What I Need To Want

Yesterday morning I was sitting back in my Lazy Boy chair and trying to quiet my mind in order to become attuned with God.  I have not had much success with this in the past partly, I think, because it is very hard for me to turn off the chatter which goes on non-stop in my brain at such times.  At this moment, as I sit at my desk scratching pen over paper writing a draft of this post, my mind is focused on the task at hand.  Remove me from this desk, place my rear end in that chair and expect me to continue with any kind of focus and you, or more to the point I, will be sorely disappointed.

Such was the case on this particular morning.  I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, tried to focus on God, and my mind instantly flew to what I wanted to get done that day.  The list was long, and included working in two gardens that I tend, writing letters to friends, looking at carpet samples in order to choose one to replace our old and worn carpet with, and many other things.  All of these were good things to do, but it was obvious even to me that I could not possibly do them all and that I would end up scrunching in as many as I could, doing none of them well, and  then lamenting that I could not do the others and feeling guilty about that fact.  Eventually I would shrug it off and drink a little wine while watching an episode of Sherlock Holmes, not giving the topic another thought.

While all of these ideas were grinding around in my head like stones being rolled in a lapidary’s tumbler one thought managed to bubble up to the top: what should I WANT to want to do today?  The rough list of the day’s wants was nearly endless, but if I could narrow it down by selecting a shorter list based on what was really worth doing (which was most things on the larger list) and why they were worth doing in the first place, I reasoned that I could thereby produce a more manageable list of tasks to accomplish that would be of greater value, releasing me to enjoy my evening wine and movie without having to feel guilt about the tasks not completed, or having to ignore them as if they weren’t worth considering in the first place.

But how should I decide which of my many wants I should WANT to want?  Here it gets tricky.  If I rely entirely upon my own reason I am not materially helped.  I will choose tasks for the day based primarily, or even exclusively, on gratifying my own pleasure, and while there is nothing wrong with enjoying oneself there is simply more, much more, to life than gratifying one’s pleasures.  I will invariably tend to the self-centered activities in the short term over and above the activities which offer more benefit in the long term.  Before I get to selecting my wants I must first establish the criteria which hem in and define my WANT; that which motivates me to pursue my wants in an orderly and focused manner.  And what, then will suffice to form the WANT?  Perhaps it’s another, larger and more focused WANTWANT, or “WANT squared”, and so on ad infinitum, but I do not think so.  At some point I believe we must arrive at a proper source of WANT, and I believe that such a source is found when WANT bounces up against Need.  In and amongst all of these competing wants there must be a Need which drives the WANT to chose which wants are most profitably pursued and which should be postponed or shelved entirely, guilt free for sanity’s sake.

It logically follows, to me at least, that this Need which will shape my WANT to prioritize my wants and forgives me for those that I have chosen not to accomplish that day must not come from within me.  If I make the choice exclusive of any external input of what does or does not merit being done on a given day my WANT only becomes another of my wants.  Or rather, I will elevate each want to the level of WANT, thereby justifying my own mind doing that which I have chosen to do regardless of whether or not it was something done in the place of something which was more worth the doing or even something worth doing at all.  An internal yardstick only gives me a tool with which to justify my own actions, and will not accomplish anything good in the long run.  My yardstick then, my Need as it were, must therefore come from outside of me.

That’s the point at which God reentered this conversation which raged inside of my head while I was trying to quiet things down.  God says that I need to love Him (or Her, if it makes you feel better.  God is truly bigger than all of that however) with my whole being and after that to love others as much as I love myself.  God is thereby saying that He is my yardstick, and how I prioritize my actions and even my desires should be based on that relationship of love between me and Him and me and my neighbor (who happens to be everybody else in the world).  If I will order my thoughts in that direction God will steer me towards the right choices among competing wants and grant me happiness for those accomplished and peace about those left undone.  Condensed to it’s basic foundation then, my Need must arise from a love of God, my neighbor, and myself.

But God will not force this upon me.  God, the ultimate independent personality, by creating me in His image has made me to be an independent personality as well.  I am perfectly free to pursue any want that I choose.  I believe that it was the French philosopher Sartre who said that slowing down to allow an old woman to cross the street had no more value than speeding up in order to hit her as regards expressing one’s individuality by an act of the will.  Maybe he didn’t really say anything that idiotic but he was certainly capable of doing so, and if he didn’t say it somebody else equally idiotic assuredly did.  In any case I am free – scot free – to make choices.  If I should want to make good choices however I must have some sort of yardstick, and if I want to consistently make the best possible choices I must have a yardstick not of my own making; one which has the force to convince me of the advisability of using it. That yardstick is God’s want, which in turn becomes my Need which drives my WANT to choose wisely among the many options which present to me on any given day.

