Thursday, June 23, 2016

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT



Ever since the carnage in Orlando my moods have careened wildly, from tiny slivers of hope, to despair, to grief, then rage.

I’d like to be able to say that my hopes are ascendant, but they’re not. Any solution to the ongoing slaughter seems to be all but impossible. The agencies tasked with protecting us from the evil in our midst are overwhelmed. F.B.I. Director James Comey recently said that stopping the lone wolves intent on murder and mayhem is like looking for a thousand tiny needles in a huge haystack. He admitted that the Bureau’s resources are paper thin. There are too many lone wolves and not enough agents or tracking mechanisms to deal effectively with them. In essence, he was telling us that incidents like Orlando have become part of our everyday landscape.

My despair deepens as I ask myself, “Who can fix this?” Can Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Our political parties? Governors? City or County Commissioners? The answer to each of the questions is, unfortunately, “No!” 

We’ve all seen it played out. “It’s the Republicans’ fault.” “It’s the Democrats’.” “It’s the Muslim world’s.” “Conservative Christians are to blame.” It’s maddening. Recriminations aren’t solutions, but we sure love wallowing in them. What else can I feel but despair when this seems to be the only response to the terror we can muster up?

Then, grief sets in. I turn on cable news. The names and faces of the slain scroll, like the after credits of a Hollywood film. So many of the faces seem to be joyful. They’re brief glimpses of lives that once were, with promising futures ahead of them. But, they’re all gone now, taken by a malevolent creature I’ll forever refuse to give the dignity of a name.

I don’t know any of them, but I know that had parents, friends, and loved ones who are feeling an even deeper sense of grief that I am. I think if the names and wonder how wounded my heart would be if I saw the names of my sons and daughter as they passed by on the screen. “Jarrod Thomas Dillon…Born October 30th, 1968.” “Elizabeth Noel Hook…Born December 17th, 1970.” “Michael Joseph Dillon…Born November 14th, 1973.”

My grief intensifies, then gives way to deep seated rage. Like an Old Testament warrior, I want to “dash them to pieces.” But who are they? I can’t see their faces, nor do I know their names. They’re more like wisps floating around in the mists of evil than human beings. How can I possibly direct my rage against something like that? It might hit some target, but would it be the intended target? Would it make me feel better in the end?  No! It would be like running the proverbial fool’s errand.

But, the rage doesn’t go away. It lingers. I’ve got to release it and the only direction that makes sense to me in my muddled state is heaven itself. I ask the same questions that have been asked for millennia: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?” “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”

There are no bolts from the blue in response, but I find myself once again realizing that somehow, some day, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight.”
 
We really need to cling to our hopes for the future, but what of today? 

For me, the clearest expression of what you and I must do today comes from the mouth of Samwise Gamgee, Frodo Baggins’ companion in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” At a perilous point in their journey, Frodo is so burdened by his task that he’s ready to give up. Samwise reminds him of the past and the promise of a beautiful future- “How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.” He reminds him that others before him felt like giving up, but didn’t because “they were holding on to something.” And, finally, he reminds Frodo of what they held on to. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
 
And, so it is for our time. It’s come full circle. There is some good in the world and we must do our part and fight the good fight of faith to preserve it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

DREAMS VERSUS REALITY



In my last op-ed, I wrote about the groundswell of support Donald Trump is getting from white, working-class Americans. As far as they’re concerned, he can do no wrong. He’s convinced them that, if elected, he’ll make America “great again.”

I’m not a Trump supporter, but I have friends who are. They don’t understand why I won’t vote for him. I tell them that voting for Donald Trump would be like voting for Vlad the Impaler.  I also have a few Progressive friends tell me I should vote for Hillary. I can’t. I have a conscience. I’d no more vote for Hillary Clinton than I would for Lizzie Borden and her axe. 

Right now, the so-called smart money seems to be on Hillary. Democratic Party big-wigs are licking their chops, sensing that their champion is going to beat Trump to a bloody pulp.

