Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Flower of Mcivers

“To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists round about him - simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him - simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by other things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organization can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes.”

Martin Buber – from “I and Thou”

My mother was cut from hardy stock. She was born in 1910, in a little Newfound fishing village called Mcivers, pictured above. She was the youngest of Fannie Rose Morgan and Rueben Park’s nine children.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, what seemed to be a bad staffing assignment on the part of the U.S. Air Force in 1963 turned out to be on of the greatest blessings in my life. I’d been at Travis Air Force Base for about two years when the orders came. I was going to Ernest Harmon, which was located in Stephenville, Newfoundland.

My first recollection of life at Harmon was that it was cold, damned cold. I’d arrived in early December and by that time the snow was already piled up higher than anything I’d ever seen. And, the wind was almost always blowing at thirty miles an hour, with snow squalls descending in the late afternoons, dropping three or four inches of snow. After that, the nights would clear, the winds continue, and the temperature drop to about ten below.

My daily routine was about as predictable as the weather. There was work in a communications relay center, dressing to endure the walk from the barracks to work, chow, and about two or three hours a day in the airman’s club, drinking. Like most GI’s stationed there, the drink was the real center of my life. I rationalized it by calling it anti-freeze, claiming I needed it to survive the Newfoundland winter.

I knew that my mother had been born in Newfoundland, but once stationed there I never gave much thought to contacting my mother’s family. There were two reasons I used to justify my thinking. First, it was just too cold to move far from Ernest Harmon. I assumed that my mother’s family would be hunkered down just like me. But, fundamentally, I was really afraid to meet them. I was afraid they might be like her. After my father died in 1948 she’d had a complete nervous breakdown and been hospitalized for a year or so. The “healing regimen” included all sorts of medications and went so far as to also include shock treatments. My brother has a picture of her taken not long after she got out of the hospital. She weighed about eighty pounds. Every time I look at that picture I have to stifle my emotions. Her face looked empty, as if almost all the life had been shocked and electrified out of her. There was a body there, to be sure, but the sullen, downcast look on her face has always spoken volumes to me. It’s as though the forty pounds missing from her were the soul. Her cheekbones, mirrored against the gaunt face, the sunken, hollow eyes, were the most prominent features. As I occasionally look at the picture I see the weight of the world collapsing down on her. With shoulders slumped, face weighed down, she has become to me the epitome of a tortured soul.

It took me years to see my mother’s life in the proper light. Until that happened she remained a great embarrassment to me. Her neuroses, born of circumstances beyond her control, dominated her life from the time she left that hospital. The weight of those “quirks” often fell on me and I recoiled against them. As I think back on it now I believe it’s the reason I was the first in my family to go far from home. I’d decided at a young age that when the opportunity came I was going to escape the things that dominated her. I determined they were not going to dominate me.

That brings me back to Newfoundland. I was content to stay around the people I felt most comfortable with. If I was going to be around neurotic people, I reasoned, I was going to share my time with people whose neuroses I shared. So, like my buddies, I clung to drink, fast women, and as much fancy clothing I could afford.

It was, as I recall, about four months into my tour, in early March, 1964, when I got a letter from home, encouraging me to visit the Parks, my mother’s family. I ignored that letter, but a second letter came two weeks later with an even stronger encouragement. I decided to go ahead and make the pilgrimage, only to stop the barrage of letters.

Mcivers is about twenty miles or so from Corner Brook, in Newfoundland’s Bay of Islands area. It’s rugged country, made for rugged men and women, the hardy stock my mother came from.

The trip from Stephenville to Mcivers was uneventful. By this time I was getting used to the snow, wind, and cold, so much so that it seemed quite natural to me. A ride in a sixties version of a micro-bus going sixty five miles an hour on snow packed roads would bother me today. It didn’t back then. I just figured that if we went off the road we’d just wind up in a snow bank, crawl out of the vehicle and dig out, then go on our way. I believe the bus driver was thinking the same way.

I arrived in Mcivers right around dusk. The first thing I noticed was that the wind was as prominent there in Mcivers as it was at Ernest Harmon. My African-American buddies back at the base used to listen to the wind howling and say that the “hawk was talking.” The bus stopped and I thanked the driver for the ride. “Hawk’s really talkin’ out there, ain’t he?” I said, as I got up from my seat. “What’s that, my son?” the driver asked. Realizing that there was a language barrier, I replied, “Nothing...Just GI talk, that’s all.”

As I got off the bus I pulled the hood of the parka over my head to protect myself from the wind, looked up at the sky, which was beginning to reveal the stars that ruled the cold Newfoundland night. The bus pulled away and as it did the driver rolled his window down and barked out, “Sonny Jim, if was you I’d be gittin’ myself inside quick like. Otherwise you’s gonna’ freeze solid fore the mornin’ comes.” I waved, acknowledging his wise counsel, and headed off to the closest house I could find.

The door opened even before I got to the threshold. There to greet me was a woman. She was fairly tall, with a strong appearance, a round pleasant face. Her voice spoke of an inner calm. As I moved forward to announce myself she said, “Lionel, my son, you’ve got some thin.” It took me a moment to realize that I’d been mistaken for someone else. Once I did I announced myself. “Ma’am, I’m not Lionel, I’m Susie Park’s son from America.” Her face lit up as soon as she heard my words. “Oh, God’s goodness, my son, I’m your aunt Mabel.” She motioned me forward and hugged me, pulling me past the threshold as she did. “Billy, Billy, come ‘ere,” she shouted. “Your sister Susie’s boy’s here from America.” My uncle came dashing from a back room as we were entering what appeared to be a dining room. There was a long table in the middle covered with an oil cloth, with neatly arranged chairs surrounding it. The room was warm and inviting. My uncle, who was a fairly short man (as I recall he appeared to be shorter than my aunt), with thinning hair, and a very pronounced smile, stood erect, beaming at the sight before him. “Well, Lord stone the crows.” He looked me over for a few moments, then, beaming again, went on. “Mabel, you’re right maid, he’s some thin. I think we need to get this boy some food, they don’t feed ‘em too well in America.” With that he motioned me to sit down. It wasn’t long till the table was filled with cookies, biscuits, bread, jams, and tea. We sat for hours and talked. To this day I remember the ambience much more than the subjects covered. As the conversation went on the room seemed to warm with each word spoken. I received the hospitality and listened, realizing that my fears about the Parks, based on my history with my mother, were unfounded. These were good people, the salt of the earth.

The conversation went on for some time and then there was a knock at the door. Mabel smiled at me as she got up to answer the door. “’Tis your uncle Philip. He’s over every evening about this time. Susie named you after him. I’m sure he’ll love these moments with ya’.” As the door opened I saw a short man. He was barrel-chested and appeared to be quite strong. From what my mother had told me I knew he’d been a lumberjack and could “cut more cord o’ wood than any man in the Bay of Islands.” I stood up and he gazed at me for a moment. Then he asked Mabel, “What’s this, then, Mabel, a stranger in our midst?” Mabel laughed. “’Tis no stranger, Philip, ‘tis your namesake from America. This is your sister Susie’s boy from America.” With that Philip rushed up to me and hugged me. He held me for quite some time, then let go. “It’s him for sure, is it, Mabel?” he asked, looking for reassurance. “He’s not a phantom, is he?” Billy and Mabel, in unison, reassured him. “Oh, no, my son, he’s Susie’s boy for sure.” “This is wonderful,” he beamed as he hugged me once more. As he did I could feel tears from his cheeks touching mine. This, for my uncle Philip, was a great day. He let go of me for a moment, holding me by my shoulders, looking me over. After that he did something that amazes me to this day. My uncle, seventy-seven years old, past his prime, picked me up and twirled me around seven or eight times. “It’s a glad day for Philip Park, it is,” He said as he did. When he was done he plunked me down like a small toy and we all sat down for more conversation and remembrance.

