Wednesday, May 31, 2006

News From the Home Front

“Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.”

- Bob Dylan – “Idiot Wind” (1975)

Nancy and I got back from our getaway in Kansas City just in time to get ourselves in the middle of one of those one in a hundred years events. At about five o’clock the skies opened and the waters descended. By five-fifteen the city was inundated with water. In that short time at least three inches of rain fell. The water ran about a foot or a foot and half deep in the downtown area and just about every intersection in town, particularly those in low lying areas, was swamped. Fortunately for us, the sump pump in our basement was up to the task. This morning as I made my morning rounds I saw the results of the flash flooding. Downtown merchants were busy cleaning up, pushing the debris, mud, and water from their businesses. Some streets were still blocked off. One of the fortunate by-products of the flood was that the usual array of fast food and candy wrappers, beer bottles, and the assorted trash that usually litters Emporia’s downtown streets after a night of merry-making had been swept away in all the water. About all that was left on the streets and sidewalks were bits of gravel, twigs, and leaves. It may not have looked especially pretty, but at least the stuff left by the storm was bio-degradable.

Far from Emporia, in Washington D.C., there has been a torrent of indignation lately. It seems that one congressman, William Jefferson, got caught with his hand in a mighty big cookie jar. Sometime last year the good congressman appears to have taken a sizeable bribe for legislative services rendered. The FBI, in a search authorized by warrant, found ninety thousand big ones in his home, on ice. Unlike those of us living in small towns who lack social and political sophistication, Jefferson had wrapped the incriminating dough in tin foil and tucked away in his freezer. Even for us red-staters it looked more than a bit suspicious. If it had been me doing the searching I’d have been wondering what all that money was doing next to the leg of lamb or the broccoli florets. Hadn’t Jefferson heard? Out here we put that kind of incriminating stuff in mattresses until the heat blows over, then deposit it into our savings accounts at four percent. If only he’d sought our counsel.

Not content to let a good deed go unpunished, Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi came to the good congressman’s rescue, claiming that the FBI had overstepped its bounds. “Congressional privilege,” they screamed. “We congress-folks have our rights.” It was all rather cartoonish, with Hastert and Pelosi becoming central figures. Hastert’s been looking like Elmer Fudd on the hunt ever since the whole thing started (“Dern FBI”) and Pelosi’s been just perfectly typecast as Cruella DeVille.

Is there something they’ve put in the water? Do Americans outside the Beltway have “kick me hard signs” planted on their backs? Do they really think we’re so stupid that we’d all come to the aid of this den of thieves? The answer to the first question is “I hope not.” The answer to the second is “No!” The answer to the third is, “Apparently Cruella and Elmer think so.”

The more they’ve protested, the more suspicious I’ve gotten. In fact, I think I like the idea of the FBI rooting around. Maybe it’ll keep them on their toes. Maybe they’ll find more than a few rutabagas in Hastert’s or Pelosi’s fridges.

Speaking of privacy and crackpot theories, back here on the home front Rita Stark, Emporia’s citizen extraordinaire, is at it again. She sent a letter to the Gazette last week, complete with a list of recommended summer reading for Emporia’s Neanderthals. I’d already read two, am currently reading a third, but am steadfastly refusing to read her highest recommendation – Thierry Meyssan’s “9-11- The Big Lie.” I’d read a review of the book in Spiegel ONLINE a long time ago and decided to forego it, in the same way I resist the temptation to read the National Enquirer when I’m checking out at the grocery store. I don’t need to worry myself with stories of alien babies or sightings of Elvis in Missoula. And, I don’t need to trouble myself when fruitcakes like Meyssan claim that 9-11 was actually a huge U.S. government conspiracy. I’ve heard it all before, haven’t you? Jews were told not to report to work on September 11, 2001. It was U.S. missiles, and not hijacked passenger planes, that hit the Pentagon that day. It was all a government plot to keep the rest of us in line. It all makes me wonder, in hindsight, whether or not Rita and Thierry work on the staffs of Hastert or Pelosi.

A day or so after I read Stark’s letter I fired off the following response to the Gazette:

I’m almost two-thirds of the way though Rita Stark’s summer reading list. I’ve already completed Orwell’s “1984” and Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Right now I’m working on “American Theocracy.”

I was quite impressed with Orwell’s and Shirer’s work. I can’t say the same for Phillips’. While it claims to be factual, so far it reads more like pulp fiction. The notion that a cabal of Texas oil men and Christian fundamentalists is trying to take over the world is more than a bit hackneyed.

I don’t intend to put Meyssan’s “9-11 – The Big Lie” on my must read list, especially after having read Spiegel ONLINE’s September, 2003 cover story (“The Panoply of the Absurd”) about Messyan and his fellow 9-11 conspiracy theorists. To be honest, Ms. Stark, I’m really tired of hearing how New York’s Jews were told to stay home on September 11th, 2001. I’m tired of hearing it was all a Jewish conspiracy. I’m tired of hearing it was a government plot. And, I’m tired of hearing that it was actually U.S. missiles, and not hijacked passenger planes, which took down the World Trade Center towers.

To paraphrase the Immortal Bard, Ms. Stark, “Methinks thou doth protest too much.” While tales of Texas oil men, Christian fundamentalists, government assassins, or Jewish conspiracies can make fiction seem like fact, they can also divert our attention from the high road we all ought to be taking these days.

