Thursday, August 21, 2014

BREAD AND CIRCUSES



“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”
-          The Roman satirist Juvenal (circa 100 a.d.)

The primaries are finally history. Thank God! No more shameless political pandering for a while. Sadly, though, we’ve only got about a one month reprieve before it all starts up again.

If you’re anything like Nancy and me your days and nights have been interrupted incessantly by politicians violating the sanctity of your homes. One minute it was “Vote the old carpetbagger out.” The next it was, “Have you seen those Facebook photos?”

If I’d gotten one more robo-call I’d have ripped the telephone off the wall. That was about the only way I could stop them. I find it odd that I can keep telemarketers from pestering me, but not politicians. Like so much they do, they carve out exemptions for themselves when they pass laws. Somehow I cling to the hope that justice will someday prevail. Every once in a while I channel my inner Dante and I see politicians stoking the blast furnaces and walking on hot coals in the deepest bowels of hell for all eternity.

About a week before the primary, Pat Roberts sauntered into town, pandering for all he was worth. He hadn’t been in town very long at all when Milton Wolf set up shop not far from him, itching for a chance to have it out, rhetorically speaking. I was hoping for some fireworks, maybe even a Lincoln-Douglas style debate on the street, but the good senator nixed the idea. “Milton, Milton,” he scolded. “This is not the time.”  The surrogates started to circle around one another and I thought we might get treated to a confrontation.  Visions of future dime novels and legends danced in my head. Twenty-second century Emporians might get to see classic westerns like “The Dustup at Dynamic Discs” or “Gunfight at the Granada.” There might even be room for film noir. How does “Catastrophe on Commercial” sound?

But it wasn’t to be. The two camps parted ways and set off for other campaign stops. Apparently, we weren’t the only Kansas town in need of bread and circuses.

Looking back at it now, I think it would have been fun to see a slobber knocker of a debate. If I’d been Pat Roberts, I would have told my surrogates to grab a couple of stools and then instructed the media king-makers to grab their microphones and notepads and pay attention. If I’d been Milton Wolf, I’d have done the debate a la Clint Eastwood.

When I started this essay I cited the Roman satirist Juvenal’s famous words about bread and circuses. I’m sure that when he wrote them he had men like Nero and Domitian in mind. But, Juvenal was apparently a man for all ages, as evidenced by the spectacle of Kansas politics we got to see played out on Commercial Street. It was all very cheap and very tawdry, but I guess that’s the nature of politics in Kansas and everywhere else nowadays. As Libertarian author P.J. O’Rourke once put it, “Politics violates not only the first commandment about who’s God, but it violates the other nine as well. Politics could hardly function without bearing false witness. Likewise, without taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

After all the political posturing and robo-calls, I actually did vote, in part because Nancy insisted and, in part to placate my buddy Tom Haskett, who is forever telling me that if I don’t vote I don’t have the right to complain. Well, Tom, if you happen to read this, I did vote and I am complaining. It’s a right I’ve really earned this year.

About a week after the primary I had a brief conversation with Don Hill, who ran unopposed in the primary and will almost certainly win in the general election. I like Don. Unlike most politicians, he’s not thin-skinned. He’s an all-around nice guy. He makes his constituents feel comfortable and safe. I think if you put a trench coat on him, he’d be a dead ringer for McGruff, the Crime Dog.  I issued a mock threat to chase him around town when the next primary comes around. I think he knew it was an empty threat, because he chuckled a bit in response. Don will keep on running unopposed as long as he wants, and he’ll keep on winning. I’m almost sure it’s got something to do with the Divine right of legislators.

So, the primary season is over and I’ve got about a month to get my mind back on the Celestial City, the place where there are no robo-calls, no pandering, no soliciting bribes on the side, and no bread and circuses. There’s not even a need to wonder who’s running for President up there because the job’s already taken.

After participating in so many earthly spectacles for so many years, I can hardly wait to pass through those pearly gates!  