For the next hour or so we all sat and talked. I noticed that Mabel, Philip, and Billy seemed far less concerned with the goings on in America, the progress of the world’s greatest nation than they were with Susie. Philip and Billy would occasionally reminisce across the table, giving me little glimpses into my mother’s real soul. Their remembrance filled the air. One would talk, the other would listen, nodding as he did. “How long’s it been since we seen her?” “Forty year I think.” “Been that long has it?” “Oh my, yes, it’s been that for sure.” “She was the flower of Mcivers, our Susie was.” “Oh my, yes, she was that and more.” This went on for some time and then it got more specific. Billy began, out loud, to remember a sad time. “Do you remember, Philip, the time when she was so young and she wanted to go to a dance? I think she was sixteen, maybe.” Philip nodded, acknowledging the memory. Billy continued – “Mum thought ‘twas alright but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. I remember Mum pleadin’ with him – “Oh Rueben, let her go, the boys will be sure she’s okay.”
“I remember it,” Philip said. “Ruben Park was a hard man, a mean man and he wouldn’t let her go. Said she was too young.”
Billy continued on. “I remember poor Susie pleadin’ with him and us takin’ up for her, but it was no good. We all just got beat for all our pleadin.”
As I looked across the table I saw Philip wipe the tears from his eyes. “She cried by the fireplace all night long. No one could console her…..He was a hard man, was Rueben Park. He was mean to our little Susie”

And so it went late into the night until fatigue set it. Mabel went to prepare a place for me to sleep, a feather bed with a huge down comforter. As she was doing that Billy left me with the night’s parting words. “Your mom’s a good woman, Philip. Our Susie’s was the flower of Mcivers. I think she was the best of us Parks.”

We then all sat quietly for a few minutes, basking in the glow of the conversation and memories of the flower of Mcivers. It was time full of marvellous silence, with Billy and Philip remembering a sister they loved and treasured and me seeing my mother in a light I’d never seen before. I remember that silence to this day as not only being full, but also being filled with wonder.

Mabel came from the bedroom she’d prepared for me and announced that it was fit for American habitation. This way, Philip,” she said, motioning me toward the room. “Bein’ a soldier you’re probably not used to much comfort, but we’ll make you comfortable here. We gotta’ do good by Susie’s boy.” I thanked her, said good night to Billy and Philip, and turned toward the bedroom. Mabel had one last word. “You’re uncle Fiander will be by in the morning for breakfast. He’s always by our place in time for breakfast along with the other Parks. You’ll bring a glad tear to his eye when he sees you, for sure.” With that, the door closed behind me.

It took me a while to get to sleep that night. My mind and heart were filled with thoughts. The goodness of the Parks melted some of the hardness I’d developed over the years. I laid there, rearranging my thinking. There was so much more to Susie Park than the neuroses I’d seen for years. To those who were close to her and loved her she was the flower of Mcivers. As I drifted into slumber I wondered, “How did she get from here in Mcivers to where she is now?” “Who?” I asked, “robbed the flower of all of its beauty in the years it took her to get from here to there?”

It was to take years to get the answers to those questions.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Letter to Anonymous

I received an interesting comment from “Anonymous” last night. It follows, complete, so that you can have a frame of reference when you read through my reply. The comment was made in response to something I said in my post titled “”Kansas Interlude” about my feeling somewhat like the war correspondent now I’d once dreamed of being and observing that I’m in a sense a reporter in a culture war. Here’s the comment:

“What's going on culturally in America right now is a “war” only to the extent that one person’s vision of the country cannot abide another’s. When one part of the nation wants to curtail free speech or free expression in the name of “morality” (one that is religiously based) or “patriotism” (however ill-defined), I think that goes against the spirit of what the Founders had in mind. Not that I'm all for shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, but a free society should be open-minded and soberly weigh the concrete costs — not only the theoretical benefits or short-term partisan gains — of any restrictions of expression.”
“I’m saddened that Phil thinks of American culture in terms of a “war.” That implies that only one cultural viewpoint should prevail — while others must be defeated unconditionally. To call it a “war” leaves no room for negotiation or compromise. And this lays the groundwork for an all-or-nothing attitude.”
“As the writer Shelby Foote said in the PBS documentary The Civil War, that internecine conflict came about “because we [Americans] failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise; our whole government is founded on it, and it failed.” “Government, it appears, is no longer about compromise. It's now about steamrolling the opposition. It's now about declaring a “mandate” with a 51% majority — while the other 49% can go jump in the lake.” “I sometimes wonder if those who talk of American cultural disagreements in terms of war wouldn’t mind seeing some shooting — as long as their side wins, of course.”

As you can see, it was well written, well thought out. The commenter, it seems to me, is an eminently decent guy, the kind of person who does his best every day to contribute to his communities, both large and small. But I also think he missed the point of what I was trying to say. I’m now going to try to respond in letter form, hoping that he can have a better grasp on me and my thinking and also open the opportunity for further dialogue. With that said, here goes.

Dear Anonymous:

There’s much that you and I can agree on. I’m especially in tune with your thoughts on restrictions of free expression. I also agree that they shouldn’t be taken just to further some partisan agenda.

I think that your problem might be that you don’t know me well enough. You’ve read some of what I’ve written and I think you’ve made some assumptions about me that, if you read further, you might find you were wrong about. For example, I’m all for compromise. I’ve even said so. You can dig through my archives if you like and find it. It’s a little piece titled “Compromise is not a Four Letter Word.” You see, I’m an American and as such I have always seen myself as one part of a greater whole. I clearly understand that I’m one of hundreds of millions and that it is critical to our national success to find avenues of agreement, common ground upon which we can all build our lives.

I’ll even take it a step further. I’m a Christian American as well. I’ve not made that a secret and I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to share about the things that matter most to me. Folks know that I have some strong views. I’m not a Darwinist, but I’m not a flat-earther either. I supported, and still support, our effort in Iraq and the larger war on terror. I do so for both political and theological reasons. I’m a John Kennedy Democrat and cut my political teeth on the notion that freedom is America’s responsibility to propagate. The words to his first inaugural have found a place in my heart. Further, I also believe in the cause for theological reasons. I’ve examined Holy Writ and the teachings of the universal Church (Augustine and Aquinas, for example) in this regard and have found that the current cause fits within the guidelines of what we Christians call “just war.” That’s why George Bush’s words resonate so with me in this regard. I really do believe that freedom is God’s gift to humanity. Now I know that we cannot spend our time imposing freedom at the point of a gun, but I also recognize that there are times when we have more than the right, we have the solemn obligation, to intervene. If that weren’t so muggers, murderers, rapists, extortionists, stock swindlers, pedophiles, wife-beaters, and thugs could act without any fear of retribution. I do so not because I’m a George Bush lover. I suspect there are lots of things he and I would disagree about if we ever had the opportunity to meet. But, that and my Democratic Party leanings aside, I believe he’s right about this one, and I think it would be foolish to adopt a political view based solely on my feelings, positive or negative, about the man. My personal feelings about this man have little to do with what I believe. My belief system is built on the best reason and faith I can muster. As I survey the social landscape these days I see little of that, to be honest. I see many fire eaters, their hearts filled with hate, waging war against someone they hate. I suspect it’s they, not me, that you should be targeting for their inflexibility.

You also mentioned that I seem to have an all or nothing view of this. Actually, that’s not true. Again, if you had the opportunity to dig a bit into my archives you would find a little something I wrote just after the national elections. It’s titled “A Mandate to Serve, not Rule.” The title really says enough, but I’ll try to expound a bit further. I have absolutely no desire to be boss of the world. Nor do the overwhelming majority of Christians I know. But I’m not so jaded that I can’t see, or refuse not to see, the war that’s going on for the soul of this nation right now. Just the other night, for example, my wife and I were watching an ABC News report on internet pornography. I was stunned. I found out that, since the turn of the century, the number of internet porn sites has grown from four million to over four hundred million. That’s a one hundred fold growth in five years. It’s astounding! It’s frightening! But that wasn’t all. The smut peddlers have gained a huge audience. ABC reported that about forty percent of teens aged twelve to seventeen view pornography regularly. And, they represent seventy percent of the overall audience viewing pornography. Seventy percent! It doesn’t take an expert in regression analysis to see what’s happening. The older generation is tuning out; the younger generation is tuning in. And it doesn’t take a “Summa-Cuma” to figure out where this all heading. Do you think the porn kings are going to relinquish seventy percent of their audience to decency? No way. They’re going to cling to the First Amendment every time someone tries to take a teenager out of their clutches. And, respectable lawyers from the ACLU or other organizations will support them. They’ll fight for every last kid and tell us they’re doing it to preserve the principle of free speech.

I won’t pretend to prophesy on how it’s all going to come out. But I’m smart enough to see a war when it’s going on all around me. The smut peddlers and the lawyers can see it. They’re fighting tooth and nail for every kid they can get. I’m at a loss to understand why so many others can’t see it. I guess they must be too busy living the American dream.

Yes, Anonymous, there is a war going on in America, and this one, like the war in Iraq and the war on terror, isn’t one I’ve chosen. It’s just come my way.