These are serious times and the issues that face us all are momentous. They deserve better than to be trivialized. They merit our attention, discussion, and national consensus, not sensationalism. We can, and should, do better!

So there you have it. Emporia got caught up in a flash flood last night. Denny and Nancy got themselves caught up in a flood of stupidity last week, as did Rita Stark. Seeing it all played out, I wonder where and when the next bucket of rain’s gonna’ fall. A gullywasher over the Capitol wouldn’t be a bad place to start. We need something to clean the place out.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Caught on the Fringes of Lazy Populism and Ruthless Capitalism

“Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down.
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.”

- Bob Dylan – “Precious Angel” (1979)

I’ve attended two high school graduations so far this season. One was a technical marvel, with a long video presentation of baby pictures morphing into the high school seniors seated before their adoring parents and friends. The graphics were slick and the message a bit subtle, but after a few minutes of reading and watching the tea leaves I got it. The educational system had done its job. We’d given it our children and it had turned them into young adults, ready to tackle the world. In keeping with the tenor of the video presentation, the two young valedictorians strung together a series of clichés worthy of a good politician or a Calvinist convinced he’s doing the will of God.

The second, which we attended last night, had less pizzazz, but matched the earlier event cliché for cliché. The valedictory addresses were short, with about half the time taken up with muted complaints about three years of school food and the other half with cuddly Winnie the Pooh quotes. Rural Kansas had done its job. Twenty-nine young adults from Olpe, Kansas had, as the saying goes, made the grade.

On the way home last night I mentioned to Nancy that graduation ceremonies had changed quite a bit since 1960 when I made my way into the world of adults. The tone of everything back then was serious. We were being confronted with the fact that we were now to be full participants in a troubled world. It was going to be, we were told, our job to build upon the foundation our parents and grandparents had laid for us. While they hadn’t secured every liberty or solved every problem, we recognized they had advanced noble causes. Now it was our time to shine, to make the world a better place. The clichés offered were far from being cuddly. The words of Lincoln and Walt Whitman, rather than Winnie the Pooh, were the rhetorical launching pads for our adult lives.

As I watched last night I had to remind myself to be gracious to the class of 2006. Most of them had entered the high school doors as open slates, ready to be educated. Unfortunately, most had left as budding nihilists. They’d come in empty and left empty, with only a few clever catch phrases to show for the time they spent in the lower levels of academia. A few years of college education will, for the vast majority, make their nihilism complete and socially acceptable. What else would, or should, we expect of the class of 2006? All they really did was cooperate with the indoctrination. It wasn’t all their fault.

What’s in store for this year’s graduates? Troubles, I fear. Have they been prepared to confront them? No!

I gave a lot of thought to this as I made my rounds this morning. The more I thought about it all, the worse it got. In the end, near the University, I came to the conclusion that this is a generation caught on the fringes of lazy populism and ruthless capitalism.

What do I mean by that? It means that this generation of graduates is armed only for self-aggrandizement. On the one hand there is a “whatever floats your boat” philosophy that allows them to be untroubled while the vultures gather. The peril is all around and this generation’s response is almost always the same. Osama’s still hiding in a cave near Tora Bora. “Whatever.” Kim Jong-il is drinking expensive cognac while his people desperately forage for grass to eat. “Whatever.” Musa Hilal and the Janjaweed are murdering hundreds of thousands in Darfur. “Whatever.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is close to having his finger on the nuclear trigger. “Whatever.”

On the other end of the fringe is the economics of this generation, which is an odd combination of greed and retreat from responsibility. The more this generation has been given, it seems, the more it wants. The operative language of America two generations ago was about responsibilities and earning one’s way in the world. Today, the language of the class of 2006 is about rights and entitlements. This is a generation with little interest in earning anything. It’s a generation that feels, rather, that it is owed.

Yes, the vultures are gathering. And, the class of 2006 refuses to see them sitting on the fence posts of the world. Most of this year’s graduates don’t even know where Iran is, or North Korea, or Darfur. If you were to ask most of them who or what they Janjaweed is they’d probably say something clever like, “It’s the next generation of marijuana, Dude.”

I wonder how close the fence posts will have to be to their homes and “stuff” to make them notice. Not long ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a scathing letter to George Bush, scolding him and proponents of liberal democracy. It was eerily reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev’s “we will bury you speech” of my generation. In his analysis of the letter, Hillel Franken, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, noted that:

“All of this can be seen partially but still somewhat dimly in Ahmadinejad's emphasis on Christian hypocrisy, which may in this context mean two things: violations by self-professed Christians of the standards and teachings of historic Christianity, or the violation by historic Christianity of the true teachings of the Prophet Jesus. The latter is a traditional Islamic view of the defect and even crime of historic Christians. In calling upon Bush, as Ahmadinejad does emphatically, to embrace the “teachings of the prophets,” he is calling upon him not only to abandon liberal democracy but Christianity as well--to embrace Islam, to which all the world must ultimately submit, and which is gathering momentum in our time.”