So how has this discovery played out in my life?  Hardly at all!  Heck, I only laid back in that chair twenty four hours ago, so give me a break.  I can say that yesterday I ordered my wants so that I gave pleasure to myself, my wife, and a couple of friends while postponing writing to other friends and placing a phone call to a beloved brother, and I feel very good about the whole thing.  I even managed to enjoy that glass of wine and episode of Sherlock at the end of the day.  Ultimately, I believe that God feels pretty good about it too, except for the parts where I screwed things up.  But I’ll keep trying, I won’t beat myself up over those failings, and God loves me anyway, so it’s all OK.

Patton Off Of His Leash

Today, May 8 2015, as I write this post, marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Number Two in Europe.  The war would rage on for four more months in the Pacific Theater of Operations, but in Europe the Nazi “Reich that would last a thousand years” cashed in its chips after just twelve.  And oh, God in Heaven, what a price mankind had paid for the twelve years that that twisted, hideous, demonic Reich endured!  For six years, and more if you were Jewish, Communist, Gypsy, homosexual, mentally or physically challenged or a member of a host of other categories, a pitiless war of annihilation had been waged against you in the name of cleansing the gene pool, and if you were Slavic your crime was that you occupied space that the Nazi supermen needed for the expansion of their living space, or “lebensraum”.  In Berlin the Reich ended in a three day orgy of rape and violence by Soviet soldiers unleashed by their officers against German civilians and, indeed, the city itself.  Elsewhere, in Western dominated areas at least, it ended with a sigh of relief on the part of soldiers no longer shooting at each other and civilians trying to curry favor with the new conquerors while dodging blame for the horrors of the Nazi regime that were never all that far from them nor hard to find.

Seventy years after that fact I posted on Facebook a message simply saying “Happy V E Day”.  In response one of my friends, a thoughtful person who is certainly worth listening to, posted a message stating “If only they had let Patton continue East—“.  This is a sentiment that I have heard expressed many times in my life and I believe that it is worth looking into a little bit more deeply,

Just as a refresher for you two or three people who did not see George C. Scott’s magnificent portrayal of the legendary general in the movie “Patton”, as the war in Europe ground to a halt in May of 1945 the general urged General Eisenhower to turn him and his army loose on the Russians whom, Patton stated, we would have to fight anyway sooner or later.  Patton was told to shut up, was summarily dismissed from his duties, and managed to die in a traffic “accident” in a matter of a few short weeks.  The Western Allies and the Soviet Union then settled down to the job of dividing Europe into opposing camps and began the struggle for domination that was to occupy the next forty five years.  But what if?  What if President Truman, General Eisenhower, and all of the other necessary politicians and military men would have removed the leash from Patton’s collar and said “Go to it”?  What follows are some random thoughts on how such an act might have been played out.

The Soviet Red Army was brimming with men, supplies, and success on May 8, 1945.  From a pit of despair following the Nazi plunge across the western borders of the Soviet Union in 1941 the Communist leader Stalin had first regained his composure, and then reestablished his economic plant in the Ural Mountains far to the east, and then rallied his military to first slow down and then stop the German advance, and then slowly to begin forcing the Nazis into a prolonged retreat which would end four years later in Berlin itself.  Any German soldiers who survived the Eastern Front and who had not been marched east to disappear into the oblivion of Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago could tell you that the Red Army in May of 1945 was a formidable force.

And the Red Army would not face the Western armies alone.  Well organized Communist irregulars who resisted the German in France, in Greece, the Balkans and other areas across Europe would not remain silent nor inactive if the Communist leader in Moscow issued a call to arise and harass the attackers in the rear areas and make the pacification of shattered Europe and security of the all-important supply lines an impossibility.  Also, there was tremendous sympathy to be found for Stalin and the Communist experiment among Western politicians, social and academic elites, whereas there was almost universal disgust felt for the Nazis by nearly everyone in those circles.  One example of this can be seen in the following story.  After completing “Animal Farm”, which was a very critical allegory of communism in Russia, it took George Orwell eighteen months to find a publisher who would put the book into print.  Orwell’s later masterpiece “1984” encountered similar resistance until the obvious profits to be gained by its publishing finally outweighed the political sensibilities of the publishing world.  The opinion formers of the West, it would seem, took a dim view of critics of the USSR and certainly would not support a military campaign against the totalitarian Communists with the same unanimity and ardor which they showed against the totalitarian Nazis.