Like you, I support the principle of compromise. But that principle has its limits. You mentioned Shelby Foote and the Civil War in your comments. Foote was a good writer and the Civil War was a good war. I’m not an expert on it, but I do know that the nation tried many avenues of compromise before the blood letting began. I know that Lincoln himself even contemplated a plan that would have sent all African-American slaves back to Africa. I’m thankful he rejected that compromise. I’m thankful he had the opportunity to draft the Emancipation Proclamation and write his second inaugural before he died. He was wise enough to see that there are critical times in history when compromise will not do. Foote was, as I said, a good writer. And you seem to be a very good thinker. Given that, what compromise would you have offered that would be satisfactory to your African-American brothers and sisters? I’d really be interested to know, because I can’t think of one. The only thing that seems clear to me is that, given the opportunity, I would gladly have laid down my life as one part of a national purchase of freedom for those enslaved. I shudder to think of what we might now look like if, as a nation, we had taken the low road during those terrible, fateful years.

Well, Anonymous, I’m done for now. I have more mundane things in mind right now. There’s a window that needs to be painted and a lawn that needs to be mowed.

I await, with interest, your response.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

What's in a Name?

“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.”
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
“Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.”
“Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre”

From Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard

I’d like to thank the folks who’ve given me the encouragement to proceed on my literary journey.

I’ve wrestled with this enterprise on which I’m embarking for a long time. Like almost all Americans I value my privacy. Knowing the blogosphere as I do now I see that there is a very eclectic mix of people out there who will have access to my story. Most I’ve met seem to be genuinely nice folks, but there are some who would trample on anyone’s life or their life narrative like swine on pearls. But I’ve concluded that, in the end, this medium is not unlike other media. It’s just a bit freer, a bit more open.

There are, it seems to me, keys to telling one’s story. First and foremost, one can’t tell his or her story to evoke sympathy or praise. In recounting history one must, from his or her unique viewpoint, just tell the story. But there’s a counterpoint to that admonition. I also think that one cannot strip history of its emotion and feeling. To do so would make it a sterile, useless exercise. And then there are the “facts.” These, too, must be held in balance. Given a unique perspective one will almost certainly see some events differently than those who have seen the same events from a different vantage point. How does the old standard from Gigi go?

He: “We met at nine.”
She: “We met at eight.”

He: “I was on time”
She: “No, you were late”

Both (in unison):

Ah, yes I remember it well.”

I think the key in all of this is for the storyteller not to lose sight of his or her target. And the target is, as I see it, the story itself and the stories it will hopefully bring up in those who hear it. The real point is that the recounting of one journey will lead to someone else recounting theirs, making sense of it all if possible.

In some cases the facts may be a bit muddled. In some instances the story could become too much of an emotional journey and drift into a Kerouac like stream of useless consciousness.

I hope that my literary journey will find that delicate path, the middle road between journalism and a personal journal.

I was going to start with what little I know of my early life, but after a long conversation with Nancy over lunch today I see that our narratives actually begin before we ever come upon the human scene. There are people and events that have some role in shaping us even before we’re born. This is not to deny the sovereignty of God. In fact, I believe it validates it. He knew the times; He knew the seasons. My life, and everyone’s life, is no accident and history itself reveals that this is true.

I’ve always felt that my father was the biggest influence on my life. That feeling manifests itself in the way I treasure the name Dillon. I have the trinkets to prove it. There are several coasters that make their way around the house that have the Dillon family crest emblazoned on them. On our living room coffee table sits a book titled “Clans and Families of Ireland,” with the name Dillon and the family crest proudly displayed on page 109. Behind me, on the wall of my writing room/library there is a plaque outlining the history of the Dillon family. It’s there to let me and anyone who visits know that the Dillons are a strong, proud family.

Now I honestly don’t know how much of the history that’s been written about the Dillons, just those little glimpses that have validated my pride. I can’t say for sure that I can trace my ancestry back to the noble events that brought them to America, but I claim them nonetheless. What I don’t claim are the ignoble traits the Dillons, like any other family or clan, have passed down from generation to generation. After all, would Cain’s descendants claim his envy and heart filled with murder? So, I’ve always claimed the Dillon ideal.

Today as we were discussing all of this at lunch I could see that Nancy was digging down into my soul, trying to glean some insight into my journey. It’s not that she hasn’t asked them before. But she’s very wise and has a wonderful knack of knowing the right moment to ask the right questions.

She began by asking some very simple questions. “So how much do you really know about your father?” I thought about it for a second or two and answered, “Not much, really.” Then she began to hit the target dead center. She has that gift - I think it’s called insight. She leaned back a bit from the table and began. “I know from what you’ve told me that he died from tuberculosis and that was compounded by his alcoholism.”
“Yeah, he did. He just gave up when he found out he had TB. The Second World War had begun and he wanted to enlist in the Army or the Marines when he found out. They told him that he didn’t pass the physical because of the disease, but that if he got treated and got better he could come back and they’d accept him. They told him it was going to be a long war and that there’d be plenty for him to do if he took a cure. But he just refused. He crawled into a bottle and died a slow, painful death. After all that I have very few memories of him. I have one of me running up and jumping into his arms when he came home from work once. And I have another of me seeing him toward the end of his life. He was in a hospital of some sort, waving at me, my brother and sister from a glass enclosed room. What I remember most was the feeling that gripped me as I watched him wave. I felt helpless. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to run up and jump into his arms like I’d done when I was even younger. But I couldn’t. The alcohol and the disease had taken their deadly toll. He’d given up. He’d abandoned everyone he said he loved and now the end was near.”
“Why do you suppose he did that?” Nancy asked
“I don’t know. My brother Bill has often asked that question and has never been able to make sense of it. All I can say is that I think it was a family thing.”
“Like his mother and father did?”
I began to feel a bit uncomfortable, but I knew I had to go on. “Well, Coach, you know the story. His mother died of alcoholism. I think they called it consumption back in those days.”
“And your grandfather? What about him?”
The memories began to come back, like wispy clouds, clouds that seemed benign at first glance, but hinted of storms to come. I remembered seeing him in a sleazy Boston flat, drunk as he almost always was. I remembered a time when he opened an old issue of Life magazine and began to weep uncontrollably. The mix of alcohol and Irish melancholy he displayed made me recoil. I tried to pull away from him, but he had to tell his story. He opened the magazine to a story about West Point graduates who had been killed during the Korean War. He would point to a photo, to a face I’d never seen before, and begin to moan and cry. “Oh, Jesus, these were good boys,” he wailed. He went on for what seemed like hours, eulogizing them one by one. When he was done he let me go and I moved as far away from him as I could. I was just a boy, but I knew then that I didn’t want to be like him.

Nancy interrupted this part of the journey with another question. “You said he died an awful death?”

The words pierced, bringing more old memories to the fore. I could see my grandfather, vividly, with his face twisting and contorting, struggling against death. He was in a hospital bed. I remember seeing his arms flailing, partly because of the pain and partly because I think he knew death was near. As his arms flailed the intravenous tubes emanating from his hands would vibrate. He would occasionally moan; he would occasionally curse God for giving him his lot in life. As I looked back across the table at Nancy I stiffened my back and tried to stifle my emotions. “I swear to you, Coach, I’ll never die like that. I’m gonna’ take it like a man when it comes.”

Nancy kept probing. “Your dad had a brother and sister too?”
“They were alcoholics too. Right?”
Another inescapable Dillon “fact.” “They were, Coach.” “My uncle never got over it, but my Aunt Annie did. I think my brother, sister, and I have always loved and admired her for that. She didn’t give up. She fought the good fight and she won.”
“Your uncle?”
I felt my insides vibrate when she mentioned him a second time. “Coach, you know the story. He wasn’t just a drunk, he was a child molester.”
I struggled with my thoughts, thinking that something very painful from the past would overwhelm me. But the only thing that came was a memory of a time later in life. I think I was in the military at the time, home on leave. I was visiting my brother and during the course of the visit we went over to my uncle’s apartment. I think my brother really knew what I needed, but all the way over I was internally resisting. The memory of those few moments is, again, very vivid. My uncle was restless, almost constantly in motion as my brother and I sat. I’d decided I wasn’t go to say anything at all and I think that made the air inside that cramped apartment very tense. My uncle tried, tentatively, to break the ice. “So, Butch, how are you doin.”
I really didn’t want to answer, but felt I had to say something.” “I’m alright, Frank,” I deadpanned, hoping he would see that the lack of emotion in my words was tantamount to contempt.
“Let me get you some ice cream?” he asked. I think he was looking for some way to atone.
“Okay,” I responded, this time in an even more pronounced monotone.
He fixed some ice cream for both of us. What I noticed was that he’d made me a much bigger bowl than he had for Bill. “Another flimsy attempt at seeking absolution,” I thought.
A few minutes of silence passed and he reached into his wallet and pulled out some money. “Here,” he said as he handed to me. “Just a little something to spend. I know it’s not much, but it’s hearfelt.”
“I pushed his hand back. “No, Frank, that’s okay. I’m doing fine.”
He pushed the money back in my direction and I pushed back again. It seems now that it was choreographed, like an absolution ballet. My uncle was desperate for forgiveness and I was in no mood to grant it. When I saw that he was going to keep trying I took the money. I never said thanks. I never brought up the past. I just took it and kept my thoughts to myself. As I folded the money and put it in my wallet I remember thinking, “You worthless bag o’ shit. Do you really think that fifty dollars and a bowl of ice cream can make up for what you did?”