This is only one of the vultures the class of 2006 will have to face. When the time for confrontations with him and others inevitably comes, will they be ready to face up to them? When the time comes and the sound of the rattling of sabers is heard will their response be little more than a few cuddly quotes from Winnie the Pooh? If so, the vulture’s response will be sardonic laughter as the sword is raised. Or, when the devil’s at their doors, beating his way inside, will “Whatever” be the last words we hear from this generation? Based on what I heard over the past few weeks it just might be.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Who is Our Neighbor

Luke 10:25-29 (New Living Translation)

The Most Important Commandment

“One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The man answered “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” And, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

I occasionally read The New Republic On-line. For the past few days I’ve been digesting their essays on Darfur. While I often disagree with TNR’s political and philosophical views, I find myself in lock step with them when it comes to the genocide being committed in Darfur while the world watches, debates, postures, and proposes.

As the debates and posturing continue with increasing ferocity, the genocide also continues. Oh, there has been a signing of a peace treaty of sorts, but I don’t believe it amounts to much. Musa Hilal and the murderers, thugs, and rapists who’ve been carrying out his order to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes,” like their forbearers in evil, are simply using the signed paper to buy themselves more time. Like the oft turned phrase of “blood for oil,” Hilal and the Janjawiid are simply exchanging blood for paper, international neglect, and inaction.

The latest estimate on the death toll in Darfur is 400,000. While the methodology of the genocide is, by modern standards, primitive, it’s also extremely efficient, terror-filled, and effective:

“The Janjawiid [sic] spread out across Darfur, attacking defenseless communities. Villagers were ... shot, stabbed, burned alive, and butchered. Bodies were mutilated and left in the open, there to be seen by anyone who might consider returning. In one village, sixty-six villagers were tortured in the local dispensary before being killed--some hanged by their feet, others decapitated. In another, schoolgirls were chained together and burned alive. ... Government and Janjawiid forces destroyed everything that made life possible.”

Other than the recent peace treaty, the only significant action from the international community came in the form of cuts in funding for relief to the millions in need. The U.S. has cut its funding for the effort from $113,000,000 in 2005 to $40,000,000 this year. Even more startling, the United Nations, which gave $53,000,000 to Darfur relief last year, has given a paltry $1,890,000 so far in 2006. The tragic end result is that the refugees of Darfur have had their food rations cut in half. (source) How humanitarian of us!

For close to a generation now the international community has responded to a series of epic crises with the mantra “never again.” The editors of TNR, seeing through the diplomatic and political charade, called it what it really is – Nonsense!

“Never again? What nonsense. Again and again is more like it. In Darfur, we are witnessing genocide again, and we are witnessing ourselves doing nothing to stop it. Even people who wish to know about the problem do not wish to know about the solution. They prefer the raising of consciousnesses to the raising of troops. Just as Rwanda made a bleak mockery of the lessons of Bosnia, Darfur is making a bleak mockery of the lessons of Rwanda. Some lessons, it seems, are gladly and regularly unlearned. Except, of course, by the perpetrators of this evil, who learn the only really enduring lessons about genocide in our time: that the Western response to it is late in coming, or is not coming at all.”

It seems to me that the editors of TNR are absolutely right. There are two central realities converging here. First, there is, as there always has been, the willingness of evil men to use the most despicable means – murder, rape, torture, terror, and extermination - to enforce their will. In the past twenty years it’s been men like Saddam in Iraq, the Hutu nationalists of Rwanda, Milosevic in the Balkans, and Musa Hilal and the Janjiwiid in Sudan who’ve vividly displayed this doctrine of terror for all the world to see. The other reality being played out over and over is the willingness of the world to talk, posture, and threaten, but not act in the face of genocide after genocide. Each side in this twisted diplomatic dance plays its role to the hilt. The purveyors of terror lead, ordering the terror for home consumption while advocating peaceful solutions to the problem on the international stage. The civilized world follows, threatening action, but never following through. When the music’s done, so is the killing. The despots’ blood lust has been satisfied temporarily. Body counts number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Then, the cameras role and the recriminations begin. I remember well, for example, watching as the Clinton administration spent months floundering, trying to flesh out the definition of genocide. And, while the U.S. administration agonized over the definition of what they were seeing, the agony of Rwanda went on and on. When the carnage was complete, the time for apologies came. In 1998, Bill Clinton visited Rwanda and issued this weak statement:

“We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda.”

The United States did nothing, but only took responsibility for “not doing enough.” It was Bill Clinton at his very best.

Even worse, the United Nations said absolutely nothing in he aftermath the carnage. There weren’t even any recriminations. It was just international business as usual. It had a name – “Oil for Food.”

TNR’s editors advocate action in Darfur, even unilateral American action if necessary. I agree!

But, that isn’t going to happen. First, it won’t happen because the United Nations has shown an alarming unwillingness to act in accord with the principles of its charter. Unlike Bill Clinton and his administration, the U.N. bureaucrats didn’t have the problem of defining genocide to wrestle with. They’d already done that in 1948 when they declared:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, such as (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Further, in a 2001 commission report prepared for Y.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan, the following guideline for military intervention in cases of genocide was outlined:

“4.13 Yet there are exceptional circumstances in which the very interest that all states have in maintaining a stable international order requires them to react when all order within a state has broken down or when civil conflict and repression are so violent that civilians are threatened with massacre, genocide or ethnic cleansing on a large scale. The Commission found in its consultations that even in states where there was the strongest opposition to infringements on sovereignty, there was general acceptance that there must be limited exceptions to the non-intervention rule for certain kinds of emergencies. Generally expressed, the view was that these exceptional circumstances must be cases of violence which so genuinely “shock the conscience of mankind,” or which present such a clear and present danger to international security, that they require coercive military intervention.