Nor were Western governments untouched by Soviet influence.  In the United States government spies and agents had infiltrated to all levels.  This sounds like John Birch Society paranoia, I know, but it is a fact that while President Truman was putting off meeting with Stalin in Potsdam until after he got word of the successful test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, the Russian leader already knew of the successful test even before Truman did because of the success of spies Karl Fuchs and the Rosenburgs.  Explore the FBI’s “Venona Project” on the internet to further develop an understanding of Soviet infiltration of the U.S. Government.

Or read Whittaker Chambers’ book “Witness”.  Chambers was a devoted Communist who became disillusioned with the Party and attempted to expose a Soviet agent who held an influential position in the United States Department of State.  For his efforts, Chambers was viciously attacked by the press and other elites and was made to look like a two-bit liar and general low-life.  Chambers persisted, and with the help of one sympathetic member of the press waged a campaign that ended with the Soviet agent’s arrest and conviction and Chambers vindicated.

My point is that the resolve of Western society in general to continue the war, and this time against the Stalinist Russians who had many friends on this side of the pond, was not nearly as solid as it had been during the war against the Nazis.  But that being said, our American resolve would have seemed like granite compared with the support that such a campaign would receive from our British allies.  The United Kingdom had just finished almost six years of war, with the first two years fending off German conquest and hanging on by a thread following multiple defeats, the next two buoyed by America’s entry into the war but highlighted by expulsion from Crete, being harassed and chased across North Africa until their backs were against the walls of Cairo in Egypt, and suffering extreme deprivation on the home front due to the submarine war against allied shipping bringing supplies from the American “arsenal of democracy” across the Atlantic to a hungry and ill-armed England, and the last two years arming and training for the massive Normandy invasion and the long grind of warfare across northern France and Germany itself.  This extreme, almost ultimate effort on the part of the U.K. had left British society exhausted with war and their military at the end of their endurance.  Truman, Secretary of War Stimson, General Marshall, Admiral King, and theater commanders in Asia, Europe and the Pacific knew that there would be little if any British energy remaining to spill more of their blood against Japan.  There was no reason to believe that they would volunteer more blood against Stalin either.  The U.S. would have only a few friends in a continuation of World War II against the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, there were reasons why such a campaign could succeed.  The Red Army had been in the field almost as long as the British had and the conditions in the East were even more awful than they had been in the West, and behind the victorious but tired Red Army lay a shattered Eastern Europe that could offer little support to either Army.  The Russians had managed to dismantle much of their war industry when it was threatened by the Germans in 1941 and 42 and reassembled it in the Ural Mountains.  Their factories turned out a staggering amount of war material but not nearly enough to supply the vast needs of the Red Army.  America and British supplies had streamed into Russia through the Arctic, Persian and Pacific routes and were quickly thrown into the battle.  By removing those supplies and support, and if a bombing campaign could then be mounted against Russian industry and infrastructure (which we would have known the whereabouts of, at least more or less) on a scale close to what we had thrown against the industry and infrastructure of Germany and Japan, Russia would quickly have simply run out of bullets and bombs.

At first those factories would have been unreachable by U.S. bombers, but as ground was gained from the retreating Russians, facilities for the projection of airpower would soon be established in Poland, Ukraine, and other nations under Soviet domination.  This was a resource which Hitler squandered.  The Ukraine had no love for Russia (still doesn’t) and a significant German population. If Hitler and his minions had behaved in a little bit less beastly fashion he would have had valuable allies in his war against Russia.  We Americans are not saints, but on our worst days we can hardly match the Nazis for being the dregs of humankind.  Even minimal decency to the citizens of Eastern Europe would have ensured nearly complete cooperation against the Reds, and that would have put the Russians in a very bad situation indeed.

