Sunday, March 31, 2019

President Pete

The first time I was able to vote for President I voted primarily because I believed my candidate was a good man. That was 1976, and the man (there were only men under consideration at that point) was Jimmy Carter. Jimmy didn't have much political experience, and he was basically a peanut farmer, but I believed in his fundamental decency, as well as in his (then Evangelical, as it was understood; the times have changed juuuuust a bit since then) Christian faith.

I don't know if he was a great President. There are people who tell me he was not, although I tend to view his "problems" as outside of his control, and his downfall as the fault of the then-emerging Christian right that has fucked with both the country and Christianity ever since. At any rate, he has proven himself in the intervening 45 years to be very much a good man, perhaps the last of his breed, but perhaps not. He's still the only President in my lifetime that I would unequivocally trust as a human being.

This week I watched several interviews with Pete Buttigieg, 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and was reminded of my initial impression of Jimmy Carter. Buttigieg is smart, articulate, and multi-talented. As a Democrat, he polled 80% of the votes in a red city in a very red state. Beyond that, though, I listened to him speak off the cuff about a variety of issues and believed him to be a good man, someone I would actually want as my neighbor, for example, or someone I wouldn't feel deeply disturbed by if they hung out with my wife or daughters. This is progress.

Buttigieg is being touted as a potential presidential candidate. I would almost certainly vote for him, and his relative youth and lack of political experience is, in my mind, somewhat offset by the notion that we are currently dealing with a highly immoral reality TV star and game show host. He's also gay, which probably means that he has 0% chance of winning, because this is Amerikkka, and because there are millions of people who would automatically vote against him for that very reason.

But it was fairly refreshing to encounter a good man who also happened to be a politician. I miss those folks.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Beauty Will Save the World

To the extent that I care about theology these days, I can safely state that I am not a Calvinist. And you'd be correct in assuming that a Christian university called Calvin College might adhere to Calvinist theology. All of that is to say that I have no horse in this race other than the horse that believes that art - all by itself, no further justifications theological or otherwise needed - is a worthwhile pursuit. I will also admit to adhering to the stubborn notion that beauty can rip a hole in your soul that lets the light shine through, only because I've experienced that phenomenon time and time again.

I don't know Ken Heffner well. I've only interacted with him a few times when he has graciously invited me to participate as a speaker at Calvin's biennial Festival of Faith and Music. But I've followed him and his work from afar because I've been consistently amazed by and impressed with what one man with a vision can do at a conservative Christian college. I've witnessed dozens of thinkers and yes, first-rate musicians and bands converge on Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, to play music and talk about the role of music in living life; actual awake life that is attuned to beauty and truth and escaping the tiny prison of oneself. Some of those thinkers and musicians have been Christians. Some of them haven't been. But the level of discourse has been consistently challenging, uplifting, and thrilling. I've invariably emerged from those long weekends re-energized, believing strongly that I'm not alone in this strange, God-forsaken, spiritual-platitude-mouthing country, and that there were and are people out there who see the world in roughly the same way I do. Brothers and sisters? It's a bizarre and wholly inadequate concept for the most part, but I found them at Calvin College.

So I'm saddened but not at all shocked that the conservative Christian world has deigned that people like Ken no longer make sense, or cents, for Christian universities. You can't bank on the commodities in which Ken Heffner trafficked. What is the value of seeing the world in new ways? What is the price tag for being ripped wide open by beauty?

I have no answers to those questions, but I want to thank Ken Heffner for being Ken Heffner, and for focusing on the priceless.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness, my old friend, 
I've come to talk with you again, 
Because a vision softly creeping, 
Left its seeds while I was sleeping, 
And the vision that was planted in my brain 
Still remains 
Within the sound of silence
- Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence”

The vision that was planted in my brain, lo, some 44 years ago now, was based on love and inclusion. It was based on a fundamental (not fundamentalist) assumption: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That little term “world” was significant to me, and helped form some important assumptions:

· God’s love transcended national borders, and attempts to limit God’s love along nationalistic lines should properly be considered idolatry. God’s love = good. Idolatry = bad. That’s where black and white entered my thinking.
· God’s love crossed and transcended racial and ethnic boundaries. If God showered his love upon the red and yellow, black and white (to quote a well-known Sunday School ditty that kids have been singing for decades), then I had no business, as someone who claimed to follow God’s son, excluding anyone for those reasons. Indeed, I had no business doing anything other than extending the love of God which had been extended to me.
· God’s love encompassed those who are different from me; different cultures, different languages, different beliefs and values, different social organizations. Different was not bad. It was good. It was evidence of God’s all-encompassing love.