Apparently, the plight of the Shia, Kurds, and Marsh Arabs of Iraq weren’t enough to shock the conscience of the United Nations. Nor was the plight of the Croats in the Balkans or the Tutsis in Rwanda. Nor, is the plight of Black Africans in Darfur today.

The crisis screams out for forceful intervention, but one thing is certain. The United Nations will not be the one to act.

The United States? We could, and we should, but I doubt we will. The Bush administration, weakened by its conduct of the war in Iraq and the subsequent troubles with nation building there, has little or no appetite for foreign entanglements right now. There is, I believe, a moral imperative to act, in the same way there was a moral imperative in the Balkans, Rwanda, and even Iraq, but political reality will overshadow that imperative. Political opponents would make political hay of Darfur in the same way they did when Republicans castigated Bill Clinton for finally intervening unilaterally in the Balkans. The refugees of Darfur would become political capital for power hungry Democrats in the same way post Saddam Iraq has become their pathway to seats in Congress and the Senate. Further, while the political left would support intervention today, that support would sour in the face the inevitable casualties. Remember Mogadishu?

Action is needed in Darfur, not words. And, the United States is the only nation on earth with the power to act. We Americans may not like that reality, but we cannot change history as it is. The rest of the world community isn’t going to act; that much is clear. It’s up to us.

On my morning walk yesterday I took a bit of a detour. As I got to the corner of 10th and Elm an elderly woman opened her front door and asked me, “Is the electricity out here in town?” “No, ma’am,” I said. The lights are on over at my place and they were at the school a couple of blocks from here.”
“I can’t get any help,” she pleaded. “Will you help me?”
What could I say? “I’ve got better things to do.” “I don’t know anything about electricity.” Of course not. I had to help her. It turned out to be nothing more than a couple of problem breakers on the electrical panel in back of her house. It was easy enough to fix. A minute or so after I’d agreed to help I was on my way. A couple of blocks later I wondered what I might have done if that same woman was being robbed. I didn’t have my cell phone with me, so I wouldn’t have been able to call the police. Maybe I could have just waited until someone else responded. Maybe I could have shown up in the aftermath, hoping that she would still be alive. Or, I could have acted to help her, in the same way I had with the faulty breaker switch. I submit to you there was only one difference between the help I provided with her electricity and the hypothetical situation I thought of afterward. It was just a difference in the level of risk. One was safe and the other might have cost me something, including my life. The moral imperative to act in each case was the same. Something had to be done and I was there. That was the moral mathematics of the situation.
I believe the same moral imperative holds true for Darfur!

The United Nations is powerless to act in Darfur. The United States is, tragically, unwilling. The refugees, who should be the center of the world’s attention, are being ignored. Why? As TNR observed:

“Their plight interferes with the anti-imperialist integrity of liberals in the only country in the world with the power and the authority (yes, still) to help them. The Democrats in Washington are now clamoring for the appointment of a special envoy to Sudan. (No mention so far of Brent Scowcroft.) That is to say, they are searching for reasons to deflect the responsibility of refusing to let crimes against humanity stand.”

As with any moral dilemma, there are different courses we can take. We can act or we can ignore the genocide in Darfur. I believe it’s time for America to act, even if it means acting unilaterally. It’s time to put the politics of electoral advantage aside and act. That’s the moral course I’m convinced Divine Providence has placed in our national path. If we fail to act, there will be consequences. The blood of Darfur’s refugees will be as much on our hands as it is on the hands of Musa Hilal and the Janjawiid.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006


I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning to sail my ship.

- Louisa May Alcott

Yesterday afternoon I spent my time judging in the Kansas High school state forensic tournament. In the final round I was one of three judges responsible for deciding who would be the state champion in the “Informative Speech” category. There were six participants, and each one was absolutely wonderful.

One of the things that judges in these types of competitions are told is that the judge is to always keep in mind that the exercise, while competitive in nature, is to be first and foremost a learning experience. I suspect most of us who do the judging make the assumption that it is the student/participant who is to do the learning. After judging the finals of the “Informative” category I found that the admonition also applied to the judges. Permit me to explain.

While all the participants made wonderful presentations, there was one that has, and will for some time, stay with me. In less than seven minutes, a young student named Paula (participant number 18A), taught me an incredibly valuable lesson in seeing the value of things we most often don’t consider to be valuable at all. It was the lesson of the dandelion, or as she titled her presentation, “The Dandy Lion.”

Each spring I spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying, like millions of other Americans, to do away with this pesky “weed.” I spend hours either pulling or spraying, and for the most part my work is effective. But, the dandelion is a hearty “weed.” No matter how much I spray or pull, one or two or three or ten or fifty or so always manage to spring up from the cracks in my chemical defenses. It’s as if they have a will to overcome, to survive the onslaught of humanity.

Yesterday, however, I learned that the dandelion is hardly the useless “weed” that Ortho and the other chemical companies would have us believe it to be. I learned, for example, that the dandelion is actually in the sunflower family, and that it came to America as a transplant from Europe. No, it didn’t get here by having the people of Europe blow the seeds borne in the feathery white of the early spring dandelion. It was brought here by early settlers, very deliberately, because of its curative powers. It seems that, back in those primitive times, the dandelion was known to be a diuretic and an antibiotic. As early as the fifteenth century, the Europeans and the Chinese used dandelion as a blood cleanser. So much for the dandelion being nothing more than a noxious weed.

