Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Transcendence on a Tuesday Night

Old Elvis Costello will do it to you.

I’m watching an early episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . and this one is with Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case and Jesse Winchester. The music is glorious. Crow sings a heartfelt “Leaving Lost Vegas” and I think I get it for the first time. Each of the artists has a beautiful song to share. One of those was a touching little love song about being a teenager in love by Jesse Winchester.

It’s all about a young man, a seventeen year old, who holds out a hand to a young woman. They touch. They sing the chorus of a teenaged song, shama-ling-dong-ding. Which is the name of the song. “The way we danced was not a dance, but just a long embrace. We held onto each other and we floated there in space.” That perfectly describes the kind of relationship that every romantic seventeen year old ought to have. Unfortunately we also have the need to rut and let loose and let the hormones have control (thank goodness we do).
I had that sweet relationship as a teen. It confused me, but I am so glad I had it, even though I never figured out what it might lead to. It confused me, but it also made me a better person. Nobler? Aspirational? Impractical? Whatever. It was good for me.

At the same time I’m listening to Elvis with I’m scanning negatives from Rock Island. I come to one shot among many I’ve forgotten (I processed 250 shots yesterday). This one shot struck me. It arrived during Winchester’s song so that happenstance struck me as well. There’s a couple in the shot, a young man solid as a block, dark hair, square shoulders and (I think) a spring car coat. She’s got short hair, a “pixie” cut. A sweater. Tan slacks. There is a sequence of 3 photographs.  I was a distance away, shooting with a telephoto lens – as was often my wont. In the 3rd photo the young woman sees the shooter on the hill.
She turns and throws a wave at the photographer, rather flirtatiously. 

No jealousy from the boy-friend. I doubt he even noticed. It was an innocent flirtation anyway, a wave at a distant photographer who used the camera to keep people away from the shy, easily spooked little boy holding his lens in his left hand to keep the shakes away. That boy certainly didn’t notice the wave. I’m relatively sure his response was nothing, not even an acknowledgement of friendship.

Earlier in the scan session I’d found my 1970 negatives from my first visit to Bishop Hill, the mid-19th century pietistic colony in central Illinois that marked the beginnings of the great migration from Sweden. There are no photos of the inside of the community building, but there is the fa├žade. There is the community hall with its one armed clock (hard workers don’t need to count the minutes). And a flood of memories of another type overwhelms me. Suddenly I “get it.” I understand why you would give up a predictable existence in your homeland and leave for a strange land, willing to suffer and die for your new found faith. I understand why normally placid Swedes would suddenly be ready to defy King and Crown and follow the ravings of a mad man. I understand. It all works together – for me, though probably not for everyone.

Yet the best I can articulate what I suddenly understand is to say something like “deep in every human being lies the desire to be something more and other and better than our daily selves.”

But as soon as I write that down I have to admit, “no, that’s not quite what I mean, what I’ve found, what I’ve seen” that links religious devotion, young love and a girl waving hello to a young would be photographer.

It isn’t quite what I mean, but it isn’t quite wrong either.

Something, something, transcendence, ground of being, “here and there, and sometimes even in ourselves” novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner quoted Tillich as saying to his Union Seminary class.

I guess.

But there it is: the purity of young love; the depth of fanatical religious devotion and the smile and a wave from a girl I perhaps knew. They are all linked somehow, and, well, God. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hospitals and Waste

I’m working with my Argumentation class to develop arguments for and against what is generally called “sustainability.” Thus, I may be a little more sensitive to the issue than is needed. Yet my experience of going for EKG at SRHC made me profoundly aware of how wasteful our current hospital system has become.

I went last Friday, so it’s a recent memory. I checked in at the universal check in desks and, as usual received a white plastic bracelet, on which my identity was barcoded, and the pink/orange plastic bracelet that announced I was allergic to penicillin. I also had a sheet with my doctor’s orders, a sheet that allowed the provider to treat me and a sheet of bar code sticky labels– probably 30 labels on the one sheet.  These all identified the bearer as me.

I asked the young woman who checked me in why I needed a wrist band to identify me, a wrist band to identify I had a penicillin allergy, and a page of sticky label bar codes when I was going to get one procedure in one place with one technician and no bodily invasion. She explained that this was all for my protection. “What if someone came in a pretended to be you?” she asked. “They could rack up a bunch of services and charge your insurance.”