Let me note that this is nice theory. I fail at it. There are days when I am challenged to love my own wife and kids, and they are dearer to me than anyone else on the planet. But one thing I don’t do is redefine the theory to fit my failure. I don’t conclude that my failure to live God’s love is okay with God. I don’t justify the abdication of my responsibility to carry that love to those who are different from me by claiming that God really doesn’t want me to love the people of the planet; all of them. That would be living a lie. Instead, I engage in an old-fashioned and now outmoded Christian notion called repentance. I tell God I’m sorry for my failure. I ask for help – divine and/or human, I’m open to both – to do better in the future.

It has come to my attention, oh, a few thousand times in the past four years that much of the Christian Church in America doesn’t actually believe this – doesn’t have a clue about its history and teachings - when it pertains to neo-Saviors. Up until, say, 2015 or so, Christians were reasonably consistent in being opposed to and standing against people who called Nazis “very fine people,” paid off porn stars and Playboy models, tried to ban people from other countries and other religions, insulted dead politicians on almost a daily basis, lied pathologically, caged toddlers, threatened to jail political opponents, and called the free press “the enemy of the people.” One could have concluded that at least a few of those “God so loved the world” sentiments might have kicked in and that thinking, praying people might have realized that that fundamental belief was utterly incompatible with what they were witnessing. And once upon a time Christians would have stated that. They would have uttered sentiments such as, “This is wrong. This is deeply inconsistent with what we believe. We’re opposed to this because it contradicts our most deeply held beliefs and values.”

Ah, but that was so long ago. At least four years. Meanwhile, I’m living in the past. Sadly, the 44-year-old vision that was planted in my brain still remains. But it is impossible to ignore the silence. It is deafening. It drowns out whatever feeble excuse the contemporary Christian Church in America offers to rationalize its own denial and inaction.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

True, Kind, Necessary

Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?

Three questions I'm told I should ask myself before I speak, and certainly before I post anything online.

And so I ask them.

Is it true? Well, there it is. A tweet. One of thousands, put out there for public consumption by the President of the United States. It is true. He wrote it, or at least allowed his name and likeness to be associated with the words. To the extent that anything is true these days, this is true.

Is it kind? Obviously, the sentiments expressed are not kind. They are the equivalent of the fourth-grade bully you perhaps encountered on the playground. Who's a butthead? YOU'RE a butthead. Is it kind for me to bring this up? I don't know. I struggle with this. I'm told I should just ignore it, get on with my life, just accept the constant drip, drip, drip of inane, lobotomized incivility and not stop to wonder what this is doing to our society, to me. Who's a butthead? Feel free to think of me as one if it will help you sleep at night.

Is it necessary? No, it's not necessary. None of this is necessary. The tweet isn't necessary. My response to it isn't necessary. But I can't turn it off and pretend that it's not there, that it isn't happening. I can't turn off the notion that the President's job offer to George Conway is a matter of public record, as is George Conway's very public decline of that job offer. You can, as they say, look them up. They're easy to find.

This is still known in some circles as lying. I can't help it. I remember the notions of human decency and objective truth, hearkening back fondly to times when they used to matter, and I still lament the roaring silence of much of what passes for the Christian Church in America, the great cosmic shushing of conscience. Mine has a hard time staying quiet. Shhhh!

But it's hard to remain silent. I struggle with this all the time, almost every hour. Forgive my lack of kindness, the unnecessary intrusion into your pleasant day. Ironic, isn't it?

Friday, March 22, 2019

One and Done

Once upon a time, colleges focused on education. The student-athletes (note the order) played sports, but were expected to attend classes and work toward graduation.