Today, the dandelion is used for many of the same reasons. It has curative powers for not only bacterial, but also viral infections. It’s rich in vitamins A, B, D, and G, and we use it in wine, tea, or salads. Modern medicine is also discovering that it is also useful in the lowering cholesterol. Even more amazing, some of its properties are now being used in the treatment of liver problems and even some forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer.

As I think about it now, I’m somewhat startled to think that I spend as much time and money destroying dandelions as I do. Why? The only reason I can think of is that it pops up where I don’t want it; usually in the middle of a lawn I’ve worked to keep meticulously green, a emblem to my neighbors of my diligence and hard work.

But, there was more to the lesson that participant 18A brought yesterday. This morning at church I spent some time considering Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. Most reading this post know them, even those who don’t consider themselves people of faith or belief. The reason they are so well known is that they’re timeless, filled with what Jesus called “blessings.” There are nine of them outlined in the fifth chapter of Matthew:

Matthew 5:3-11 (King James Version)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

As I considered those words I began to see the parallel to the lesson of the dandelion I’d learned yesterday. Sometimes, the things that are meant for our benefit and healing are the things we desperately try to kill. More often than we should, we consider the things Jesus defined as blessings to be dandelions. We read and consider the words and they seem so upside down to us. After all, what’s so great about being persecuted or mourning? What’s possible value can there be in meekness? I mean, aren’t prospective employers looking for “aggressive self-starters?” And, they’re not looking for people who consider poverty, in any form, a virtue. They’re looking for people who are motivated by money, aren’t they? Some blessings, eh?

Yet, this is exactly what Jesus called them. And, with each blessing there is a promise. For those who mourn, there will be comfort. For the poor in spirit and the persecuted, there is the kingdom of heaven. For those who are merciful, they will obtain mercy in return. The hungry and thirsty will be filled. The pure in heart will see God; the peacemakers will be called the children of God.

Why is it, then, we spend so much time and effort trying to avoid the very things Jesus said are meant for our benefit? Why is it that we spend so much time fending off these blessings? Some of us who are Pentecostals, in our vibrant, lively settings, rebuke them. Some of us who are from more contemplative Christian backgrounds have assigned them to memory, but we’ve found more intellectual ways to fend them off. We consider them for a fleeting moment, but the reality of life “as it is takes over” and we toss them aside or rip them from our consideration like the dandelions that try to despoil the perfection of our lawns and lives. Some of us don’t consider them at all. We all may have different approaches, but the net effect is the same. In the same way we kill the dandelions that spoil the rich green lawns we’ve spent endless hours on, we kill out the blessings Jesus outlined with weed killers of our own making.

Contestant 18A shared a valuable lesson yesterday. The things we often think have little or no benefit to us are often the things that are more beneficial than we can imagine. So it is with the “blessings” Jesus offers us in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s adversity, difficulty, and trial that are the true paths to blessing in our lives.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Of Broken Eggs and Omelettes

I’m in a reflective mood today. I browsed through my archives a while ago and found a piece that best expresses what I’m feeling. It follows for your edification

Psalm 137:1-6 (New Living Translation)

1 “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.[a]
2 We put away our lyres, hanging them on the branches of the willow trees.
3 For there our captors demanded a song of us. Our tormentors requested a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

Isn’t it funny how some memories linger, waiting in the recesses of our minds and hearts, waiting for what seem appointed times to surface? I often wonder when they come if they’re just products of dated bitterness of events long since past, memories of trying times in my life. Or, I also wonder, “Are they gifts from God, given to bring an opportunity for healing?” They’re so wispy, so difficult to describe or express in words that I’m puzzled when they rise up. And, they come accompanied by a strange mix of inner music, part martial, part sweet lullaby. Perhaps there’s a middle ground, a place where God’s healing and the bitter memories collide. Perhaps there’s a cosmic battle going on here and I’m ground zero. I can’t say for sure and leave those issues as matters of faith, to be sorted out somewhere further down the road.

But I feel compelled to express what I’m feeling. It’s an imperative.

These are really good days for me. That’s part of this odd mix. For the past week or so I’ve sensed that I’m really blessed. I see that blessing in a myriad of ways. I see it in Nancy most of all, in her gentle way, in her unswerving commitment to God and to me. I see it in the little things, in the chorus of birds who have protected a wayward blue jay chick in our back yard for the past few days. I heard it in the aviary quartet singing a cappella as I worked on my masterpiece on the grille last night. Off to my right I could hear the purple martins twittering. To my left came the chipping of a wren, responding in his own inimitable way. Not to be outdone, the redbirds chirped and the mourning doves cooed, adding the perfect touch to this glad little song. As I listened I was reminded of an old tune sung by Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, a brief sample of which follows:

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

“Listen to the bass it’s the one at the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and hippopotamus
Moans and groans in the big tattoo
And the old cow just goes “moo”

“The dogs and the cats they take up the middle
Where the honey bee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and pony neighs
And the old grey badger sighs”

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

Yes, I see God’s grace extended to me at every turn. I see it in the friends who visit, like the friends who came yesterday. I hear it in the conversations that wash gently through our house on these wonderful days. I can hear Nancy in the background, proclaiming most proudly, “Phil did this, isn’t he something, isn’t he wonderful?” as I try to focus on Doctor Mac’s animated discussion of politics, religion, the state of Emporia. I’m still amused by Gerald Clock’s tongue –in-cheek description of how he sneaks up on wild turkeys, which he revealed to us as we ate. “You’ve got to disguise the rifle and make them belief it’s a rake or some other garden implement,” he declared. I can still see the bemused look on his wife Ruth’s face as he revealed his secret. I can tell that she’s heard this story, and many like it. I ask and she tells me, “Oh yes, for thirty-eight years now.”