It may well turn out that way, but that hasn’t stopped the Trumpkins. He’s promised them that he’ll make America great again and that’s enough for them. Sound logic and good sense should be prevailing, but they’re not.  Trump’s supporters keep on believing and dreaming. 

Who doesn’t occasionally dream? When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing left field for the Boston Red Sox. My hero, Ted Williams was closing in on the end of his career and, in my flights of fancy, I visualized myself taking his place, hitting the big home run or making the game-saving spectacular catch in front of Fenway Park’s Green Monster. But, two realities got in my way. First, the Red Sox weren’t in the market for a no-hit, no-field wonder and, second, Carl Yastrzemski, a future hall of famer, was waiting in the wings.

The closest I ever got to the Green Monster was an occasional bleacher seat.

Reality can be a brutally efficient teacher. One of my best buddies in high school was a guy named Stevie McNeely. He was a great guy, blessed with Irish wit and a sense of optimism like no one I’ve ever met. He could always see the bright side. His real claim to fame was that his cousin, Tom, was an up-and-coming heavyweight boxer. Stevie would occasionally brag about Tom and his undefeated record. He was my best friend, so I pretended to be impressed.

We didn’t see much of each other after we both graduated from high school in June of 1960, but, our paths did cross again in the fall of 1961. Tom was going to be fighting Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight title in December. 

By the time the fight with Patterson came, Tom McNeely’s record was 23 and 0. Quite impressive! Stevie told me that Tom had dreamed he was going to knock Patterson out. I didn’t want to insult my best friend, but I couldn’t help but laugh. “Patterson’s gonna’ kill him, Stevie. The only way he’ll ever beat Patterson is in his dreams.”

It nearly ended the friendship.

Tom McNeely kept on dreaming. On the night of the fight, he daydreamed all the way through the pre-fight announcements about who was going to sing the national anthem at his first title defense.

Then, reality set in.

The fight lasted four rounds. According to the official count, McNeely was knocked down eleven times before the referee mercifully ended his dreams. It took a few years, but Tom was eventually able to look back at the fight with a sense of humor. He said that, while the official count was eleven, he was convinced that Patterson had knocked him down twelve or thirteen. He even joked that he was being hit so hard and so often that he thought “the referee was sneaking in some punches.”

The only heavyweight title fight I’ve ever read about that matched it for brutal efficiency was the Primo Carnera – Max Baer title fight in 1934. Baer knocked Carnera down thirteen times, but it took him eleven rounds to do it. 

I have friends who are Donald Trump supporters, so I’m going to try one last time to get through to them. There’s no good outcome for you in this election cycle. Hillary may win or Donald Trump may win, but you’ll lose either way. Hillary and the Democratic Party don’t like working class white men any more. Your pockets aren’t deep enough for their tastes. And, Donald Trump has no intention of fulfilling his so-called promises to you. As they say on 42nd Street, he’s going to shoot you right through the grease.

You may not like it, but I’m writing this as someone who cares about you. It’s time to wake up! By the time these two are done with you you’re gonna’ wind up with cauliflower ears and pug noses. That’s the reality that’s about d crash down on you.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"EVEN SO COME"


“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

-          Revelation 22:17 (New International Version)


If the things that are happening at the church Nancy and I attend (Victory Fellowship, Emporia, Kansas) are happening in churches all around the United States, I believe they’re very significant. The bride is in the final stages of preparation for the Bridegroom!