All of that changed a couple decades back when the universities, the NCAA,(the governing body of college sports) and the NBA colluded to make a mockery of the ol' alma mater. The biggest perpetrator was one John Calipari, coach of, first, the University of Memphis, and later the University of Kentucky, who started recruiting the best basketball players in the U.S. to play precisely one year. And so they did, winning a lot of games and some college basketball championships along the way before they abruptly departed for the NBA. If there was a silver lining, it was that this academic mockery occurred at the University of Memphis and the University of Kentucky, not exactly known for churning out Rhodes Scholars.

In 2019, the "finest" proponent of gaming the system is one Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of Duke University's basketball team. Duke, you may recall, is one of the finest academic institutions in the land. This year Duke's team features not one, not two, not three, but four freshman players who will bid a fond farewell to the hallowed halls in May to take their chances in the NBA lottery draft. They may or may not have completed their freshman requirements. Who cares? It's a joke.

I don't blame the kids. They're doing what any 18-year-old with an opportunity to earn millions of dollars would do. But something is rotten in the state of North Carolina. And Kentucky. And most states. The rent-a-player stakes could not be higher, and it's very likely that Duke will win this year's college basketball championship. Meanwhile, the administration of Duke, and Kentucky, and God knows how many other schools, will still have to wake up and look themselves in the mirror and convince themselves that it's all about higher education.


Monday, March 18, 2019

Rorschach Jesus Redux

In the last extended time Jesus spends with his disciples, He prays this prayer: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17) 

This seems to indicate that the idea of "oneness" is a big deal; so much so that the witness of the Christian Church, as a whole, is contingent on the notion of unity. The way this is often interpreted in the modern ecclesiastical world is this: “You (the other 8,632,970 flavors that are not mine) are welcome to conform to my flavor. Then we’ll truly be one and look like Jesus.” I think this way too, by the way. Feel free to conform to me. It will go better for you in my world, and in God’s, if you do. I believe I have it right, based on extensive study, prayer, and application of hermeneutical principles interpreted in the light of contemporary sociological and political events, as well as a direct pipeline from God to my soul. In Enneagram terms, this is classic Type 1 (Reformer) thinking. It is somewhat balanced by my Enneagram wings, which are Type 9 (Fuck it; leave me alone) and Type 2 (Why don’t you like me?). You think I’m joking? You must not know me well. I’m not kidding. Join me in the Truth, which is not Flavor #8,632,971, but a return to the original, Jesus-lovin’ deal.

God help me, I do think this way. This is a core part of my personality.

An alien anthropologist, tasked with chronicling the many varieties of Christianity currently found in America, would have a difficult time finding much in common in the 8,632,971 different flavors of Christian Church he/she/it would encounter. In one church, a man in an ornate purple and gold robe might be found chanting 3rd-century theology while slinging incense toward an altar. In another church, a hundred people might be found sitting around in a circle, sitting in silence that was only broken up by periodic a capella songs. In still another church, a rock band might be found strutting and fretting its hour upon the stage, leading fervent hootenannies expressing Jesus Is My Girlfriend sentiments. This is the American Christian Church – or actually just a tiny snapshot of it – circa 2019.

This is hardly a startling revelation. The Christian Church is nothing like the Christian Church. Really. Verily, even. It’s okay. Jesus – the Jesus the gospel writers wrote about – is now 2,000 years removed from leaving footprints in the sand except in the most metaphorical of senses. And like the telephone game in which a message is passed from one addled hearer to another, on and on down the line, the message in 2019 often bears little resemblance to the message that simple Galilean fishermen heard in the first century.

The standard response to this conundrum is that Christians are united by our belief in Jesus. Sure, the forms and the styles and yes, even the doctrines vary from group to group. But we’re all one in Jesus. We are family. All my brothers and sisters and me. We are family. Get up everybody and sing.