We left my uncle’s apartment and went back to my brother’s house. I can’t recall much of the conversation on the way home, but I’m almost certain it was about forgiveness. As I think back on it now it was wisdom that was well beyond me. I couldn’t see it then, but I can now. Forgiveness is a two-way power. It gives a person the power to remit sins committed and it gives a person the power to overcome the effects of past sins. I think that only love is more powerful than forgiveness, and that’s because forgiveness is rooted in love. I couldn’t see it all back then. I can now. Unfortunately, for my uncle it’s too late. He died some time ago and I never saw him again after that brief encounter at his apartment. I’ve forgiven him, I really have. There may come a time when I can tell him in person. I’ll only know that when I cross the bar.

Nancy was observing intently as I sat quietly reflecting. Then she picked up a crayon that was sitting on the table at the restaurant and began to write the names of my mother’s family on the paper table cloth. This exercise went on for some time, and I’ll relate more about that part of the story tomorrow. But, when she was done she leaned over and asked, “I’m curious about something. Why do you identify so with the Dillons and so little with the Parks?”
“I’m a Dillon,” I responded.
“It’s not as simple as that, Slick. Why would you identify and idealize all that seems to awful when you recount it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”
“You know I’m not making any value judgments, Slick. But I think that’s an important question for you to answer.”

We left the restaurant and started to make our way up the turnpike to Emporia. I think that it was at about Cassoday, mile marker ninety-two, that it really struck me. The reason I’ve idealized that part of my life is that it’s been part of my search for the ideal. As I look back at the Dillon family crest I see a lion surrounded by three crescent moons. As I gaze at it I see the Dillons in all their nobility. I see men of courage and conviction; I don’t see men with feet of clay. I see men of honor and nobility; I don’t see men who are deeply flawed, fallen men, weak men, sinful men. Of course the reality is much different. Sins of the fathers are passed down to the sons. One generation often wreaks havoc on the next.

And, more importantly, I think I’m trying to grasp at the things I didn’t have. I guess life is like that. We all too often want the things we don’t have. We want someone else’s wealth. We want someone else’s husband or wife. We want someone else’s land. We want someone else’s ideal, believing it’s better than ours. It’s the human condition.

I gaze back again at the Dillon family crest. The lion looks no less noble than he did a moment ago, but I think something has changed, something that will facilitate the journey I’m undertaking. Reality has set in. I’m a Dillon, not the idealized Dillon, mind you. I’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where I am. So have my brother and sister. We’ve broken the chain. And I wonder now how that all happened. What contributed to our success? I guess I could go the easy route and just say it was grace, but I think there are ingredients that combined to make that grace possible. As I do I see that God, in His sovereignty, planted things in the lives of others before I was born that made those acts of grace in my life possible. One side of that story is the story of the Dillons of Boston and the Dillons of County Meath. But there’s also the story of the Parks, some of whom emigrated from Mciver’s Cove, Newfoundland and found their way to Boston.

It’s their story, the story of the Parks, and one Park in particular, Susie, that needs to be told to make sense of my story.

That will come tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Kansas Interlude

“Wyatt Earp, who was on our city police force last summer, is in town again. We hope he will accept a position on the force once more. He had a quiet way of taking the most desperate characters into custody which invariably gave one the impression that the city was able to enforce her mandates and preserve her dignity. It wasn't considered policy to draw a gun on Wyatt, unless you got the drop and meant to burn powder without any preliminary talk.”

- Dodge City Times, July 7, 1877
I've done my best to conform to the sterotypes of Kansas life. You've got a picture of Dorothy and a couple of her friends and you also have a pithy little quote from the Dodge City Times. Now, it's on to better things.

Nancy and I just spent a couple of days in Wichita. The primary reason for going was her birthday; the secondary reason was to get some work done on our car.

I suppose we could have found someplace closer for our interlude, but since one of the two Volvo dealers in Kansas is in Wichita it just made sense to put the two things together.

My guess is that a lot of easterners, particularly New Yorkers, find the idea of driving a hundred miles to get a car serviced or celebrate a birthday beyond understanding. They probably think that life here in “flyover country” is like riding a bicycle with two different sized wheels. That’s alright, the feeling’s mutual. As John Updike once said, “When I write I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.”

I’ve lived in both worlds and I’ve found that Kansas has grown on me. Like Updike, I see New York and the larger world as vague little spots a little east of Emporia. As far as I’m concerned my digs in the Kansas Flint Hills are the center of the universe.

At any rate, we drove a hundred miles to celebrate Nancy’s birthday and to get our car serviced.

We stayed at the Inn at the Park in the College Hill section of Wichita, which is a very pleasant area of the city. There are lots of old trees, oaks, redbuds, maples, and mulberries lining the streets. The homes are primarily Victorian, but there are also a few Dutch colonials and bungalows sandwiched in between these grand old places. There’s even a Frank Lloyd Wright home not far from the inn.

The innkeeper told us that this section of Wichita goes back to the days when cowboys moved herds of cattle from Texas. They’d stop on the “other side” of the Arkansas (pronounced Are-Kansas) River. The bankers and the hoi polloi on the upscale side of the river wouldn’t allow the cowboys to come across unless they checked their guns in with the sheriff. They did, however, manage to broker cattle deals for them, which meant that the cowboys got about enough money from the deals to frequent brothels that sprang up on their side of the river. The bankers, who profited handsomely, got to build the sumptuous homes.

We were fortunate enough to get the Inn’s premier accommodations, a carriage house directly in back of the main building. If I’m not mistaken the innkeeper called it the “Thoroughbred.” For ninety nine bucks a night it was about ten times better than what you would get for four hundred a night in New York City.

On Sunday night we went down the street to the Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre and had a bit of buffet and a front row table to enjoy a group of local artists performing “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” The meal wasn’t the most memorable, but I’ve been humming “Poison Ivy” ever since the meal and the performance were over.

On Monday, based on the innkeeper’s recommendation, we drove to Wichita’s Old Town and spent an hour or so at a store called Dock 410. The man who owns the store, whose name now escapes me, calls it a place for “purveyors of antiques and cool stuff.” It is that, and more. We split up and Nancy went one way and I went the other. By the time the hour was up I’d found a copy of Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica,” printed in 1822, and in Latin no less. I just had to have it. I’ve read Aquinas and figured this would give me a chance to brush up on my Latin, which I haven’t studied for over forty years. It seemed good to me, since I have a hard enough time reading Aquinas in English as it is. Aquinas in Latin couldn’t be much worse than Aquinas in English. And if I fail to understand Thomas, as I almost surely will, I figure I’ll have a dead language as an excuse for my thick headedness.

Nancy bought a small picture titled “The Parson.” It’s the image of a pudgy middle-aged man with a nineteenth century version of a nine iron in his hands. The “parson” probably should have been preaching to his flock, but the lure of the links was obviously too much for him. She also spent a few minutes talking to the owner, whose name still escapes me. He was lamenting the twenty-first century fact that good help is almost impossible to find. I meandered over just about the time he was saying, “I’d rather just do all the work myself than to hire someone. Every time I do hire someone the person has an expectation that I should just give them money and not expect them to work.”
“It sounds like a lot of the young people I meet nowadays,” I chuckled. “They just seem to want to float.”
He and Nancy chuckled back, nodding in agreement.

From Dock 410 we made our way to Hatman Jack’s. We were told that Jack is the hatter of the stars and that he’s provided hats for shows like Dr.Quinn, Medecine Woman. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I do know that there were a helluva’ lot of hats in that place.

Nancy has been telling me that she’s tired of my worn old baseball caps, so I bought a straw hat, age appropriate. I left looking like a sixty-two year old man.