Saturday, August 09, 2014

SAUSAGE, PAINT CHIPS, AND GUINNESS









Life for Nancy and me right now is a series of great and small events that sometimes challenge our ability to make sense of life.

The most important of these events is Nancy’s responsibility as caregiver for her mother, who is nearing the end of her earthly journey. She’s 95. She’s suffering from congestive heart failure. The bones in her back have been shattered. She has difficulty breathing. Everything is slowly shutting down. Pain is her constant companion. It’s often excruciating. The episodes of dizziness and nausea are becoming more and more frequent.

It could be even worse if it weren’t for the care of the good people from the Jones Health Center and Hand in Hand Hospice. We’re very grateful for that.

But, that doesn’t make this once in a lifetime event any less painful to watch. A couple of days ago, Nancy and I visited her mother on a particularly trying day. At one point it appeared that she was succumbing to the inevitable, but by some force of will she snapped herself back into the land of the living. We’ve seen this before. Nancy’s theory is that her mother is a child of the depression era. She clawed her way through the Great Depression and World War II. Heaven is just a whisper away, wooing her, but she’s so used to fighting and clinging to this life she can’t seem to let go.

On the way home I found myself begging God to not let my life end like that. I uttered a silent prayer, half in rage. “I’d like my last sensation in this life to be the rush of adrenalin that comes with living dangerously, Lord. I’ll do anything. I’ll take up bungee jumping from the Royal Gorge Bridge. I’ll swallow flaming swords.”

Years ago, cardiologists told Nancy’s father that the sausages he loved for breakfast would probably cut his life short, but he kept eating them. He died at 81, a happy man. I think she’s decided that a hearty breakfast of sausage would also be a fitting exit for her.

While we’re trying to make sense of what’s going on with her mother, the smaller events seem to be confirming the futility of clinging to the wheels and gears this life.

This series of mini-confirmations began when we tried to make arrangements with AT&T to have a landline connected in Nancy’s mother’s room. After three weeks of exasperating phone calls and pleas, the line was installed. Unfortunately, it was installed in the home or room of someone named Phyllis, who was every bit as stunned as us. The easiest part of the process was cancelling all the orders. It only took a couple of minutes.

While the phone saga was unfolding, a couple of college students were painting our house. They were doing a great job, but had a few delays, particularly one caused by a really irritating visit from a state “operative” who told my wife stop sweeping the front porch and ordered the students pick up every paint chip on the property. Everyone complied, fearing that if they didn’t they’d wind up in the hoosegow. I’m sure he was sent by some state agency named “Department of Agents Who Protect the Public from Paint Chips by Hassling College Students Trying to Make a Buck.” They probably sit in dreary grey cubicles and suffer from an exceptionally virulent strain of cranial-rectal inversion syndrome.

The piece de resistance in this chain of events came last week when the Postal Service taught me the meaning of service. I tendered a couple of time-sensitive packages on Tuesday and was told to expect delivery on Thursday. When that didn’t happen, they told me they’d changed their minds and to expect delivery on Friday. When that didn’t happen they told me to expect a Saturday delivery. It’s what the Post Office calls their “never late” or “always on time” service.

The more things unfolded, the more I felt like a character in a Kafka short story.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have time to pay attention to the news. If I had, my head would have exploded.

The more I try to make sense of this world, the more I find myself asking why we cling so desperately to it. Do we really believe that government operatives protecting us from paint chips can add a nanosecond to our lives? Can AT&T or the Postal Service open heaven’s gates for us?

Bungee jumping or sword swallowing aren’t really practical, but I think it would be quite fitting for Nancy and me to spend our last moments in a Dublin pub, with the strains of Paddy Maloney and the Chieftans playing in the background.  We’d order bangers and mash, a side of sausage and paint chips, along with one last pint of Guinness to wash it down.