Compounding the Russians’ problems would be the certainty of a two front and possibly a two-and-a-half front war.  With Japan defeated (and their defeat was certainly imminent on May 8, 1945), there was no reason why an American or American and Australian occupation force couldn’t be left in Japan to manage that country’s post war affairs while the vast bulk of the army was sent past Japan to begin clawing at the Soviet Union from the East.  The vastness of Siberia would have been an obstacle, to be sure, but with the equally vast supply of manpower presented by our Nationalist Chinese allies, who might be offered territorial incentives to draw them north, could provide the garrisons needed to hold bases as we leapfrogged over land and through the air just as we had island hopped across the Pacific.  Caught in a pincers between American armies on both sides, with their industrial plant being hammered into dust and blood, the Russians were not likely to hold out long before suing for peace on whatever terms they could get.

And then there’s The Bomb.  We had it.  They didn’t.  Stalin knew that we were on the threshold of owning that ultimate weapon and the means of deploying it.  The Bomb changed everything, and before any tank battle on the scale of Kursk, or defense of a city such as Stalingrad could be contemplated to reinject hope and self confidence into the Red Army, those tank units or that city would be turned into glowing rubble.  It ain’t pretty, but it’s the truth.

So could Patton’s plan to fight on eastward and eliminate the Soviet threat succeed”  Militarily, I think that it could have, and if it would have been pursued without interruption – one war leading straight into another – it might have been over before the forces which would oppose it could be drawn together.  That was not likely to happen however.  America, too, was tired of burying its children.  The friends of Stalin would have exploited that exhaustion and quickly implemented a campaign to try and end that war far short of a Soviet defeat.  Success does breed support however, and in the long run I believe it is very possible that a committed push by the U.S. with whatever allies it could scrape together would have been successful in ending the existence of the USSR in a lot less than the seventy two years that it took for it to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and some very clever gamesmanship on the part of its Western adversaries.

The Morality of Third World Debt

I have a question for the small army of intelligent people with whom I share Facebook.  Over the years the Western World has made loans to nations of the developing world, the enormity of which are matched only by the level of corruption practiced by the kleptocracies which have run those countries in the past and in many cases continue to do so today.  A vast percentage of that money was drawn off into the private accounts of family, friends and political allies of whatever gang of thugs happened to be running those countries at any particular time, most of which accounts may be found in European and other offshore and out-of-country banks.  The numbers, in many cases, are staggering.

The unfortunate result of this practice is that people who live in places like Guyana, Burkina Faso, and a host of other garden spots retain these debts when the local dictators mercifully die off or, as is more likely, are deposed by characters no more savory than those who preceded them.  Western lenders insist on maintaining the fiction that the dollars or pounds or Euros or whatever form of currency that was ‘lent’ went into development of the borrowing country was legitimate however, and that the money lent should be repaid at interest out of the resources of that country.

Of course, precious little development ever went into those countries and the lenders (smart people, all of them) never really believed that any development would.  Instead, a drain of natural resources flows out of those countries as payment for loans which nobody ever really expected would be repaid while new kleptocrats negotiate new loans which, again, have no chance of repayment.  This is a process well understood by loan sharks and credit card companies.  These debts insure that the indebted nations will never achieve any sort of development, not that most are likely to do so under any circumstances.  The people who live in those countries are therefore forced to live under conditions of exploitation by foreigners of their natural resources, crushing debt that will never be repaid, and national ‘leaders’ who are not at all likely to do anything to alter this picture.

In these circumstances there is little that Westerners can do to ease the suffering of citizens of those countries.  Their lot is indeed hard and devoid of much in the way of hope.  We in the West cannot march into those countries and run them for the native’s own good; a form of that idea was tried in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the negative consequences of which continue to be felt to this day.  The selection of leadership of those countries and the use and allocation of their resources must largely remain issues to be settled by the citizens of those countries by whatever means they chose.  It may not be pretty but it is, for the most part, not our business.

What we can do however, is address the problem of their debt.  I do not believe that there is much argument that loans were made to the governments of those nations in order to obtain access to natural resources at bargain basement prices or for geopolitical advantage, or both.  The welfare of the people was rarely a factor in the advancing of those loans.  I therefore propose that it might be a good thing to investigate a process of forgiving all or part of those loans as a means of lifting at least our part of the crushing burden which lies across the backs of many of the suffering citizens of the third world.

Of course, it is wrong to paint all nations and governments of the developing nations with a broad brush.  Some countries are actually making gains and are responsibly paying back loans as their improving economies permit.  In these cases, it might be proper to forgive loans on a graduated basis.  To simply forgive a loan to a nation which is honorably engaged in developing it’s people’s well being would, in my opinion, disrespect that country.  To greatly reduce it’s debt burden however would better reward it’s efforts while respecting it’s national pride.