Next there was lunch at a local bookstore. I had a cup of tomato bisque and Nancy had some concoction of peanuts, cucumbers, and cole-slaw. I also got a couple of books while there, “Divided by God” and Thomas Frank’s “One Market Under God.” I guess I bought the first one because I was curious about the title. I’ve only read the first chapter so far and it appears that God, as almost always nowadays, gets blamed by the left for America’s political divisions. I’m taking it all in stride, as I’m sure the Almighty is too. He gets blamed for lots of things. Just look at any insurance policy and you’ll see what I mean. The folks from Allstate to State Farm have been using Him as a crutch for years. How does the policy read in those places where they tell the unsuspecting consumer what they aren’t going to cover? They’re “acts of God,” like lightning, hail, flood, pestilence. I’ve never seen them use words like sunshine, unless of course there’s too much of that, in which case you’ll find at the worst possible moment that you won’t be covered for drought.

I bought Thomas Frank’s book because I’m curious about what he’s going to do to capitalism after the hatchet job he did to Kansas a while back. I can hardly wait to find out how evil the system is and I’m even more curious about what he’s going to do with the royalties from the book’s sales. I’ll read it with great amusement and catalogue his thoughts as grist for my writing mill. I think that’s alright; that’s the way capitalism should work. And, knowing that, I don’t want to complain about a fella’ who can take advantage of his gift of gab. More power to him, I say. Even gadflies have to make a living.

In case you’re wondering about Nancy’s birthday, it was a grand affair. I had pork tenderloin cooked in some sort of cranberry sauce and she had a filet mignon.

We spent the evening talking about our nineteen years together and where we’re going from here. The question of regrets came up. You know, the “would you change some of the things in your past if you could?” question. We both decided we would if we could. For Nancy her real dream was to be either an architect or an interior designer. I think the idea is especially appealing to her now, with many of our friends calling her when they are going to do something with their homes. She’s the first person they call. And, there’s good reason for that. She’s got a wonderful eye for beauty, balance, and simplicity.

As for me, I told her I always wanted to be a war correspondent. I guess in a manner of speaking my dream is coming true. This blog has become my way of reporting on the culture war going on in America right now. It’s not the shooting war I envisioned when I was young, but it’s a war nonetheless.

One of the things that Nancy shared with me was her sense that I write much better when I talk about personal experience and history rather than positing ideas or overtly advancing my conservative philosophy. She said that all of the things I want to say are already embedded in my journey and that people who really read it understand not only my history, but also the ideas that drive me. She also said that I do much better when I allow readers to read between the lines, using my history and observations as a springboard for them to think about their lives in both concrete and abstract terms. Then, she really flattered me by calling me a “storyteller.” I think the way she put it was in saying that I have a unique view of life and that’s what interests people.

To that end, I’ve decided to embark on a literary journey, telling as much of my story in increments as I’m willing to unmask. My hope is that in telling the story people will be drawn to their own stories and their own uniqueness.

It’s a risky business, I think. I wonder how accurate my memory of events is. I wonder how others who shared the same events will see them. History, I think, is far more subjective than we’ve been led to believe.

Nancy bought a book by John Irving at the same time I bought my two. At the very beginning there’s a quote from William Maxwell:

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they can conform to this end.”

So, our little Kansas interlude is over. Starting tomorrow I’ll be embarking on this literary journey. I hope you’ll join me.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Rich in Goods, Empty in Spirit

Matthew 19:21-24 (New Living Translation)

21 “Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22But when the young man heard this, he went sadly away because he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. 24I say it again--it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

We have a print of an artist’s rendition of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler in our dining room. I’m not sure who did the original, but I know that he captured the heart of what was going on quite well. What’s especially striking to me is the look of disdain on the young man’s face. He had a lot to lose and he wasn’t going to give it all up for a kingdom he couldn’t see.

I see a lot of that type of disdain on the blogosphere, particularly from young bloggers.

America is richer than she has ever been. The old in America are richer than ever. The young are too. And, the definition of poverty in this country is even being re-defined.

With all that they have to lose in giving their lives to someone who now seems like a wispy figure from the past, an interesting teacher whose teachings they can debate while they eat sumptuous meals in trendy restaurants, it’s just too much. Better, they believe, to grab all they can while they can. The lives of others mean little to them. Life is all about them, and nothing else. The wealth they claim they don’t have is choking the very life out of them.

It all manifests itself in a self-righteous attitude. They, like the rich young man have all the outward trappings of success. They obey the rules as best they can. They equate their wealth and position with God’s favor. I see it time and time again.

Oswald Chambers described this attitude and philosophy in his “Devotions for Morning and Evening.” They follow now:

Disposition and Deeds

Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20)

“The characteristic of a disciple is not that he does good things, but that he is good in motive because he has been made good by the supernatural grace of God. The only thing that exceeds right-doing is right-being. Jesus Christ came to put into any man who would let Him a new heredity which would exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus says – If you are My disciple you must be right not only in your living but in your motives, in your dreams, in the recesses of your mind. You must be so pure in your motives that God Almighty can see nothing to censure. Who can stand in the Eternal Light of God and have nothing for God to censure? Only the Son of God, and Jesus Christ claims that by His Redemption He can put into any man His own disposition, and make him unsullied and as simple as a child. The purity which God demands is impossible unless I can be remade within, and that is what Jesus has undertaken to do by His Redemption.”

“No man can make himself pure by obeying laws. Jesus Christ does not give us rules and regulations; His teachings are truths that can only be interpreted by the disposition He puts in. The great marvel of Jesus Christ’s salvation is that He alters heredity. He does not alter human nature; He alters its mainspring.”

It’s the mainspring of his life that the rich young man did not want altered thousands of years ago. It’s that same mainspring that many in the throes of American wealth also refuse to concede. The rich young man held on to the things he could see and feel. In the end he lost his soul. I wonder nowadays as I read and listen to the rich young people of America how many of them are clinging desperately to those same things. And I wonder how many of them are losing their souls in the process.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Confessions of a Liberated Lawn Jockey, or Why I'll Never Go Back to Egypt

In the past few days I’ve been getting comments from bloggers who are curious about me. In one, the blogger asked this question, “Who is Dilly?”

Dilly, of course, is me. That’s one of the nicknames both my brother and I got tagged with when we were kids.

I’m not sure whether the person who asked the question was really serious in asking the question, but I’ll take it at face value. So, in order to give some insight into why I’ve moved from the left to the right, from atheism to Christianity, from the east coast to middle America, I’ve decided to go back to my very first post, done a little more than a year ago.