I like this sentiment. It’s catchy. My experience in living it has been less than ideal, both on the giving and receiving end, but it’s a nice theory. The problem is, and always has been, which Jesus we accept as the source of unity. And in the age of Rorschach Jesus, all 8,632,971 different flavors of Him, the issue is more confused, and the various Jesus Follower camps are as divergent and as diametrically opposed as they have ever been. Again, there’s nothing new under the sun. In Germany in the 15th century, Catholics slaughtered Lutherans, and Lutherans slaughtered Catholics, and Catholics and Lutherans together slaughtered Calvinists, and the poor, peace-loving Anabaptists, the forerunners of the Mennonites and Amish and Brethren, never stood a chance. They were wiped out by everybody. Praise God. This is how it tends to go, and how it has always gone. And this is the way it’s going in 2019 as well. Christians not only disagree with one another; they believe things that directly contradict one another and are diametrically opposed to one another.

United in Jesus means beating your swords into plowshares and toting your AK-47 into the sanctuary. It means loving and serving immigrants with the special love God has for them and caging immigrant toddlers at the border. It means believing that personal character and ethics matter and that it’s no big deal to carry on an affair with a porn star while your wife sits at home caring for your infant son. It means being “pro-life” for babies in the womb and treating born people with brown skin, or different religious beliefs, with hatred and scorn. This is the American Church in 2019.

Rorschach Jesus. Which one(s) will you follow? What and where is the unity? I wish someone would let me know.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Don and Don

Not-so-veiled threats and old-fashioned thuggery not seen in a Don since Corleone:

"If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell ... I promise you I will pay for the legal fees."
- Donald J. Trump, February 1, 2016

"Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court. Don't worry about it."
- Donald J. Trump, February 19, 2016

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people - maybe there is, I don't know."
- Donald J. Trump, August 9, 2016

"Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump -- how about Bikers for Trump? They travel all over the country. They got Trump all over the place, and they’re great. They've been great. But these are tough people. These are great people. But they’re peaceful people, and Antifa and all -- they’d better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way."
- Donald J. Trump, September 22, 2018

"Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!"
- Donald J. Trump, October 15, 2018, in reference to Rep. Greg Gianforte's attack on a reporter

"I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad."
- Donald J. Trump, March 14, 2019

"The President in no way, form, or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence."
- Grima Wormtongue, June 2017

This is the technique: Say the most outrageous shit imaginable, shit that would get you fired from any workplace in America. Tiptoe right up to the brink of assault and battery and murder threats. And then back away a step. Give yourself a semi-plausible out. I hope they stay that way. Then it would be very, very bad. Yoogely bad. Who, lil’ ol’ me? Why, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is an evil man. It boggles my mind that people who call themselves Christians support him. I want a new faith. This one isn't working very well. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Gospel According to Archie Bunker

In a few weeks I will celebrate/bemoan my 44th anniversary as a Christian.  That should tell you a couple things. First, it’s a big, conflicted deal. Second, I’m still a Christian.

I know quite a few people who would call themselves ex-Christians. They would merely bemoan. And I understand that, too. It’s not particularly hard to fathom in God’s Own U.S. of A., circa 2019. I’m not Nostradamus, but nevertheless I don’t think it’s at all farfetched to think that the megachurches will be big, empty shells in 20 or 30 years, after the Boomers (yes, my generation) have died off with no younger generations to assume the mantles of leadership or Samsonite-chair sitters. From everything I see, the kids all took a good hard look at the proceedings and walked away. The hipster churches, which is where (at least in urban America) many of the kids landed will all have turned into mani-pedi spas or hair salons, possibly called Rockin’ Your Life! which will save money on having to change the sign out front. This is because the hipsters will have figured out that one guy with a goatee and one guitarist with a U2 obsession is as good as another, and that none of them are particularly worth getting out of bed for on a Sunday morning.  The Protestant mainline denominations will continue their slow descent into irrelevancy. The Catholic Church will lose people in droves because of its institutional inflexibility and its ongoing stonewalling over violations of the physical, mental, and spiritual health of its parishioners. The Eastern Orthodox Church will probably do okay if Anglo-Saxons can get past the fact that they are not, and never will be Russian, Greek, or Slovenian. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, will be dead or dying of a self-inflicted wound.  The Christian Church in America, circa 2050, will be half as large as the current American Christian Church.