I’m grateful for all these little signposts of God’s goodness. They’re treasures for the keeping.

Yet, even with these blessings, there are still old memories that linger, and as I said earlier, spring up in the midst of these blessed times. This weekend, in the throes of the Memorial Day festivities, was such a time.

It all started when I reread Thomas Sowell’s “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” There, on page one thirty-eight, was the trigger, in words:

“While many opponents of the Vietnam war on humanitarian grounds (myself included) were also horrified by the vast and traumatic exodus of the “boat people” fleeing the new regime in Vietnam, and still more so by the genocide carried out by the victorious Communist regime in Cambodia, those who opposed the war from the perspective of an ideological vision created no such uproar over the sufferings of the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos after the Communist victories in Indochina. As with so many other issues, the fate of the ostensible beneficiaries was never an over-riding consideration, if it was a consideration at all. Long before the Vietnam war, the fates of other ostensible beneficiaries had been repeatedly brushed aside with phrases about “the growing pains of a new society” or “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.” It was the vision that mattered, not the flesh-and-blood human beings who were viewed as incidental casualties in the vision.”

As I read those words, the memories came. There was my arrival in Saigon. I remember the smell of death that lingered in the air as I stepped onto the tarmac at Tan son Nhut as vividly as I remember the sounds of the birds singing in my back yard last night. I remember the daily memorials, part of a tradition, of GI’s saluting as trucks filled with empty boots, reminders of the deadly cost of what later became a futile conflict. I remember the processions of metal caskets that often followed them. The coffins were going back home filled with the “remains,” while the empty boots headed to some warehouse somewhere back in the “world.” I remember!

I remember my first brush with the protest movement that was gathering steam back stateside. It was in a setting somewhat removed from the daily grind of the war, sitting at the U.S.O in Saigon, speaking with some Quakers who had come to protest. They said they’d come because they “cared.” To this day, with all due respect, those words ring hollow to me. I remember!

I remember the fall of Saigon in April of seventy-five. The memories of that day are very fresh to me today. I remember the genteel language of the media. When parsed it really meant that you really can’t “make omelettes without breaking eggs.” I remember!

The memories of broken eggs bring on fresh remembrances, memories that tell me even now who really cared and who didn’t. I remember induction day in 1961. At the end of the ceremony, in which I swore to defend my country against all enemies and to do my duty as an American soldier, a Salvation Army chaplain prayed for us and gave us pocket New Testaments. I never understood the value of that brief moment until years later. Who really cared back then? Well, there were no policy makers there wishing me well. There was no contingent of college students thanking me and the others who were leaving for our willingness to serve so that they could enjoy the luxury of an education. There was only a Salvation Army chaplain. Who really cared? I know the answer.

The memories go back even further now. I remember being, as the sociologists and the politically liberated left described me in my youth. “Look at this poor kid. His father’s a drunk and his mother’s a dolt. There’s no hope for him.” I think about it now and see that, from their ideological position, they were just describing another “broken egg.”

And so the memories come. The bitter mix with the sweet. They come and I wonder once more – “Is this just bitterness, old wounds, resurfacing for no reason or is this an opportunity to forgive.” “Or,” I wonder. “Is it something else?” I feel conflicted by it all, yet not abandoned. I feel anger, but I’m not overwhelmed by it. As the bitter mixes with the sweet I sense that God’s grace finds its way even to the “broken eggs” of this world. For that I am very, very grateful.

The thought now strikes me – should I just forget about all that’s passed? As I ponder that thought, the psalmist’s words come to me once more:

Psalm 137:5-6 (New Living Translation)

5 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

No, I cannot forget, nor should I. These bitter memories, along with the sweet, are part of me. They’ve shaped me. They’ve informed my politics, my religion, my life. I’m sure the advice will come. “Forget.” “Let go.” “Live and let live.”

Perhaps some day, but not today. Today, I’m left with the temporal reality. I am what I am; I am who I am. I am only left with the words of the poet to describe what I’m now feeling:

“I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.”

“I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night.
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.”

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like very grain of sand.”

In the end I see that I, “broken egg” that I am, am also like the sparrow that falls. I’m known and remembered, even treasured. The thought overwhelms me now and I offer a prayer for those other “broken eggs,” those failed social experiments conducted by the uncaring ideologues. In the rush of experimentation and “ideas,” they’ve been forgotten. But the psalmist’s words remind me that, like Jerusalem, I cannot forget Saigon or those broken in its aftermath.

I remember!

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rights, Rights, Rights!