I did not want to hassle this nice young woman with the obvious question. Has this ever happened? Is this really a thing? Someone undergoes medical tests in my name, even though they couldn’t get the results except from a doctor. Are there actually doctors who tell their patients to hijack other people’s identities, or doctors who’ll accept results from a stolen identity without thinking? Are there rings of identity thefts getting medical tests under false pretenses? The idea to so complex as to be absurd on the face of it.

Of course, after my feeble attempt at protest I gave in. I might have gone to Noni and complained to her about the waste. But I don’t need to lay my crusade on her shoulders.

I think, next time I go, I’m going to refuse to let them put the bracelets on. I’ll carry them, but not let them put them on. This time, as soon as my two minute test was complete, the first thing the tech did was snip off the bracelets. If I carry them that will eliminate one non-essential task from her workday!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome Little Children

The text this morning was Mark 9: 30-37. The pericope ends with Jesus taking a child in his arms and announcing “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I’ve preached on this text from all three synoptic gospels. I’ve preached on the “Suffer the little children and forbid them not . . .” texts. Always been abstract about it. The child is a representative of us in humble need. If we don’t need the divine the way a child needs its parents we won’t find the divine. G-d does not force g-dself on us any more than a parent forces a child to accept their affection.

Today I finished talking about the desire to be “the greatest,” a desire that afflicts many of us (but not Kris). And I came to verse 37. I looked out and there were four little guys. Three toddler girls. Four guys under the age of 1. Daddy Derek let me take his son Andrew in my arms. I finished preaching with Andrew’s help.

That changed my understanding of what Jesus was saying. He took them in his arms.

I took that little guy in my arms. It changed how I understand that verse. It made me think about the little guy who washed up on a Turkish beach. It made me think again of the nineteen year old pregnant woman who collapsed in front of Richard Engle on the Hungarian border. It made me think about the helplessness of this little guy in my arms.

And there was more, is more. But I can’t tell you the more. The more was a feeling, deep in my soul. Deep in my heart. Deep in my feelings. There is something more to be said about welcoming children, being children. There is something more to be said, but I can’t say it yet. Maybe later. Maybe not later, maybe never.

So if I can’t articulate this new understanding of Mark’s Gospel do I really understand? And how shall I communicate what I’ve discovered to you in the pew?

Perhaps you too have to take a little child in your arms while reading the passage and have that little guy smile at you, drool on you, be a little guy in your arms. “Whoever welcomes one of these little ones welcomes me, and not just me but the one who sent me.”

More than that I cannot say, so I must simply pass over it in silence.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Republicans and all their lies

Republican truth tellers:

Donald Trump told a compelling story of a “beautiful child” who received a vaccination, went home, a week later had a high fever and came down with the autism.

In a New Hampshire town meeting a Trump supporter wanted Muslims removed from America, especially that Muslim usurper in the White House who is “not even an American.” And Trump says in reply, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of things.”

And Monday Trump presented his military supporters, The Veterans for a strong America. Hundreds of thousands of veterans were members, Trump said.

Carly Fiorina presented an angry emotional statement during the debate. In it she “dared” Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama to watch the video with a living fetus on a slab, tiny heart beating, arms and legs flailing. In the meantime, apparently, you hear someone saying “keep it alive so we can harvest its brain.”

The problem of all these compelling stories is that they are lies. I suspect that the Republican candidates know that they are lies.

If there is a “beautiful child” at all, there is no connection between her vaccination and autism. This is not controversial. It is settled science. Children are not given doses in a needle that resembles a needle/syringe used to vaccinate horses. 

The President is a Christian – who had to denounce his Christian Pastor in the 2008 campaign – and was born in America. That is settled. Done. And Trump knows it – but he also knows that he can dog whistle part of the base into action if he lets that stand. He may, in fact, believe that there are secret Muslim terror training camps, which must be what Jade Helm was actually about since it clearly wasn’t about removing state governments and instigating martial law. It’s hard to know what nonsense Trump believes since he believes that the Mexican government has a plan to send criminals across the border.

The hundreds of thousands of veterans? According to reporting on the Rachel Maddow show it was probably just one guy.

