Thursday, May 26, 2016

DREAMS VERSUS REALITY



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It nearly ended the friendship.

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

Then, reality set in.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"EVEN SO COME"


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

-          Revelation 22:17 (New International Version)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we manage to get it all so wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE WORKING CLASS STRIKES BACK



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

TRAJECTORIES

Nancy and I spent this past weekend in Kansas City. On Sunday, we attended Liberty Christian Fellowship. For me, the theme of the morning was what I can best term as trajectory. 


Our lives are always going somewhere. As I sang along with the rest of the congregation and listened to the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, I gave thought to the trajectory of my life, especially where I might be heading now if God hadn’t found a way to intercept me on that road to perdition.

I’m not the man I once was. People who know me now probably wouldn’t think it possible that the Phil they interact with now is someone who could be capable of living consumed with rage, anger, and bitterness. But I knew that man well and I knew what he was capable of. There’s no need to bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say, I was hopelessly lost and I really didn’t care. The trajectory of my life was straight down, to the pit of hell itself.

As far as I was concerned, life had very little meaning, other than the few transient pleasures one could drag out of it. In the end, I believed, everyone dies and everyone rots. There was no heaven; there was no final judgement. Given that, I felt I could do whatever struck my fancy. There was no need to worry about being judged for my actions. There was no room in my belief system for God, Therefore, I reasoned…..no God…..no judgement…..Do whatever you want.

But, a long series of events led me to a crossroad I never anticipated.

The events built upon one another, without my being able to see them. They were sign posts of grace, meant to let me know that someone or something outside of me cared about me. As I look back on it now, I realize I was too stiff necked and rebellious to acknowledge them.

The anger, bitterness, and rebellion within me grew to the point where I knew I was going to cross a line no man should ever cross.  That time came shortly before Christmas in 1966.

I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. I wasn’t involved in a day to day combat role. My duties were pretty routine – send and receive teletype messages, encrypt and decrypt classified material. The Vietnam War I was acquainted with was a mass of routines, with the occasional mortar and rocket attacks punctuating the boredom.

It was during one of those routine days that my reckoning came. My duties that day included burning classified documents in an incinerator outside our duty station. I was being given a brief respite from the daily grind and routine.  The duty sergeant gave me an M-16 and sent me on my way.

I was about half way through the task when I noticed something moving out in the trees outside the chain link fence that surrounded the incinerator. I stopped to take a closer look. It was an old Vietnamese man relieving himself. He appeared to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. At first I thought I should warn him of my presence, but decided against that. Then, my heart began to pound. “This old man needs to be put out of his misery.” I paused for a moment, then began to think to myself, “I’ve never killed a man, but this may be the perfect time. Why not kill him? Everyone else is killing people over here… No one will notice…..I can say that I warned him and did what I had to do.” I picked up the M16, loaded it and aimed it at the old man. I was about the release the safety when the following words came to me, almost as if William Shakespeare himself were reciting them to me – “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” I stopped, not fully understanding what was happening. Was I talking to myself? Was I hallucinating? I decided my imagination was playing tricks on me and I tried again. As soon as I tried to take aim once more, the words came again…”The quality of mercy is not strained…” When I heard them the second time I knew my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me. Someone or something outside of me was trying to stop me from doing something so evil that, in doing it, the life of that old man would be needlessly taken and my life would forever be lost.

I dropped the weapon and began to cry uncontrollably. “Are you the God I’ve heard people talk about? I sobbed. 

Then, the encounter ended as quickly as it had started. I had work to do and an encounter to try to erase from my mind. 

I tried over the next month to forget what had happened, but I couldn’t let it go.
It all seems to clear to me now, but it wasn’t then during that pre-Christmas encounter. The trajectory of my life was either going to go down to the pit or up the heaven itself. There were no other options, no other paths to choose. It took about a year from the time I left Vietnam, but I surrendered my life to Jesus in August, 1967.

I occasionally read those words I heard in 1966. They were from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” act iv, scene 1. The passage they came from follow in full:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthron├Ęd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

They’re powerful. As I read them, I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare didn’t once have an encounter like mine.
  
There are times, in my wild flights of fancy, I mistakenly think I would have made the choice to surrender to God on my own, without Him intercepting me. But, I know that’s not true. God was looking for me; I wasn’t looking for him. He was the one willing to forgive and embrace me; I was the one who was prepared to take the evil in my heart as far as it would take me. He was the one willing to bear the cross, not me!

But, thankfully, I’m not the same man I was in 1966. I have changed. I’m not complete yet and I have a long way to go. I sometimes lurch down the highway to heaven like a drunken man, veering left, then right rather than following straight along the road. Things catch my eye that have nothing to do with where I’m going, but all too often I give in to the temptation to indulge myself in the vanities this life affords. I’m all too often vain and self-righteous. Like the prophet Isaiah, “I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Like Paul of the New Testament, I’m the “chief of sinners.” And yet, amazingly, the same grace and mercy that intercepted me back in 1966 still intercepts me today.

Ever since Sunday, I’ve been thinking about the trajectory of my life. How different it would be today if it hadn’t been for God’s grace that day in Vietnam. I’m grateful for that day and I’m grateful for this day. I’m still on my pilgrimage and it will be complete someday. Then, I will see face to face the One who reached down in mercy to alter the trajectory of my life. For that, and the life to come, I am eternally grateful!