I’ve been through seasons of revival during my 49 years as a Christian pilgrim, but this season of revival is different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s as though the rhythms and flows of the Spirit are perfectly timed. One moment our congregational response is exuberant; the next it’s quiet and reflective. And, unlike in times past, our response is both universal and uniquely individual. There are as many beautiful responses as there are people. Some of them are very visible; some seem to be hidden from view. Added together, the responses reflect the powerful reality that Jesus has taken the baton. He’s the worship leader. The ebb, flow, and the dynamism are His doing. As it is written: “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says, I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters in the assembly I will sing your praises.” (Hebrews 2:11-12)

This morning’s Pentecost Day service was a perfect example of what I’m sensing. It began for me when we sang a song titled “Even So Come.” As the musicians began to play, the sounds of the violin, the keyboard, the drums, and guitars seemed to be perfectly balanced. Then, the worship began in earnest. It’s was as if Jesus, our Maestro, was saying, “Now…..respond to my grace in the manner I’ve created each of you!” Some people began to spontaneously dance down the aisles. One woman glided effortlessly down one aisle, then another, and another. Grace itself seemed to propelling her along. Then, others got up and also responded in dance. One woman took the hand of a young woman in the row in front of us and the two of them twirled around together, caught up in the moment. The joy on their faces lit up the aisle. Some people clapped their hands. Others raised their hands in surrender.

The beauty of what was happening was that there was no single response that was more appropriate than another. Me? My response to sensing the presence of God has always been tears. So, I cried. The tears didn’t come because I was sad. They came because I was overwhelmed by the grace and love God was shedding upon me. If I’d tried to respond in dance, I’d have only be acting a part, not truly being myself. My tears reflected me as I really am. As Bob Dylan put it so well years ago, “For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears, it is only He who can reduce me to tears.”  (“When He Returns” – 1979)

My tears also reflected an inner longing for the day that will one day dawn “when the crooked places will be made straight.” I’ve felt that longing during my time here living near the Flint Hills. I’ve felt it at dawn as I’ve stopped at Mile Marker 109 on the Kansas Turnpike to reflect on my life, realizing that, while I’m a very small speck in a very large universe, I am known and loved. It’s at moments like that I would find myself falling to my knees, then shedding those tears of longing and joy. More than once I’ve found myself praying, “Even so, come Lord Jesus…even so, come! Today would be a perfect day for You to return.”

Nancy has finished reading a really interesting novel titled “Tiger Lily.” A couple of days ago, she read a few pages to me. They were powerful. The main character was describing her father, a blind Episcopal priest. The most memorable thing she remembered about him was that he truly enjoyed being in the presence of God and walking with Him. As she put it, he just didn’t know about God, he knew Him intimately.

Can you imagine that? Enjoying being in God’s presence. That’s not the way many of us moderns look at it. The talk on the street all too often seems to be, “This God thing will make you miserable…You need to accumulate things or cling to some politician to solve your problems or scratch you where you itch or kiss you where you like to be kissed.

How do we manage to get it all so wrong?

Maybe one of the reasons this revival of worship seems different lately is that the veneer has been scraped off the world systems and we’re seeing just how ugly it really is. In a way, this is an absolutely wonderful thing to contemplate. It seems that the more we accumulate the more miserable we are. I’d be willing to bet there’s a mathematical formula for it. Mathematicians would probably call it the misery equation.  In politics it’s either Hillary or Donald. Don’t they make you want to vomit? They can’t fix what ails us. Even if they thought they could, we all know they’d steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes if they thought they could get away with it.  As soon as either one or the other of them takes the oath of office, we’re doomed. As the folks on 42nd Street sometimes say, “They’re gonna’ shoot us right through the grease.”

Well…..Hallelujah! Things are being set straight. God Himself is the one who will be doing the straightening. 

The Westminster short catechism asks a simple, yet profound question. It’s been around for centuries, but most of us moderns miss its meaning. “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, to the modern mind, also seems counter-intuitive: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Can you imagine? The modern mind says that God will make you miserable and the politicians, trinkets, baubles, smart cars, smart phones, designer clothes, yachts, and other crap will fill your life with joy. It’s all backwards.

It would be bad enough if only those who want nothing to do with God believed that and acted those beliefs out. The problem is, unfortunately, that it’s even gone viral in the household of faith. It’s as though the Church itself has bought the formula that adds up to “garbage in…garbage out.”