“Our current American rights talk is but one dialect in a universal language that has developed during the extraordinary era of attention to civil and human rights in the wake of World War II. It is set apart from rights discourse in other liberal democracies by its starkness and simplicity, its prodigality in bestowing the rights label, its legalistic character, its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyperindividualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities.”

- Mary Ann Glendon – “Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse” (1991)

Things in America have changed since Mary Ann Glendon wrote those words in 1991. Sadly, they haven’t gotten better; they’ve actually gotten much worse. While some of the age-old divisions built and nurtured along the fault lines of “rights” are still here – white versus black, left versus right, man versus woman, rich versus poor, more and more are emerging as new interest groups are born. In the last generation or so we’ve witnessed the birth of the animal rights movement, the gay rights movement, the abortion rights movement, and, most recently, the immigrant rights movement, pitting Anglo against Hispanic.

Perhaps it’s been an inevitable evolution of our national history. After all, our birth as a nation came because our forefathers believed that their mother country had infringed upon their unalienable right(s) to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. When our victory over the tyranny of George III was complete, we drafted a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Among those rights codified, and still cherished today, were the rights of free exercise of religious belief, speech, press, assembly, and petition.

I’m grateful to be an heir to the sacrifices America’s founders made on behalf of all who followed them. I believe in the nobility and rightness of what they did. But, I’m not at all sure that if our Founding Fathers could see us today they would be happy with America’s political and philosophical landscape. On every hand, it seems, our national conversations and debates are about rights. It’s become so pervasive that it’s now trivial. We demand the right to cheap gasoline. We demand the right to die. We demand the uninhibited right to privacy. Pedophiles demand the right to freely abuse innocent children. We demand the rights of citizenship even when we aren’t citizens. We march for rights. We carry banners and flags. “You’re violating my rights.” “It’s my right.” Twenty-first century America is without a doubt awash in talk of rights. It’s rights…..rights…..rights…..rights!

But, was this all supposed to be so inevitable? Is America today, with its fixation on individual rights, the America our founders sacrificed to create? Professor Walter Berns wrestled with those questions and made the following observation:

“Of course, when properly understood, the Declaration is not merely a catechism of individual rights. In fact, it claims to be the act, not of isolated individuals, but of “one people,” a people with the “Right” to abolish one government and to “institute” another, and an entity in which individuals are bound to each other, contractually if not naturally. Accordingly, it was signed by men who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Except hypocritically, and the Founders were not hypocrites, such a pledge cannot be made by selfish or simply self-interested individuals. Yet, on the face of the document, the rights are inherent, whereas the duties have to be acquired.”

Our founders were willing to accept tremendous personal and collective responsibility in order to secure the rights they believed were unalienable. They sealed the words of their Declaration with action, a willingness to lose everything they held dear in life if necessary to create a just and lasting society. They saw, so much more clearly than we, that the foundation of the rights they sought to secure was responsible citizenship. They saw, so much more clearly than we, that the surest path to tyranny was almost inevitably found in the despot’s demand for rights without responsibilities. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 1, put it this way:

“On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

As I read the words of Berns and Hamilton my concern for the fate of America today almost overwhelms me. Are we on the brink of an era of the despotism of the individual?

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with Binna, the South Korean exchange student who’s living with us. We were on our way back home from track practice and passed by our local version of the “Day without Immigrants” demonstration at the fairgrounds. I told her that I supported the rights they were trying to secure, that I believed in the American principle that those who would embrace the principles of our founding should have a path to responsible citizenship made available to them. “But,” I said, “I cannot in good conscience support the notion that the rights of citizenship come without any responsibilities.” I asked her a question. “America has enemies,” I said. “There are some who are hiding in caves somewhere in northeast Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan. What do you suppose many of those who now demand the rights of Americans would say if I asked them to join the hunt for these despicable terrorists?” She answered without hesitating. “They would say, “I’m not an American citizen. I won’t go.” That, I submit to you, is not in keeping with American principles. In fact, it’s un-American! You see, it’s one thing to march and demand rights (the rights I support). But, the real proof of citizenship comes when one is asked to belly up to the bar, to place one’s life, fortune, and sacred honor on the line. Sadly, Binna was right. Many of those, particularly young people, who demonstrated on Monday wanted everything to do with rights and nothing at all to do with responsibilities.

While what I saw frustrated me, I also understood it. It didn’t surprise me. Those who marched were just doing what so many Americans have taught them to do. Interest groups clamoring for rights taught them. Teachers in the schools taught them. Politicians taught them. Journalists taught them. They’ve somehow come to believe that a stake in America means claiming rights without accepting responsibilities.

The other day I said that on September 11th, 2001, America was faced with a new reality, a new national challenge. On that day we were confronted with an enemy who hated us and our free way of life so much that they were (and are still) willing to kill us all and ravage the founding principles of this great national experiment in liberty. We all seemed to grasp back then that our great challenge was to invest our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to ensure that liberty and righteousness would win, whatever the sacrifice. It’s been less than five years since those days of “resolve.” It’s now 2006 and the talk of pledging our lives and sacred honor has vanished, like words lost in the mist of history. Now, the talk is of rights…..rights…..rights!