Of course, there would be a financial impact here in the United States and the West and, God forbid, in my own 401K.  I, for one, could stand that blow.  Those loans were made to known thugs, in my opinion, and have no more legitimacy than a 40% loan to a Cosa Nostra loan shark.  There is no honor in benefiting from the tragedy that is life in the very difficult places of the earth.

But this may just be sentimental nonsense.  I am no economist.  I am a Christian who believes very much in the commandment to “Love my neighbor as myself”, but I may be taking that out of context.  I look forward to the response of any folk who are more conversant with economics out there to help me understand if I have got it wrong.  I eagerly await your input.

It Was Only A Rape

It is an interesting coincidence that I was reading N.T. Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God” one night recently, and when I put the book down to take a break and scanned the CNN web site my eyes ran across a story about a gang rape which occurred during spring break on Panama City Beach in Florida.  Although hundreds of people were partying and walking to and fro within feet of the attack, police would still be unaware of it having taken place except that it was captured on video and posted in the internet by some bystanders.  The face of the victim, whom it is believed was drugged, was blurred, but she recognized her tattoos and contacted police.  She knew that something wrong had happened but had no idea exactly what it was.  Now she knows.  Make no mistake here; this event, including the primary actors in it and the passive bystanders who did nothing to prevent or stop it, is a monstrous evil.

There are many schools of thought about the nature of evil and how we should deal with it, and one of those schools teaches that evil will fade away as more of the population becomes educated.  Greater exposure to great ideas will eventually tame the beast which lurks within us all.  I am not at all convinced that this is true.  This event took place on spring break, and spring break is an event which represents time off from – – – school!  Three men have been arrested for this crime and at least two of them were college students.  I have not read any details on the third arrestee, but the odds are better than even that he, too, is a student.  The bystanders, or at least the vast majority of them, were in all likelihood students as well, and their role in this tragedy is even more despicable than was that of the three rapists.  If education is supposed to be elevating our social game above such acts of evil it is glaringly obvious to me that it is failing miserably.

And then there’s the devil.  Many of us do not like to talk about Lucifer, Ha Satan, Beelzebub, Old
Scratch, or whatever you want to call It.  For millennia it was not so, and the devil was widely acknowledged to be behind much of what is wrong with the world.  Too much, I think.  Most people in the past saw demons and the devil behind every rock and bush, and some still do so to this day.  But can we say that they are entirely wrong?  Is there no such thing as a negative spiritual or supernatural force which hates life and creation and strives against it to our injury?  Jewish and Christian traditions ascribe evil to be the special province of a devil and Its cohorts and I suppose that other spiritual traditions do as well, but a great segment of the population at large does not believe in the existence of a devil and many Jews and Christians are not comfortable even talking about It.  This of course is a great comfort and strategic asset to the devil.  It is a good deal easier to harm an enemy when that enemy (us) does not even believe that you exist.

But I have to ask myself, whether by devil or otherwise, how could this event take place in America?  Literally hundreds of partying young people either stood by and watched or, what is even worse, paid no attention at all while a woman was sexually assaulted within a few feet of where they were standing.  I think it would have been better if the observers had cheered or maybe even participated.  To simply ignore the attack as something beneath notice implies to me a soul deadness that is the most frightening aspect of this whole event.  The rape leaves me shocked and furious.  The dismissal of it by the bystanders as something no more noteworthy than a paper hot dog wrapper blowing by on the Gulf breeze while it was going on at a few feet’s distance leaves me frightened and shaken to my core.

I am not using this event to smear all college students, all young people, or all Americans with a broad brush.  It is my hope and belief that if this had occurred in Central Park in New York City, the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque New Mexico, along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago Illinois or in Esther Short Park in Vancouver Washington, or even Panama City Beach on any time other than spring break, it would have ended quickly and painfully for the attackers.  What I am saying is that at one time and one place a vicious act of evil occurred and America – all ages and genders and ethnicities and social strata – should look at it and ask how we could let such a thing happen.  And just as the Jews said about their holocaust, which now happened several holocausts and genocides ago, we should look at this together as a society and say “Never Again”.

A Sermon Dealing with Little Things like God

The sermon at my church this morning was a piece of brilliance.  I say that a lot, but that’s because it is always true.  As is so often the case I left church this morning with an incredible, to me at least, new insight to chew on, and now I am going to pass it on in case you, dear reader, would be interested in chewing upon it too.