You see, the truth is this. God will make you happy. It’s the world in all the facets I’ve described that will make you miserable.

I think the point of this revival is that God wants us to enjoy Him and He wants us to enjoy our lives walking with Him. And, I think there are three words he wants to hear us utter so that we know that we understand that this is true. They’re the words that will add meaning and, yes, enjoyment to this life and they’re the words that will light the way to the world to come. What are those words? “Even, so….come!” 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE WORKING CLASS STRIKES BACK



The primary season is all but over. Donald Trump is the “presumptive” Republican nominee. It really boggles the mind, doesn’t it? 

But, should it? Is the Donald Trump phenomenon just an aberration? Or, is there something very real at play in the response America’s working class has given to a man many of us consider to be nothing more than a huckster?

One doesn’t have to be a supporter of Donald Trump to see that much of the working class anger that has fueled his rise is real….and it’s justified.

This morning, my wife read a bit from an interview N.P.R. recently did with author Richard Russo. We’ve both loved his work for years, especially the loving way he portrays working class Americans. One of my favorite Russo works is “Empire Falls,” the story of a man named Miles Roby, who gets by flipping burgers at the Empire Grill, a little joint not unlike J’s Carry Out here in Emporia. Life is hard for Miles, yet, somehow he maintains his dignity.

If you don’t have time to read “Empire Falls,” I suggest you stop by J’s for lunch one day soon. You’ll see Miles, his dreams, frustrations, and dignity etched on the faces of many of the working class patrons who wolf down the burgers Jay and his crew lovingly prepare for them.

This is what Russo said about the working class he loves and the reason that they are now gravitating to the political dark side: “I think it's pretty clear that so many of the people that I know and love and have been writing about for a long time, alas, have lined up ... with Mr. Trump. ... I'm heartbroken. ... I think America is changing. It's changing before their eyes and I think that a lot of the angry white men who support Donald Trump have a belief that America has passed them by. And that people who don't look like them are getting ahead in the new America.”

As Russo so often does, he even expresses his frustrations with love and grace. You can see that, while he doesn’t like what’s happening, he still loves those “angry white men.” Now, compare that to Barrack Obama’s words about America’s working class, spoken at a 2008 meeting with some of his supporters:  And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

His contempt for the working class stuck out like a sore thumb. I’d wager that as soon as he uttered them, progressives, the all-knowing political class, academics, and America’s left-leaning gentry all nodded their approval.

My routines occasionally bring me into contact with “important” people - politicians, educators/academics, movers, and shakers. I interact with them, but I have to admit I never feel comfortable around them. I try to trust them, but I find it very difficult. I get the nagging sense that they’re trying to pick our pockets or give us the many reasons they are morally superior to the rest of us, particularly the working class. If you look close enough at them, you can see the disdain oozing from their pores.

You’d think that a small town like Emporia, with a 25% poverty rate and many working class Emporians barely able to keep their heads above water, would be inoculated against the elite thinking of men like Barack Obama, but you’d be wrong. I’ve seen it over and over again in my time here. I saw it during the Clean Sweep project from several years ago. Many of the elites who participated seemed to have an aversion to picking up trash. They much preferred the limelight, taking credit for doing work they never did. I’ve seen it during the time of the Somali fiasco, when the elites tarred and feathered anyone who was against the idea as a racist. It was so easy for them. They didn’t have to compete with the Somalis to earn their bread and butter. The working class, however, did.

I’ve seen the elite attitude in full bloom just recently. Some out of town fat cats got incentives. What did the working poor get? Nothing! I guess our leaders agonized on behalf of the fat cats so hard there was no agony or empathy left for the ham and eggers.

But, the tide is turning. America’s working class is angry and they’re showing it at the ballot box. They’re tired of hauling out the trash, being labelled racists, fighting and dying in our wars, being mocked for their belief systems, or losing their jobs because of what they see as bad trade deals. They intend to exact their pound of flesh and they may get it.