Now, that’s living dangerously. And, that would be a fitting exit!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

'THE NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE'









The decision in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood cases has been rendered by the Supreme Court and the petitions for the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic broadcaster EWTN, and Wheaton College are in the wings. While the rulings/injunctions pleased conservatives, they infuriated the Obama administration, Democratic Party loyalists, and progressives, particularly women.

In a July 5th op-ed, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu observed “The ironic result of this wrongheaded ruling may be that business-owners of every faith will claim a religious right to discriminate, in decisions from health coverage to employment to buying, selling and accommodations.” A few days earlier, Emporian Janet Brassart called the decision “another crack in the Constitutional wall between Church and State that sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Unfortunately, that’s the tenor of our times. We’re living in an age when more and more of us are abandoning religious faith. The result is a public square that’s increasingly “bristling with hostility” toward religion. For example, in her dissent Justice Ginsburg basically told people of faith they should just shut up and sit in the pews. Others are parroting the “religion isn’t important to me, therefore I will not allow it to be important to you” mantra.

While it may seem that this hostility is recent phenomenon, the historical record reveals that it’s not. In 1980, Francis Schaeffer (“A Christian Manifesto”) described the growing fault line between historical Christianity and Secular Humanism. In 1984, Father John Neuhaus wrote about what he called “The Naked Public Square.” He asserted that the public square without religious influence was a vacuum, “begging to be filled.” He further asserted that in an environment where religion is viewed as something detrimental to the public square, “a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church.” This may make secularists feel they’ve set things in order, but “having cast out the one devil, they unavoidably invite the entrance of seven devils worse than the first.” (see Matthew 12:43-45)

About a year before he died, Pope John Paul II wrote a wonderful book titled “Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way.” In a section titled “Caritas” (virtue/charity), he described the essence of the Christian life as “the mystery of evangelization through love of neighbor springing from love of God.”

I believe that mystery is meant to be expressed to humanity’s most vulnerable and needy, including the unborn. As a practicing Christian I’ve tried to think of how I can possibly be true to my faith in our current political and social environment. How can I express “caritas” when it’s deemed by many of society’s movers and shakers to be detrimental?  How can I fulfill my obligations as a citizen without compromising deeply held principles in the process? Is accommodation the price I’m now being asked to pay as a condition of my citizenship? If so, I’ve concluded that the differences are irreconcilable, like trying to square the proverbial circle.

This wrestling with accommodation has been going on for thousands of years. The cosmic contest between Moses, God’s representative, and Pharaoh, began with blunt words. Moses told the king that the children of Israel needed to go into the wilderness to worship God. Pharaoh’s response?  “Shut up and keep working.” “More bricks; less straw.” When the blunt words failed, Pharaoh tried accommodation. “You can go, but don’t go too far.” “The men can go, but the women and children can’t go with them.” “You can all go, but you can’t take your possessions with you.”

Every accommodation was rejected.

I think this is where we are today. People of faith are being told, “Don’t get too carried away with this religion business.” “You can do as you like, but we get to take your kids under our wings.” “You can all do as you please; all we want is your money.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m certain today’s accommodations must be rejected. If our faith is to be lived out meaningfully, it must be lived out in the face of rejection, intimidation, or loss of societal privilege.

Over time, people of faith face the very real possibility that our political system will become increasingly adversarial to us and that the public will be less and less in tune with the language and life of Zion. We may find ourselves cut off from meaningful participation in the public square. There will be a temptation for us to find avenues of accommodation, but we must stand fast. We must remain faithful to the first principles of our faith.

The attitude that people of faith must cultivate today was expressed beautifully in Saint Augustine’s “City of God,” written during the dying days of the Roman Empire - “So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world's hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

SOME THINGS I LOVE









I’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of we decided on Emporia as a place to retire. We’d gotten fed up with the corporate grind of Memphis and decided it was time to begin living a sensible life. After ruling out Florida (too many retirees wearing seersucker for our tastes) and Taos, New Mexico (too new age), we sank our roots down here.