And the video? It’s not of anything that is connected to Planned Parenthood. You don’t even have to watch the video to have your doubts about the veracity of Fiorina’s description. For the “undercover” video to be real means that the videographer was admitted to the procedure room during an abortion. That would require consent from the patient undergoing an abortion. It would also mean that the Planned Parenthood representative and the “undercover journalist” were there and discussing at the same time that this procedure is going on. It’s absurd and absurd on the face of it. If Fiorina thinks she has to recognize how absurd this description of a video that doesn't exist is.

Yet, when asked people complain that Hillary is untrustworthy, a liar, inauthentic. Why?

Monday, August 31, 2015

What Does it mean, Pro-Life?

I’ve heard three pro-choice stories that make me wonder if the mothers made the right choice.

The first was a story I encountered through a Facebook page from “Life News.com” about former Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end and practice squad member (also a former member of the Bears, the Dolphins and the Bills, according to his Wikipedia page) and his wife Olivia deciding to carry to term their baby despite the baby having anencephaly and their being advised that terminating the pregnancy made the most sense. But the Rodrigeuz’s chose to carry the baby to term, the birth should happen in December.

Didn’t know much about it before this. I vaguely remembered my parents talking about a child who had a “water head.” That child must have been born to someone they knew. “Hydranencephaly,” I think they called it. Looked it up. Not the same thing. Anencephaly is a condition where much of the brain fails to develop and, sometimes, the skull and skin don’t cover the head. Children born with this condition apparently don’t live long.

The second story I heard was about a Minnesota woman who chose to bring her conjoined twins to full term, despite the fact that she was told that one of the two was very unlikely to survive birth, and the other was distressed. One of the babies survived birth, the other died shortly after birth, and the surviving twin is in critical condition.

The third story was that of entertainer Christina Millian’s sister’s baby boy. The child was diagnosed in March with the condition omphalocele, a condition in which the organs are outside the body. Unlike Anencephaly, treatment options exist for omphalocele, and at least one pediatric hospital gives children with this problem high survival possibilities, if the child has no other problems. (http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/o/omphalocele/). Apparently Danielle’s child had other problems and did not survive. 

The Hollyscoop news people reported that doctors suggested that she end her pregnancy, but that she responded “There’s no reason he doesn’t deserve life.”

There’s no reason for any of the children not to have life. That’s certainly a moral choice that parents are capable of making without my second guessing their judgment.

But I’m going to second guess their judgment.

Not necessarily their judgment, but the ideology that says that live birth is preferable, is morally better, is the only way that a pregnancy should be terminated.

For whom are we giving life that will end in just a few hours? For whom are we giving birth when the birth will result in a predictable death? Is this for the sake of the child or for the sake of the parents?

Danielle Flores (I think that’s her last name) already had a pet name for her little sick baby. After its birth she talked about how blessed that child was. She showed a photo of a tiny foot with an IV. She showed a pic of the child’s chest. She didn’t show a pic of the child’s intestines outside the child’s body.

The Minnesota army captain showed the ultra-sound of her twins, but nothing of the survivor in the ICU.

The Rodriguez’ don’t yet have a picture of their daughter. They probably won’t publish it if they take any photos.

These children will live only a few hours. Will those hours be spent in pain? I don’t know. I do know that they will be spent in intensive care, in medical trauma, with a quality of life that is going to be less than optimal. Is this what it means to be “pro-life?” No matter how much distress you cause this little baby for its few hours on earth, it is better for this entity to be born? Really?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Secure the Border

The House Republicans are insistent that we don't have a secure southern border, and that that's the President's fault.

I have to wonder what the Republicans mean by a secure border. Does it mean that no one attempts to cross from Mexico into the United States? That no one manages to sneak into the country without the proper paperwork – from any nation? (While the numbers are much smaller, I seem to recall that there are Polish and Irish undocumented immigrants as well as Mexican undocumented immigrants. Jose Vargas is Philippino and came through Los Angeles airport.)

The federal government employs more Border Patrol agents than ever before. These agents are apprehending high numbers of people arriving at our Southern border without the proper paperwork. The Obama administration has deported at a much higher number than the Bush administration. How do you make the border more secure? What do the House Republicans actually want?

Education in Crisis?

Steven Colbert's guest last night was Campbell Brown. Formerly anchor for CNN and MSNBC, she is now leading a foundation for educational reform.