Here, then, is my first post, titled “Confessions of a Liberated Lawn Jockey:”
I just read, with great interest, a column by Eric Alterman posted on the Center for American Progress website.
In the column, Mr. Aterman cites an essay by Thomas Frank, a transplanted Kansan who has gone on to bigger and better things. I'm a transplanted Bostonian, living in Emporia, Kansas. I've lived here for a bit over five years now and have a pretty good sense of what life and politics are like around here.
Mr.Frank has gotten quite a bit of press here in Emporia since he published his essay titled Lie Down for America in the April edition of Harper's. His early life in Mission Hills and a two hour visit to Emporia were apparently enough in his mind to look at Kansas as a whole and say things like “Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction, to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today's Kansans of their job security and they head out and become registered Republicans. Push them off the land and the next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society.”
Mr. Alterman applauds Mr. Frank’s work, noting that the Republican Party is employing a two-fold strategy – get the “rubes” up in arms about values and then pick their pockets while they’re needlessly paying attention to those values.
After reading Mr. Alterman’s piece and excerpts from Mr. Frank's I've detected three common themes. First, Kansas, like Caesar who had too much Gaul, has too many conservative Republicans. Second, Kansas is a community of kulaks and serfs who have been manipulated, contrary to their interests, by the rich and powerful. And, third, Alterman, Frank, and the Democratic Party are here to save us from the Republicans and ourselves.
For more than a few of us “rubes” it’s a bit confusing. We knew we needed saving, but we were under the impression we already had a Savior. If Alterman and Frank are right our soteriology is flawed at best and heretical at worst.
How could one possibly argue against such noble theses, especially when they’re stated so eloquently? All we Kansans need to do is put our collective fates in their hands of compassion and they'll take care of us. They’ll defend us!
Why would we reject such a generous offer? My five years here in Kansas and my first twenty growing up in the shadow of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have given me a few reasons. The most compelling of those is experience.
My brother, sister, and I spent our first few years growing up in Boston's “south end,” which in our time was Boston's version of Hell's Kitchen. We had all the classic disadvantages many on the political left love to exploit, an alcoholic father who did menial work (he was an ice-man), an un-educated mother (she actually did go as far as the third grade), and an overcrowded tenement on Withington Street we called home.
Our one “advantage” in life was our loyal support for the Massachusetts Democratic “machine.” We learned early on that any Dillon worth his or her salt was a Democrat through and through. After all, it was the Democrats who were really concerned with our welfare. The Democrats were the “party of the people.”
I don't know how long it took for my brother and sister to come to the point of disillusionment, but the time came for me during the fifties. My brother had graduated to a trade school, my sister to live with relatives in Maynard. I graduated to Washington Elms and Newtowne Court, government housing projects sandwiched between Harvard and Kendall Squares, just a five cent ride on the MTA to either Harvard University or MIT.
My epiphany came slowly, incrementally, over time.
I recall often having my mother send me up to City Hall to pick up our ADC or Welfare check. It was a walk I came to dread as much as any condemned man must surely dread the gallows or the execution chamber. I suppose I should have been grateful. After all, the Massachusetts Democratic "machine" had my best interests at heart. But I freely confess that it grew increasingly hard for me to feel thankful for the “party’s” generosity. I accepted the money as much grace as I could muster, but I also learned that each time I made the walk and held my hand out a sale was being recorded. I was selling my dignity to the Democrats for fifty or sixty dollars a transaction.
Looking back at it now I see what a trap it all was. I was the poster child for the nobility and generosity of the “party.” I was, in the minds of the machine, the hopeless waif, the son of an alcoholic who drank himself to death and a dolt of a mother. I would never be able to succeed without the support of the welfare system.
So, for years I had to accept, against my best interests, the role of “lawn jockey” for the machine. I rarely saw my benefactors, except when I made that dreaded walk to City Hall or when election time rolled around. Then Tip O’Neill’s precinct captains would be sure to drop by and enroll me and my mother in the latest version of the "get out the vote for the Democrats" game. While I should have questioned their intentions, I didn't. After selling my dignity for a few bucks a month, selling my labor for a few empty political promises didn't seem too hard at all.
I don't know how I made it, but, against all odds, I actually completed high school, graduating in the upper half of Cambridge High and Latin's class of 1960. I was hoping for college or a good job. I found neither. The good jobs were taken by people with better pedigrees. But how could I complain? They came from loyal Democratic families just like I had. And, while I felt that I was college material, I had to accept the idea that my address and background disqualified me from attending the good universities, the Cornells, the Columbias, the Yales, the Stanfords, the Harvards, the MIT's.
Not despairing, I joined the Air Force in 1961. While college or a good job would have been nice, serving the country and the ideals of John Kennedy didn't strike me as the end of the line. I served ably and well for eight eventful, tumultuous years. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the assassination of JFK, LBJ's “guns and butter” economy. I did tours in Texas, California, Washington D.C., Newfoundland, Vietnam, Panama, Ohio and other posts around the world.
Vietnam was the point of uncoupling for me, the point at which my epiphany became complete. It came about half way through my tour, during a Christmas lull in the fighting. Like many GI's I received an anonymous “care” package from the states. Mine was from some unknown sorority pledge attending Bryn Mawr College. I opened it expectantly, hoping to find some token of appreciation. What I found instead was a can of Ken-L Ration dog food with a gift card that read, “Eat hearty, you fuckin' animal.” A fellow American, a product of American liberal education had done what the Viet Cong had been unable to do with a gun. I was badly wounded.
Life had come full circle for me. I'd graduated from Boston's South End to Cambridge's government housing projects to the Vietnam War. I'd moved down the social ladder from hopeless waif to party lawn jockey to rotten animal. And it was all because the Massachusetts Democratic machine had my best interests at heart.
Wounded men, if the wound isn't mortal, will cling to anyone who will help. For me the help came in the form of Anita Bryant. I attended a USO Christmas show at Tan Son Nhut Air Base a few days before Christmas. There was Bob Hope who was wonderful. And I think Miss World might have been there. But more than anything for me there was Anita Bryant singing “Silent Night” and closing by telling us that a lot of Americans cared about us, were praying for us, and hoping we would all come home safely. All of this had come on the heels of an encounter with a fellow solider who loved Jesus, loved me, and told me that I needed God in my life.

I’m sure now that folks from the machine back in Boston would have thought all of this smacked too much of family values. I’m sure they would have tried to find a way to keep my dependent upon them. But I didn’t.
I left and prayed that night for the first time since I was a child. In the years between those two prayers the thought of praying never really occurred to me. My thinking had been, “Why invoke the aid of The Almighty when the Democratic Party is looking out for your best interests?”
So, I prayed and I believe the prayer was heard and answered. I embraced evangelical Christianity and the divorce with the Democratic Party was complete. My life could now move forward.
I left the Air Force a few years later. I went to Judson College, a small Baptist school about thirty miles west of Chicago and got an undergraduate degree in communications, with “High Distinction.” I then attended seminary in Kansas City and got a Masters' degree in theology. I did most of it thanks to the GI Bill and academic scholarships.
I suppose there are some who might argue that the GI Bill was given to me generously by the Democratic Party. I maintain that I earned every penny.
From that point to this I've lived what I believe is a modestly successful life. I had a good career with FedEx and have recently retired. I'm happily married. I'm a man of modest means.
I take a daily walk through the streets of Emporia and can't say that I see what Alterman and Frank see. It's not that I don't see problems. They're here alright. There are dogs that bite occasionally around here. There are some folks around these parts who occasionally write bad checks. There are a few slum-lords. And, there's institutional inertia, to be sure. But when I compare it all to the government housing projects I grew up in, with their crime, hopelessness, decay, and perpetual dependency it doesn't seem so bad.
I suppose I'm like a lot of Emporians who mindlessly focuses on values and steadfastly refuses to genuflect every time I read something produced by the Illuminati. But, in the last year or so I've read Mr. Alterman’s work, some of Mr. Frank's, George Soros's, Karl Marx's, Charles Darwin's, Paul Erlich's and others. I've also had the opportunity to read the work of Walter Berns, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Solzhenitsyn, Augustine, Aquinas, Richard Perle, and others during the same time. I've also re-read my way through Holy Writ.
I've done that and have made the same comparisons I made between the streets of Emporia with the streets of Boston's “south end” and Cambridge's government housing projects. My conclusion remains the same. The sins they accuse the Republicans of committing are the sins they're actually guilty of. While they accuse the Republicans of manipulating us, I maintain that they treat people “less fortunate than them” as if they were chattel to be displayed as signs of their superior wisdom and compassion.
Centuries ago, at a time of great travail, the Children of Israel almost went back into the “bitter bondage of Egypt.” They heard the wheels of their oppressors' chariots and the whips of their charioteers cracking in the distance and nearly grew faint of heart. As I sit here in twenty first century Kansas, reading the work of men like Alterman and Frank, I can also hear the scream of the wheels and the crack of the whips in the distance. I sit here now filled with memories of bitter bondage, memories of Washington Elms and Newtowne Court, memories of “guns and butter,” memories of a Christmas “gift.” The past collides with the present and interrupts the serenity of my life here in the Kansas Flint Hills. These pharaohs of the electronic age confess they don’t understand why I so steadfastly refuse the liberation they offer. They plead with me to return. “Don’t go too far.” “Make sure you leave your children with us.” “If you can’t leave the children, then leave us your cattle and goods.” But experience has taught me that returning would mean, once more, having to make “bricks without straw.” In these moments I, like the Children of Israel, sometimes grow faint of heart. In these moments of weakness I may even momentarily mistake the sound of the whips cracking for the siren’s song. But I’ve learned here in the Kansas Flint Hills that these moments of weakness will pass. And I’ve learned there’s one mistake I’ll never make again. I'll never go back to Egypt!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Could Jesus be “Confirmed?”

Matthew 21:23-27 (New Living Translation)

The Authority of Jesus Challenged
23 “When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and other leaders came up to him. They demanded, “By whose authority did you drive out the merchants from the Temple?[
a] Who gave you such authority?”
24”I'll tell you who gave me the authority to do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. 25”Did John's baptism come from heaven or was it merely human?”
They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn't believe him. 26But if we say it was merely human, we'll be mobbed, because the people think he was a prophet.” 27So they finally replied, “We don't know.”
And Jesus responded, “Then I won't answer your question either.”

As I passed by the post office on my morning walk yesterday I saw the one word banner headline in the Wichita Eagle that advances the big question George Bush and John Roberts are probably asking right now – “Confirmable?”

It’s a good question.

Then, this morning, Nancy and I were sitting on our back porch having a bit of breakfast and I came across this from the Kansas City Star:

“Abortion will be a critical issue in the confirmation process, Roberts, while serving as deputy solicitor general in the Justice Department in 1991, wrote in a legal brief that the Roe vs. Wade ruling “was wrongly decided and should be overruled.” Senators should determine whether that statement reflects Roberts’ own opinion or just the thinking of his boss at the time, George H.W. Bush.”