As I observe the goings on I’m not so confident that we are up to the task that was set before us. Five years ago the despots attacked and then fled into caves. Today, the despotism of the individual has sprung up from within, like a weed bent on destroying everything but its self-interest. America is on the brink of explosion, and, tragically, in all the talk of rights today, I’m not even sure we care.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Taking Moral Inventory

“In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at the stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

Bob Dylan – “Chimes of Freedom” (1964)

I’ve been back from the Carolinas for about a week now, taking some time to conduct inventory. Me? I’m fine. I’m just trying to make sense of what’s going on in America these days. I haven’t completed it yet, but what I have done so far makes me conclude that it’s somewhat like adding two plus two over and over in order to come up with a sum of five.

When we left a couple of weeks ago gasoline was about three bucks a gallon. That’s about what it is today. Somewhere during our travels I heard the hard-luck story of a man who had to pawn an antique gold watch, a family heirloom, in order to buy gas for his car. He was a real media darling. How heart-wrenching it was to think that a fellow American had to make a choice between a family heirloom and fuel for his beloved Jaguar XK. It didn’t add up.

Last week Bill Frist cavorted before the cameras, offering every American a hundred bucks to cover the cost of vacation gas this summer. The Democrats did their own cavorting in turn, calling for investigations of oil company executives, their kin, and anyone who had every associated with them. How many investigations in the past two generations does that make? Ten, I think, maybe more. Both political parties are advocating increased fuel efficiency requirements, something on the order of two more miles per gallon in the next ten years. Meanwhile, any time Nancy and I find ourselves on the road between Topeka and Lawrence we see the construction going on. The highway is being widened from four lanes to eight. We saw the same thing on our trip east and back. The construction is everywhere, with highways being widened and added. It doesn’t add up.

Just about everyone’s complaining about gas prices. Many are like that “poor soul” and his Jaguar, with painful choices to make. I read today that March consumer spending was up by six-tenths of a percent and incomes were up by eight-tenths. It doesn’t add up.

Here in Emporia today Tyson has shut down for the day. On one side of town there’s going to be a pro-immigration demonstration, on the other a counter demonstration. A lot of anti-immigrant folks here now seem willing to cut the cows they would never have considered cutting a month ago. And a lot of the illegal immigrants here seem less willing to cut ‘em than they did a month ago. It doesn’t add up.

Half a world away, in Darfur, Black Africans by the thousands are being murdered, raped, and starved into submission by their Muslim countrymen. Leftists in America are calling for international action. The U.N. response so far has been to either ignore the mayhem or extend peace-talk deadlines. The numerical threshold for genocide apparently hasn’t been reached yet. Besides, the last thing Kofi Anan needs right now is to offend the Chinese and the Russians, whose diplomatic language seems to be saying that genocide is okay. And, why not. They’ve got lots of first hand experience and expertise with it. It’s in the character of their political genes. On the other hand, conservatives have been, for the most part, eerily silent about it all. I think they’ve gotten the message. The minute some conservative would dare to advocate unilateral action to stop the bloodshed and horror, the left-wing bloggers and politicians would rise up in unison against any action that would offend our “allies.” The preference for “dialogue” would win out. So, in the end, Darfur will almost certainly be ignored and become another Rwanda or Sudan. It doesn’t add up.

Less than half a year from now America will be five years removed from the attacks of September 11th. I remember those days well. My heart ached. And, so did the hearts of almost all Americans. With few, if any, exceptions we were united as a nation. I didn’t matter that the economy was in tatters. I didn’t matter that the stock market plunged and plunged and plunged. We were together in our adversity; we were Americans to the core, and we were going to find the way to win. We sensed in those days that we could lose something very, very valuable and we decided to pull together so that we could preserve the things we cherish. Today, the Dow is up and national unity is down. Division is in. It’s the order of the day. Was it only five years ago we were “one nation under God?” It seems so much longer, maybe generations ago, maybe even a time relegated to ancient history. It doesn’t add up.

About the only thing that seems to make sense is the work of our enemies. Every four months or so since that fateful day Osama or one of his cohorts crawls out of the sewer like a cockroach, threatens us, and says we’re doomed. We turn the lights on for a minute, then crawl back into the darkness, and we turn the lights off. It’s a deadly dance. I think maybe they believe they can win this thing by just allowing us to defeat ourselves. And, I think they may be succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. We’re about ready to implode. We’re richer than we’ve ever been. We’ve got bigger houses than we’ve ever had. We’ve got two, three, or four cars per family. We eat out almost every night of the week. We spend more for pet food than a lot of countries spend on food for people. Our stores are jammed with inventory. Our closets are filled to overflowing. We own so much we now have to rent storage space for what won’t fit into our houses. And yet, we’re splintered and dissatisfied. It doesn’t add up.

I can’t help but wonder where America is going. I fear we’re somewhere between having sown the wind and reaping the whirlwind. While our wallets are full, our hearts are close to empty. I can almost hear the sound of hissing as what little there is left of our national morality oozes slowly from our bankrupt souls.

Jesus once illustrated this type of emptiness. What he had to say was stark, very pertinent to America today:

“Then he said, “Beware! Don't be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own.”
And he gave an illustration: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. In fact, his barns were full to overflowing. So he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll have room enough to store everything. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, my friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get it all?’
“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”

It’s a message that’s needed, but I fear it will go unheeded. We’re on the brink, at the edge of the precipice and our wealth and self-centeredness are pushing us over the edge. The cockroaches are crawling all around us and we’re too afraid of losing our wealth to turn the lights on. It doesn’t add up.

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