Nancy wasn’t so sure of Emporia at first. In her mind, Emporia had seen better days back in the 70’s when she was attending Emporia State. But once we plunked the money down for our home/money pit, she was fine.  I think it was the challenge of making something beautiful out of nothing.

That was fifteen years ago and we’re still here, still hanging in.

There’s a lot I love about Emporia. I love sitting on my front porch in the evening and saying “Hi” to neighbors as they pass by. I love being part of a gritty, non-traditional church. I love the comfortable, protected feeling I get when I come home from Kansas City and see that Taliban vintage tank guarding exit 130. I love long morning walks with Nancy. And, I love the vastness of the Flint Hills and the sense of smallness I feel whenever I have the opportunity to stop at some strategic point on the road and ponder my place in this vast universe.

Several years ago, on my way to Wichita, I stopped and penned a bit of metered prose that expressed why I love the Flint Hills and the life Nancy and I share here. I’ll close this column with those words:

It’s the cusp of dawn.  I’m chasing Orion’s Belt and bull-haulers down the Kansas Turnpike. At mile marker 109, about a furlong or two south of the cattle pens, I stop.

The occasional rush of southbound traffic breaks the dawn silence.  Like a general poised in his appointed place, I review the early morning parade.  Saints and scoundrels, gospel singers and politicians, truckers, ranchers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, mothers, fathers, children, all pass by.  Problems and opportunities wind their way down the highway with them.

I touch the highway sign.  Mile marker 109.  I feel the bits of rust creeping up on the metal.  It’s man-made, temporal, placed on the edge of the eternal.  It speaks.  “This is where you are.”  It speaks of commerce and progress passing by.  It speaks of cattle and concept drawings on their journeys past a solitary milepost planted on the edge of eternity.

I turn, take a step, and cast my gaze across the prairie.  Like the storied astronaut of my youth, that one small step transports me from one world to another.  Thoughts pass by.  Some pass quietly, humming like the Toyotas and Fords on the highway.  Others I hear in the distance.  Their low, grinding hums become roars as they draw near, like the Peterbilts and Kenworths hauling their precious cargoes from Chicago to Dallas or the Twin Cities to San Antonio.

While the darkness has not yet surrendered to the day, there are hints of color along the rim of the eastern sky.  I sense that they carry the faint whisper of an announcement of the millennium to come.  The ageless ritual proceeds, moment by moment.  Light overcomes the darkness.  The unbroken sky and the endless sea of grass now join together in a hymn of praise.  The morning breeze caresses the tallgrass.  The blades of grass, in turn, wave gently to and fro, worshippers caught up in the glory of this moment.

Thoughts glide effortlessly through the air, then stop to gently kiss the earth.  The earth gratefully receives the kiss from above and pleads, “Maranatha…..Maranatha.” 

A hawk circles above, wings outstretched, reaching for an unseen spire.  As he circles, the dawn sun touches him, revealing his priestly robes and eyes of fire. 

I sense that I’ve entered a great cathedral.  I’m overwhelmed by my own smallness.  I fear.  The hawk descends slowly, gracefully and speaks.  “You are indeed small.  But, fear not.  You’re known…..You’re known.  This is where you are.  Mile marker 109.  This is the place where the line between now and forever is drawn.  Here you own nothing, but are given the grace to be a part of everything.  The language of the world you left is ownership.  The language here is stewardship.  This is the place where moth and rust do not corrupt.” 

His appointed ministry complete, he now lays hold of the morning currents and moves effortlessly off to the east.

I feel the warmth of a tear as it drifts slowly down my cheek.  My epiphany’s complete.  I turn back and take another small step, returning to the world I left moments before.  I take my place in line with my fellow travelers, the builders and dreamers, the movers and shakers, the commerce and the concepts.  Our daily procession has taken us past this sacred place…..mile marker 109.