I read those words and Nancy began to wax philosophical. “Do you think that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the Constitution?” I looked back across the breakfast table and the look must have told her I was confused. “What I mean is that we’re now at the point that the entire Constitution of the United States hinges on this one ruling. That’s why the left is so worried about this man. They’ve staked their lives and careers on a woman’s ‘right to choose.’ This is the pinnacle of their thinking.”

I think she may be right about that. It seems from what I’ve been reading that there is going to be a war over this nomination. Here, for example, are the words of Eleanor Smeal, president of the “Feminist Majority”:

“This is it! The worst has happened with the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor. Let there be no mistake about it: Sandra Day O'Connor was the 5th vote that was saving Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights, access to birth control and women's rights are on the line. O'Connor was also the key vote for educational opportunities, Title IX, and affirmative action.”

“Let there be no mistake about it. The case most likely to be reversed or pivotal in the coming Supreme Court nomination fights is Roe v. Wade. But even some of our progressive friends tend to marginalize the abortion issue. We must rally the millions of women and men who care if Roe is to be saved.”

The official statement from the ACLU was much more tame, but the point they were making showed they are clearly aligned with “Ellie” and the “Feminist Majority”:

“The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed deep concern about some of the civil liberties positions advocated by Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. While serving as principal deputy solicitor general from 1989-1993, he authored briefs calling for Roe v. Wade to be overruled, supporting graduation prayer, and seeking to criminalize flag burning as a form of political protest.”

While all this rhetoric was buzzing around the Beltway, the good folks at NARAL sent the following urgent message to their constituents:

“Dear Senator,
As your constituent, I am urging you to oppose John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court. ”If Roberts is confirmed to a lifetime appointment, there is little doubt that he will work to overturn Roe v. Wade. As Deputy Solicitor General under the first President Bush, he argued to the Supreme Court that ‘Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled….’”

And, not to be outdone, the media’s far left has also weighed in:

“Judge John G. Roberts could turn out to be Antonin Scalia with a Washington Establishment smile. He is almost certainly a William Rehnquist for the 21st century. And he is David Souter turned on his head -- a stealth candidate whose winning personality disguises intense conservatism, not moderation.”

Finally, left-leaning bloggers have begun to weigh in. What follows comes from the comment thread of a “liberal blog titled Daily Kos, with a “hat tip’ to Adeimantus for exposing the trash for what it is. Adeimantus’s commentary will appear in red. Comments from Daily Kos will appear, appropriately, in blue:

A few minutes scanning any of the more popular liberal blogs will confirm Barnett's thesis.

Take for example this comment thread, excerpted from the most popular left-wing blog, Daily Kos, on Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court:

Did You Catch His Wife. When Roberts thanked his family, he mentioned his son, Jack...Roberts' wife's face fell. It was like a poker tell. I think we should research mayan on Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 13:13:01 PDT
interesting observation, wonder if anything will come of storme on Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 13:19:01 PDT
He's probably gay. Of course, this is how ridiculous rumors get started, but extreme conservatives seem to have a lot of homosexual Geotpf on Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 13:19:08 PDT
Worse - he's a lesbianby moltar on Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 13:41:10 PDT
A Trangendered One at that. And an alcoholic and drug addict...That's how Karl starts the smearing process, isn't it???by Volvo Liberal on Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 13:50:14 PDT

Robert's son, Jack, is four years old.”

In case your wondering what Barnett’s thesis is, an explanation offered by Adeimantus follows:

“[T]he Democratic party seems to be under the impression that [liberal] bloggers are an enormous, important constituency--and that it must go to whatever lengths necessary to win the hearts and minds of this virtual community.”“This seems like a major miscalculation, because the politics of the left-wing blogs are far out of the American mainstream. Where most of the 120 million Americans who voted in the last election bear a benign indifference to political matters, the left half of the blogosphere seethes with hatred for George W. Bush and his supporters. What's more, the blogs take numerous positions that would strike all but the most passionate Democratic partisans as patently preposterous. . . .”

“Also, the level of discourse on the Daily Kos and other prominent liberal blogs is not something that would be attractive to the majority of the American public. The writings are often obscene and usually relentlessly hostile and negative. Crude personal attacks, whether aimed at right-wing bloggers or politicians, are the order of the day.”

The President has asked for a timely confirmation process. He’s also asked that it be dignified. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has assured the President it will be.

I’d like to think that it will be all that the President has requested and all that the Senator from Vermont has promised. But I have my doubts. I think Nancy’s right. The Democratic Party is being held hostage to Roe vs. Wade and there are some on the subcommittee who will do everything they can to derail this man. I can see the politics of political destruction being an essential element of their attack.

All of this made me wonder how Jesus himself would fare in the hands of these lawyers. What would Dick Durbin and Ted Kennedy, and others like them, the darlings of the far left, do to ensure that someone like Jesus, with his impeccable credentials, would be demonized and sent from Washington, D.C. on a rail, tarred and feathered to boot.

I can almost see Ted Kennedy, jaws clenched, as he confronts Jesus about some of the things He’s said for public consumption:

Mr. Kennedy (with an angry hand quivering as he clenches the microphone): “Women in America are concerned with your position on Roe vs. Wade. It was a right they fought long and hard in the political arena to gain and they are gravely concerned, as am I, that your philosophy will affect your judgment on what is now the law of the land. As one of their champions I have the solemn obligation to be sure that right is protected. Your position on children seems pretty clear, but it does not seem clear when it comes to a “fetus.” I am well aware that you are on the record as having said, “I assure you, unless you turn from your sins and become as little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. 4Therefore, anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. 5And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. 6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trusts in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck.” This statement, Mr. Christ, seems on the surface to be benign, but as I’ve dug more deeply into it appears to be most provocative indeed. Let me now be very direct with you, sir (with hand now trembling furiously, face almost beet red), how would you intend to vote on Roe vs. Wade if it came to the Supreme Court?”

Jesus: “Do you want me to answer your statement with a statement or your question with an answer.”

Mr. Kennedy (with fury reaching a crescendo): “I wasn’t asking for word games, sir. I was asking for a direct answer.”

Jesus: “I have said what I have said.”

Next, Dick Durbin, masking his disdain with affability begins a new line of questioning:

Mr. Durbin: I’ve read some things in the public record that really trouble me about you, sir and I need some clarification from you. Did you actually say that people in legally constituted positions of authority are hypocrites? Let me read from the record to refresh your memory on the subject, sir – “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you won't let others enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and you won't go in yourselves.[a] 15Yes, how terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn him into twice the son of hell as you yourselves are.”

Jesus: “I did and I meant what I said.”

Mr.Durbin: “I ask the committee now, what need do we have for any other witnesses. You have heard it from this man’s mouth.”

Jesus: “I have said what I have said.”

Joe Biden, ever the clever lawyer, would then weigh in:

Mr. Biden: “I note, sir, that you are an amazingly skilled rhetoritician. And I have no desire to parry with you, sir, so I will ask this question directly. Do you believe that the law and the Constitution are evolving documents? By that I mean to say do you believe that what everyone believed was right in one generation could be changed by the next. Should not the law reflect the changing times?”

Jesus: “This is what I have said on that matter - ‘You reject God's laws in order to hold on to your own traditions. 10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.'[b] 11But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can't help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I could have given to you.’”

After days of contentious testimony the Democrats would caucus. Knowing that a floor vote would be very close, they consider alternatives. One of them, who shall remain nameless, offers this alternative – “Let’s bring up another candidate who might be more suitable to our cause.” The rest of the caucus asks, in unison, “Who?” The answer is brilliant, something only a skilled politician could think of – “Let’s give them Barabbas!”

And so it would go. Would Jesus be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice? I don’t know, but given the current political climate any president who nominated him would be taking a major risk. If it wasn’t his philosophy that would do him in; the company Jesus kept, which was marginal at best, probably would have nailed the coffin shut on a career at the Supreme Court. After all, he was a friend of drunks and sinners.

Who knows how this will all come out? Roberts’ big advantage is the skimpy paper trail he has left for the lawyers to scour over. They’ve got a month or so to dig, and I’m sure they’ll try to find anything at all that will damage this man’s reputation and character. Politicians are known to do these sorts of things. Just ask Jesus!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Property of Jesus

I ran across an interesting set of comments the other day while I was blogging. The blog’s author had apparently been getting a lot of spam. It was one thing, he said, to get unsolicited e-mail from pornographers or someone selling sedatives, but the “Christian” spam he’s been getting went over some invisible line of decency he had drawn:

“But, the line for inappropriate spam needs to be drawn somewhere and I suggest we draw it at religious spam. Over the last six months or so my inbox has occasionally been in receipt of Christian spam. I’ve received emails notifying me that up to seven bibles (notice the symbolic number) are reserved for purchase under my name. I’ve been presented the opportunity to mingle with “Christian singles in your area.” I’ve been offered a “Christian mortgage.” And I’ve even been invited to attend Christian “meetings” where I can only imagine people gather to pontificate on Jesus Christ’s pivotal role here on planet earth.””If Christians firmly believe that Jesus is so great and important, why are they flagrantly and shamelessly defying the third commandment? Seems like sending spam email that invokes the name of Christ would qualify as taking the Lord’s name in vain. I’ve never put any stock in the third commandment, even while being raised as a Christian. Who is God, anyway? Woody Allen?”

