what kind of life we are trying to live when it requires a lot of people to get sick for us to live it, or equally when it requires us to get sick. This all sounds off to me, somehow. It makes me wonder what “living my life” means.

For me it has meant a two year respite from getting on airplanes. It’s meant growing closer to my wife who is my bubble-mate! It’s meant treasuring those times when we have gathered with others. It’s meant working on our home. It’s meant near daily neighborhood walks, glorious sunsets, changing seasons, and getting to know people along the route. So many of my work years have meant getting on a plane or jumping into a rental car for a trip and I haven’t met many of the people in our community beyond my immediate neighbors. I’ve participated in virtual pilgrimages with people from all over the country–times to walk, and meditate on scripture, to listen to stories, and to pray. I’ve written nearly 600 blogs, engaged in hundreds of online conversations, worked with over 30 talented writers in my work, hosted online conversations with a variety of authors and online book groups, and read a few good books along the way (actually more than a few!). I’ve enjoyed plein air painting with my wife and a group of artists in good weather, and actually felt I improved. While I can think of things I wish we could do, I’ve lived, and I think lived well these past years. I even weigh five pounds less than at the beginning of the pandemic (not much, but I’ll take it!).

And by God’s grace, we’ve remained healthy. I don’t presume it will continue when I hear reports saying nearly everyone will catch this latest variant. But neither am I going to run out, plunge into a big, maskless crowd and “get it over with.” That’s the vibe I get as I listen to the media. When I talk to friends our age (late 60’s), we feel like the tornado sirens are blaring and right now we are going to our safe place until the storm of this latest wave blows through. We’re getting good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice and many of us have found the richness of life on the other side of “safe at home.”

Here’s how we look at it. No illness is “milder” when you get older. It takes longer for anything from a cut to a cold or the flu to heal. Even if our vaccinations and booster mean we don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, that can still be pretty sick. And it is a crapshoot when it comes to after effects. And getting exposed and sick adds to the strain on testing, on our primary care docs, pharmacists, and if we get sicker, a host of others at a time they are all being pressed to the wall. As far as it depends on us, we’ll try to avoid becoming another case.

What’s hard is that as you get older, it is easy not to think of yourself in that way, especially when you see the world around you trying to get back to “normal” in the middle of a wave. It’s easy to start questioning whether you are too cautious. It helps to have other older friends who tell you that you are not nuts.

So for the time, we do takeout. We shop early, and only as necessary, don’t linger, and wear at least a KN95 mask. We won’t do any indoor, unmasked gatherings with a significant group of people. Perhaps for the next few weeks at least, no indoor gatherings outside our bubble.

We don’t take talk of things “levelling off” or “lessening” at face value. We watch infection rates as a rough benchmark. At one time in our state, our governor wanted to get below 50 infected out of 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) over a two week period (and we actually got down to 19.2 per 100,000 last summer). Today the rate in our state is 1818.8 per 100,000 (nearly 2 out of 100) infected in the last two weeks (and because of test shortages, that number is probably low). That means in a group of 50, at least one person is probably infectious. That feels to me that we are amid a storm.

When it was a few hundred cases per 100,000 we did discretionary shopping, and some indoor dining at off hours. Probably, we’ll wait to see things go below 100 per 100,000 to go back to “normal,” perhaps with an Omicron booster.

At the end of the day, I realize there is no sure thing about any of this. The choices we make, we do so out of prudence (God never invites us needlessly to imperil our health or life) and love for each other. My choices affect my wife, other loved ones, and indeed a wider community. But they finally do not make us invulnerable. I live each day grateful for this day’s life (something the pandemic has taught me that is itself a gift). As a Christ-follower, I do believe that someday I will rest in peace with Christ and be raised with him in glory. So I act, not out of fear but rather as one who both lives in hope and cherishes each day of life. I’ve also learned with this pandemic this wisdom of James 5: 15 which says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” It seems that any predictions of what this virus will do are folly, and the best we can do is say, “if it is the Lord’s will.”

This reflection is neither an argument or judgement on other choices. Some of the choices we’ve made, we realize, are not possible for others. It is simply a reflection of how we are thinking and acting at this stage of the pandemic. If it’s helpful to someone else, I’m glad, and if you see things differently, I have no interest in a quarrel. We have to get through this thing together, so a fight is counter-productive. I suspect whenever this relents, we’ll all have a lot of sorting out to do, and who knows but that we may end up helping each other–or at least forgiving each other the unkind judgements we have made upon one another.