We finished a year and a half study of the Book of John today.  Twentieth chapter, verses 19 through 31.  In these verses the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, with the exception of Thomas.  Thomas hears from the others that Jesus has returned from the dead but his natural tendency to skepticism, a tendency that I would almost certainly share with him if I had stood in his sandals, wins out and he famously says “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”  Jesus, of course, shows up and invites Thomas to get close and personal with the holes in His hands and side.  In the end Jesus says “Now believe in me”, and Thomas replies “My Lord and my God.

In my opinion, based on my limited knowledge of theology, this is the apex of the Bible.  The Old Testament, from the history of the Jewish people to their laws, and from the genealogies to the prophets – the whole shooting match – spoke of God’s good creation, its corruption by evil, God’s plan to use the Hebrew people to correct that problem, and their corruption into being part of the problem.  Then the New Testament comes along and the Gospels tell the story of Jesus being the culmination of the mission of Israel.  Jesus, who’s perfect life and teaching confronted the evil found in politics (Rome), religion (the Temple and the priesthood), and society (the fine, rich, and distinguished people who looked down their arrogant and privileged noses at the poor and the ‘sinners’), faced that evil down and defeated it once for all time when He died on the cross.  At that point, God had done what He could do  Now it was time for man to do his part.  “Believe,” Jesus said to Thomas.  “Believe” Jesus said to all of us.  Believe what?  Believe that Jesus was Lord and also God; God who created all and now gives His life to redeem His creation from the sin which seeks to drag it to hell and to destruction.

Now the Bible is complete.  Evil entered God’s good creation, a plan of a couple thousand years’ duration had played out and God had begun to reconcile heaven and earth.  Paul and the other New Testament writers have filled in some gaps and polished up some teachings, but the main point, and we should always remember to keep the main point the main point, was that it was time for us to play our part in this drama.  It was time for us to simply, and in the face of all which says that we are crazy to do so, believe.

Believing should be easy, right?  I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years.  I’ve heard the voice of God two times and once felt Her presence as if She was a physical pressure pushing against my chest.  Working in a hospital I have seen people free of cancer who should not be, and I have seen people go home who should not have gone home.  In fact, I could easily write of a half dozen times that I should have died, but did not.  Nobody alive should have more reason to be hard core, rock-solid, one hundred percent certain of God than me.

Yet sometimes I doubt.  Sometimes I doubt.  I hate the thought; I hate the sound of it if I say it out loud.  Just for a moment I feel like a failure.  Was this all the futile exercise of an emotional cripple leaning on a spiritual crutch, trying to stagger through a pointless life and denied even the dubious consolation offered by the false promises of full throttle sin?  Then I remember the rich history of God in my life and God in the life of His creation, and I answer “No.  Hell no.”  This doubt is nothing more than the accusations of the enemy multiplied by my own weakness.  With the help of the God who’s existence I sometimes doubt, in those random, empty, anchorless and thankfully brief moments, I remember what I’ve seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and discerned with my own heart and mind.  God is real.  He is there; always has been.  God the Father, or God the Mother if that makes you feel more comfortable, is as real as anything around me.  More real than anything around me really, since He is the Real that all reality flows out from.  More real than me, and I’m pretty real.

So that is what I came away with from this morning’s sermon.  John 20, verses 19-31 is the point that the whole Bible leads to, and is all the assurance that I will ever need.  God cares.  He made a plan.  She completed the plan.  Believe and find peace in God, creation and eternity.  Yeah, I can live with that.

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

A Word About The Poor

I recently saw a post on Facebook that caught my attention in a special way.  I don’t recall who posted it and I don’t know anything about anybody who had anything to do with producing it.  The post in question appeared to be British, and was a video.  In this video a young man was wearing a sandwich board with a very offensive message written on it, and there is no way to sugar coat that message and still convey the power of the overall post.  I could report that the sandwich board said “SCREW THE POOR”, or I could write that the message was “F___ THE POOR”.  I could say it in Spanish too:  “CHINGA LOS POBRES”, or Latin; “PEDICABO EGO AUTEM POIR”, and if I really want to be obtuse in Chinese; “TA MA DE QUONGREN”.  In this manner I could tell you what the board said but that would not tell you what the video meant to expose, which is entirely wrapped up in exactly what was written on that board, and that message was “FUCK THE POOR”.