The author’s post evoked provocative comments. A couple of them follow. First, there is this little gem:

“You see, Andrew, the distributors of porn, erectile dysfunction pills, and Christianity are all essentially the same. They all view women, profit, and recruitment (if you will) exactly the same. They think with one mind. They see with one eye. But they have many faces to show you to make you think they are more than one.”

And then there’s this:

“They probably would use the excuse that they are trying to be “fishers of men.” I don't know how “Christian Real-Estate” counts, though. Not only is it a violation of blasphemy, but it is a violation of commandment 2: no graven images.”

Part of me understands their irritation. I don’t like getting unsolicited e-mails pitching products or ideas. It is irritating, but it’s only a minor irritation. I’ve found the best way to handle that stuff is to identify to my e-mail host as spam, delete it, and then go on with my daily routine.

I think there’s more to this than meets the eye. “Why, I ask myself, would pornography be alright and Jesus be offensive?” Is it really Christians that have these folks up in arms or is it something or someone else?

Jesus is really unique. He is both the most revered and the most hated man who ever lived. He is embraced by billions and at the same time he is reviled by a significant portion of the world’s population.

In all the furor there was one commenter who asked, I believe unknowingly, the right question – “Who is Jesus?” The answer to that question is at the heart of the issue. This has little to do with spam. It’s got everything to do with who Jesus was, and is! This has far less to do with Christians behaving badly than it does with Jesus’ life and His claims on humanity. This man and the Cross of Calvary are still the crux of the issue today.

Jesus, unlike the pornographer or the salesman, offers only two choices to those who have heard Him. One can either accept or reject him. There is no middle ground. C.S. Lewis, “the apostle to the skeptics,” put it this way:

“A man who was merely a man and said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

It is Jesus’ unique claim to Deity that is bothersome to the skeptic and the unbeliever. And, for those who are bothered by it to claim otherwise is patently false. Jesus either was who He said he was or He was a fraud. That’s what troubles them!

In the discourse that follows Jesus asked His followers what others believed Him to be and then followed that question by asking them who they themselves believed Him to be. The questions and the answers to the questions couldn’t be clearer evidence of what Jesus and those closest to Him believed:

Matthew 16:13-18 (New Living Translation)

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
14”Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
15Then he asked them, “Who do you say I am?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John,[
a] because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. 18Now I say to you that you are Peter,[b] and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell[c] will not conquer it.”

But Jesus not only claimed Deity, He also claimed to be the only way to God. Toward the end of His earthly life He had these words of comfort for His followers. They clearly demonstrate the exclusive nature of Jesus’ belief and message:

John 14:1-10 (New Living Translation)

Jesus, the Way to the Father
1”Don't be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. 2There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. 3When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4And you know where I am going and how to get there.”
5 “No, we don't know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We haven't any idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. 7If you had known who I am, then you would have known who my Father is.[
a] From now on you know him and have seen him!”
8Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
9Jesus replied, “Philip, don't you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him? 10Don't you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me.”

The proof Jesus offered to substantiate these claims were his death and subsequent resurrection from the dead.

That’s the Christian message! I can see that how profoundly disturbing it is. I spent fourteen years of my life professing atheism. It was a disturbing message when I heard it too. I realized that it called on me to make a decision about my temporal and eternal destinies. I realized that I had a choice between heaven and hell. It was as simple as that. Disturbing, but simple.

And, even worse for the skeptics, Jesus seems to be in the business of redeeming people even today. Our church has been having great success with those who live on the margins of life. The reason we’ve been having such success is that we’ve been proclaiming the simple message Jesus commanded us to bring to our communities. On almost any given Sunday we hear from people who have been caught in the ugly grip of drugs, pride, deceit, lust, greed, or any other sin you can name. Yesterday, for example, we listened to three people describe a “chance” encounter they had at a local Taco Bell. Two of our members, who had once been caught up in the drug scene, pulled up to the drive in window to order some food. When the Taco Bell employee opened the service window and asked for their order they could see, because of their history, that the young man had a drug problem. They gave him their order, then the window closed. Once it did the two said a very brief prayer for the young man inside the store. A few minutes later the window opened. The young man gave them their food and then said something very strange. I’ll describe it in his words. “I came to the window and I felt that “somebody else” was there with us. I’d never felt anything like it. I looked at these guys and all I could think to say was the serenity prayer. I knew then that I had a choice to make about my life. I could either go on being a slave to the drugs or I could let Jesus redeem me.” That was the extent of the things that were exchanged at the window – a short prayer, a few tacos, and these words:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

It didn’t seem like much, but that was just the beginning. A week or so later the young man decided to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting here in town. When he arrived he saw that the two young men who had prayed for him were also there.

The rest is now history, as testified to by the young man who was redeemed from the scourge of drugs. The gospel was shared. The young man accepted the salvation offered. He is now drug free and “happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Our church is being filled with these types of stories. People that the “wise” or the skeptical have rejected have now found their way home. Further, their tormentors and enablers have a few less “customers” to abuse.

I’m sure that the skeptics also find that profoundly disturbing. It’s one thing to say that Jesus did things a couple of thousand years ago. But when it happens in twenty-first century America it becomes a mirror against which the skeptics can see their own lives. And they, like the young man at Taco Bell, like Jesus’ followers of old, like the blind men He healed, the lepers He cleansed, have a choice to make. Jesus either was or was not who He claimed to be. Those who have embraced Him have found that He is indeed who He claimed to be. The skeptics, sadly, are dead in their trespasses and sins.

That is a message both profoundly filled with hope and profoundly disturbing.

I normally try to abide by a “live and let live” philosophy. But I feel compelled to let those skeptics and unbelievers who might be reading this post know exactly where they stand in life. I’m going to share my feelings, not because I don’t care about what happens to them, but because I do. I hope the words hit them at a very deep, personal level.

I’ll put it very simply. You’re lost and you’re losers. The Man you mock and reject has become, as Holy Writ well puts it, a stumbling block to you. He’s offered you love, peace, and salvation and you reject it. You’ve become hardened, uncaring, and unfeeling. You’ve become so hardened that you’ve now got a brick stuffed up inside your chest where your heart ought to be.

Your sad estate has been put into rhyme and song. Read the words and you’ll see yourself mirrored there:

“Go ahead and talk about him because he makes you doubt,
Because he has denied himself the things you can’t live without.
Laugh at him behind his back just like the others do,
Remind him of what he used to be when he comes walkin’ through.”

“He’s the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone”

“Stop your conversation when he passes on the street,
Hope he falls upon himself, oh, won’t that be sweet
Because he can’t be exploited by superstition anymore
Because he can’t be bribed or bought by the things that you adore.”

“He’s the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone”

“When the whip that’s keeping you in line doesn’t make him jump,
Say he’s hard-of-hearin’, say that he’s a chump.
Say he’s out of step with reality as you try to test his nerve
Because he doesn’t pay no tribute to the king that you serve.”

“He’s the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone”

“Say that he’s a loser cause he got no common sense
Because he don’t increase his worth at someone else’s expense.
Because he’s not afraid of trying, ‘cause he don’t look at you and smile,
‘Cause he doesn’t tell you jokes or fairy tales, say he’s got no style.

“Say that he's a loser 'cause he got no common senseBecause he don't increase his worth at someone else's expense.Because he's not afraid of trying, 'cause he don't look at you and smile,'Cause he doesn't tell you jokes or fairy tales, say he's got no style.”

“He’s the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone”

“You can laugh at salvation, you can play Olympic games,
You think that when you rest at last you’ll go back from where you came.
But you’ve picked up quite a story and you’ve changed since the womb
What happened to the real you, you’ve been captured but by whom?”

“He’s the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone”

Bob Dylan – “Property of Jesus”

It’s up to you, the skeptic, to decide. You’re a free moral agent. You have enough information about Jesus and His message to make your choice. You know where Jesus stands. You know where you stand. You can delete the message like the spam in your in box or you can open it. Your choice will determine whether or not the gulf that exits between you and the Almighty still stands.