Campbell's interview was greeted by the rare appearance of protest at the Colbert show. While I don't know much about her educational reform group's aims, there are two dubious assertions that were aired in her interview with Colbert.

First: the educational system is in crisis.

Second: tenure is the root cause of the crisis?

Is the educational system in crisis? The common wisdom is that it is. Our experience in Higher Education – in an institution that has large numbers of athletes from Texas – is that our students arrive unprepared for higher academic work. They can't write a research paper. Their command of the mechanics of the English language, particularly their command of punctuation, is faulty to say the least. Their thoughts tend toward the profane, focused on money and jewelry, sex and drugs. And their sport. Their sport. Sports in general, but mostly their sport.

There is also a racial component in all this, at least there is at our little college. The majority of the kids from Texas who come north to play football or basketball with us are African American. Many of them come from the inner city schools of Dallas or Houston. I'm guessing on this, but I guess that the challenges of education in the inner cities of Dallas, Houston, Chicago, New York are more alike than they are different. These challenges include the mandate to teach everyone who shows up for school; to teach in English even if a third or more of the class are new English speakers; to motivate children who are demonized daily on the evening news as lazy, unemployable, failures; to make academic superstars of kids who have no use for academia.

As a graduate of what could technically be called an "inner city" school in Chicago (albeit nearly 50 years ago) I recall that there was a wide differentiation among the motivations and abilities of my fellow students. I particularly recall one kid who sat either next to me or right in front of me. I don't remember which, all I recall is how he smelled. The class was right after lunch, and he came to class reeking of tobacco. He obviously spent his lunch hour at the Teepee Hut, a burger joint right across Western Avenue, legendary for the thickness of its air at lunch time.

I remember that the smell was missing one spring afternoon, as was the source of the smell. I asked what happened. The rumor was our classmate was caught burgling and went backwards out a third story window, dying on the sidewalk on Chicago's south side. I never knew if that was true or not, but I took it to be truth. I wonder if that classmate was academically motivated. I wonder if he was able to read at grade level (quite possibly. Our High School was what you would now call a "magnet" school and was available only by application). How many others in our High School were behind academically? I don't know, but I suspect that there were some. Other Chicago schools, those deeper in the ghetto, were "in crisis" fifty years ago. Crane, Lindblom, schools on the west side were in difficult straights even then.

Not every Chicago school is in crisis. The suburban schools remain academically strong. Our small town school continues to produce students ready to perform in the classroom and, one hopes, in the boardroom.

Why are some Chicago schools a mess and others working just fine? Why are suburban schools by and large working OK? Why do some small town and rural schools produce capable students, while others do not?

I do not know. I am certain that tenure is not the cause of school failure. I am certain that removal of tenure will not solve the problems of the inner city schools of New York, Chicago, Dallas or Los Angeles.

What will removal of tenure actually do? It will allow new administrators to come into a school or a program and remove those instructors they don't like or don't feel they can work with. This is not a reflection of the competence of these teachers, but a natural function of being a new administrator. You want "your people" in place to implement your policies. Those who are fired will not be given due process. They will be given reasons for their firing, but those reasons will be subjective and often based upon incomplete assessments.

The politically connected will not be fired. The teacher whose parent is part of the school district administration will remain on the job, regardless of their competence. Teaching will become even more difficult and teachers will be returned to the days when they were expected to bring in the coal, go home and stay home after school and not venture into society except for church going at the fundamentalist church of your choice.

The question that I haven't heard raised is "where are the hundreds of super competent teachers who are waiting to get the jobs that the incompetent are hogging?"

I don't think that the anti-tenure crowd has thought about tenure in this way. They seem to see removal of tenure as a way of making current teachers accountable and willing to work harder. It isn't. We know what makes a great school system and how teachers fit into that – we've had the Finnish example before us and have chosen to ignore it. Great schools take great money and great respect for the teachers who have one of the most difficult tasks in the world. What doesn't help is standardized testing, attacking teachers, and a belief that our schools are in crisis that can be solved by removing protections for the workforce.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ray Rice’s Apology

NBC is carrying the raw video of Ray Rice's apology for beating up his wife.

In the apology Rice says two contradictory things:

"That's not me." "That's not who I am as a man."


"I will have to live with this, with what I've done for the rest of my life."