The person wearing the sign was a young white guy.  He was walking around at what appeared to be a bus station or some other sort of node of public transportation.  People were walking by and some of them were profoundly upset by his message.  I couldn’t really hear their comments, but by the expressions on their faces and the few words that I could read on their lips the passersby were telling the young man that, among other things, he could go f___ himself.  The clip went on for one or two minutes, which seemed like a very long time if you were watching it.  Finally the scene faded to black while a well-dressed young woman was jawing away in the man’s face.

The scene faded back in a few seconds but it was instantly clear that things had dramatically changed.  The same young man was now wearing what was very nearly the same sandwich board but with one very big difference.  Now the sign shouted out in big capital letters “HELP THE POOR”.  Same location, perhaps the same people, but clearly a different response.  No anger, no outrage, no getting into the young man’s face.  In fact, the young man might as well have not been there.  Eye contact was assiduously avoided.  People flowed around the young man like the water of a river flowing around the concrete base of a great bridge.  The young man couldn’t have found more solitude if he had scaled a Himalayan peak and found a vacant cave up there.

Now comes the hard part.  What does all of this mean?  Clearly, when the sign just came out and said “F— THE POOR”, people were stung by that harsh message and were moved to seriously reprimand the bearer of that same harsh message, but when the sign called out to help the poor, the obvious message sent by the passing throng was “F— THE POOR”.

Is it that we don’t really care about the real poor people in our midst and around the globe?  Maybe we love the poor when they are an abstraction; two urchins under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present, or a family fleeing the Oklahoma dust to find their fortune in the golden fields of the Golden State.  “Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there—” says Tom Joad while relatively well-off moviegoers munch popcorn in comfortable theater seats and Henry Fonda, a great and deserving actor, deposits very nice checks for his work on Steinbeck’s classic story,

Somehow, when the reality of poverty confronts us real-time and in the flesh it is less glamorous and less likely to start a crusade.  The bum holding a sign at the freeway offramp is smoking, which is an expensive habit, no doubt drinks too much alcohol, and smells bad in the bargain.  The couple on the bus, him scrawny and shaggy and her overweight, wearing her pajamas and sporting a poorly done tattoo of a red rose on the top of her right boob, using “colorful” language as they ride to within walking distance of wherever they are going.  The old guy sitting on the porch of a house on the “poor side of town” while a profanity-laced argument is heard coming out of the open windows.  The poor can be a much more uncomfortable commodity in the flesh than they are in the abstract, and perhaps that’s why our charity for them usually stops just before we actually meet them.

Oh, what a radical step it would be to actually make myself vulnerable and available to the poor!  The “needy” is one of the names that we give the poor and a good name for them it is.  The poor really do need.  They need resources, and if I engage the poor those resources, or at least some of them, must come directly from me.  The poor need to be acknowledged as having value, and I may not be able honestly to see any value in them if I only see them through my comfortable, material, middle class eyes.  It won’t take them long to know if i am faking it either.

The poor need governments that will help them rather than warehouse them in prisons, control them so that they don’t pester “good folks”, or divert effort, time and money to enrich patrons of government.  A person uncomfortable with too close a proximity to the real poor may at least demand that government tailor its delivery of services more towards those who really need them the most and away from those who are doing just fine already.  I am not writing about soaking the rich; only about not deferring to them first, and all American governments do that to one degree or another

So how do we move beyond this state of loving and defending the poor in the abstract and ignoring them in the flesh and blood?  I do not know the answer to that question, or should I say that I don’t know the millions of answers to that question, as the answer is undeniably complex.  When does help lead to dependency?  When does helping hurt?  How do you know that your help is genuinely needed and when you are being scammed?  Is your help being appreciated?  Does that matter?  The list of questions is a very long one and I can’t answer any one of them for you.  Hell, I can’t even answer most of them for myself.

But nobody should be avoiding those questions, and Christians frankly are commanded by God not to avoid them.  I will not bother you with the Bible verses that refer to this but if you are a Christian you know them, or you should.  If you are not a Christian, something in your heart tells you that it is wrong to ignore the poor.  Even if your rational mind says that their poverty is their problem, you still would hesitate before verbalizing what was written all over the signboard in the first scene of the video mentioned above.

Helping the poor will be an endless and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  That cannot prevent us from trying however.  The solution to the problem of the poor begins with me, and you, and you over there, and there is no hope if I/we check out of the game without ever even getting into it.