I believe that. This is not a shining era for the Christian Church in America. Some good, staunch Christians will explain this all away and tell you that it has ever been thus, and that spiritual rebellion will always lead to such consequences. They’re partly right, but they’re looking in the wrong direction. People are leaving for perfectly good reasons because churches are ridiculously, imperfectly bad. Horrible. When you’ve traded Jesus for an unfunny Archie Bunker, it’s not a good look. Ifso fatso, as Archie would say. When does it make more sense for those who wish to live a kind, moral, compassionate life to avoid Christian churches rather than be a part of them? 2019, the United States of America. That’s when. Who woulda thunk it, huh?

But in three weeks it will be the grand anniversary #44, the Born Again date, which is when everything theoretically became new. It didn’t work out that way. I am still thankful for that date, for the person I am becoming, for the person God made me to me. I am not that person many days. But some days I am, and that gives me hope. When I screw up, and I do, I try to engage in an ancient, mostly discredited Christian notion called repentance. That means saying to God, and to human beings I might have wronged, “I was wrong, and I was wrong in these specific ways. I’m sorry. I’m going to try not to do that – that specific thing that wronged you – ever again.” And I say it with a will. I put my heart and soul into it. This is Christianity 101, or so they used to tell me. It was a commonly understood truth. I wish the Christian Church in America still believed this. The bemoaning that will accompany the celebration will chiefly occur because I no longer think that the Christian Church in America has any standard of right and wrong, or any notion of repentance.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

An Important Civic Announcement

It has come to my attention that so, so many people I know - adults, at that - are deeply distraught over and aggrieved by a phenomenon that continues to rock contemporary society. No, nothing so mundane as kleptocracy in America, the disintegration of objective truth, the promotion of racist beliefs and practices, or the ever-escalating fear of the other, praise God.

I refer to the commonly held belief (and I've heard it expressed in exactly these words more than once today) that "the government is stealing an hour of my sleep." To these friends, I offer soothing words of understanding and compassion. It is too late to do anything about this today, but I remind you that this same phenomenon will reappear next March. That's your opportunity. Here it is: go to bed an hour earlier. Be big boys and girls. You've got this.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Prostate Woes

"A doctor a week keeps the vacation savings away."
- Me

Without getting too graphic, I would prefer if people left some orifices alone. Sadly, those are the orifices that have been poked, prodded, and entubed of late. Good times. I have a rapidly growing prostate gland. It's unlikely that I have cancer, which is wonderful news, of course, but I have SOMETHING going on down there. And in the last few weeks I've had an MRI, something called a cystoscopy, and an ultrasound to figure out what that might be. At this point nobody knows.

I'm doing okay. These kinds of things are a clarion call, if you allow them to be, to wake up and smell both the roses and the iodine-like stuff that they pump into your veins to get a closer look at the innards. I'm trying to concentrate on the roses.

Other than the ridiculous cost of these procedures, and the fact that my insurance company has decided not to cover them (why should a potentially life-threatening growth be considered a legitimate medical expense, eh?), I'm fairly upbeat. I am deeply loved, and I know it. I'll let you know more once I know more.

I'm still hoping that these medical procedures will make a vas deferens.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

A Taxing Day

A heads-up for those who may not have started the always lifegiving task of filling out tax forms. You may be in a for a shock. I was.

Remember the changes to the tax code that were going to allow Americans more financial freedom to purchase memberships at Costco? Here's what those changes have meant for the Andy/Kate team for 2018.

Our taxable income was roughly the same (actually slightly less, because we plowed more money into retirement accounts). Our claimed deductions were the same (1 for me, 1 for Kate). Our charitable giving increased slightly. And our tax bill went up more than $4,000 from the previous year.

There are two reasons for this. First, our take-home pay, after taxes, went up. We knew that was the short-term impact of the tax changes. We just had no idea that the end-game shock would be so great. I'm not sure if it's possible to change one's claimed deductions from 1 (self) to 0. Perhaps that's what we need to do. Second, the tax breaks for charitable deductions have been severely, and I mean severely, curtailed. Whatever breaks you may be accustomed to because you give money away are virtually gone. You can and should, for the good of your soul, give your money away. It's a good thing. But MAGA World has now assured that you're not going to see tax breaks for doing so.

Have fun.