He seems to want to learn from this, and to make amends for his action. But at the same time he seems to want to distance himself from the beating. If that is "not me" doing the beating, then who is it? And how will he learn and grow unless he confronts whatever part of the "me" it was that did the beating?

The problem with Rice's apology is that he doesn't want to admit that it was him, he is totally capable of administering a beat down to his wife. If you aren't willing to face your demons you aren't going to overcome them. Rice will be forever stuck as a domestic violence "dry drunk," a phenomenon similar to the drunk who is able to stave off drunken incidents for a very long time – but who, when it comes, indulges deeply in their passion for alcohol.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I’ve Been Banned

It's never happened to me before. I've been banned from commenting on a blog.

I have to admit it stings a little, particularly when I think I was quite polite in my comments. The web site is a science based web site "Why Evolution is True." It's run by Jerry Coyne, who, I think teaches evolution at the University of Chicago. He must see himself as the master of all domains, and for some reason he sees me as a very rude person. Here's what I wrote in response to post of his in which he called the Genesis creation stories "allegories."

You are very good with your science, but you're lacking a bit on your understanding of literature. An allegory is a very specific type of figure of speech, much beloved by the monks of the Middle ages. Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 (I think that's where story 1 ends) doesn't qualify as allegory, though it is clearly metaphorical. The second creation account presents a different kind of poetry than the first. Accounts in Psalms and Job present yet another kind of metaphor - the storehouse of the snow is one of my favorite pieces of the Job cosmology. These are metaphors, but not allegories. In the allegory there would be some spiritual equivalent of each element of creation.

I appreciate your desire to take to task those who fail to agree with you, but sometimes you get carried away and attempt to demonstrate expertise you do not possess.

I thought I was being quite polite. Coyne thought it incredibly rude of me to point out that he gets carried away and tries to claim literary expertise he does not possess. Yet he's quite willing to point to religionists who claim biological expertise and laugh at them for misunderstanding science. It seems to me that Dr. Coyne doesn't think there are other disciplines as rigorous as his own, and that he might get some things wrong when venturing into unfamiliar disciplines.

As his defense of using allegory to describe Genesis 1 he appeals to the OED, in which he discovers that an allegory is an extended metaphor. Yes, that's correct. But it is a very specific kind of extended metaphor. Not every mythic story is an allegory. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. The medieval theologians, beginning with Augustine, were quite fond of interpreting scripture allegorically. But in itself the Genesis text does not function as an allegory. It is a mythic text, a metaphoric text: one could call it an extended metaphor. But it isn't an allegory. That was my point. No one in modern interpretation treats it as an allegory.

It also seems to me that he has a very thin skin if he considers this post as "incredibly rude."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Franklin owned slaves, Dr. Weigl cured Nazis

Thinking further about the issue of theologians (and philosophers) with less than savory pasts led me to be super sensitive to hypocritical sounding insights into the famous and thoughtful and whether or not their less than savory moments disqualify the whole of their thinking.

Watching an episode of "10 Things You Don't Know about . . . Benjamin Franklin" I discovered that Franklin owned slaves. He did see the contradiction between his ideas about freedom and liberty and the owning of slaves, which ultimately led him to be an abolitionist – but the fact is that he owned slaves. Should we then discard the Declaration of Independence – which was written by one slave owner and edited by another?

Listening to Weekend Edition of Fresh Air I heard the story of the amazing Dr. Rudolph Weigl, a Polish doctor who discovered how to create a vaccine to prevent typhus. According to the Fresh Air web site:

As World War II raged, typhus reappeared in war-torn areas and in Jewish ghettos, where cramped, harsh conditions were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

So the Nazis employed Dr. Rudolf Weigl to produce a typhus vaccine. Weigl created a technique that involved raising millions of infected lice in a laboratory and harvesting their guts to get the materials for a vaccine.

The fact that Weigl also supplied the vaccine for the ghetto doesn't matter. He collaborated with the Nazis. Some in his lab, apparently, attempted to sabotage the vaccine sent to the Nazis, but the good doctor would have none of it.

Would we, under any circumstances, dismiss Weigl's vaccine? Or the work of any scientist working for the Nazis who happened to discover something true and useful for humans (or animals or the environment). Of course not.

Why then do we have qualms about the theology conveyed by the human and frail vessels that are Luther, Yoder, Tillich? If they have any truth to tell us, it is true regardless of their negative associations.