Thursday, October 05, 2017

HEROES



There’s a lot of media buzz about the heroic defense of our First Amendment professional football players have mounted in response to our President’s intemperate remarks about what they’re doing.

Many in the media seems to want us to embrace them as heroes, but I can’t bring myself to that place. The players were well within their rights to protest, but calling their actions heroic is a bridge too far.

I can think of others who stood for what they believed who were truly heroic, not only because they stood up for what they believed, but also because they did so willingly, at considerable risk to themselves.

On October 22nd, 1965, not long after I’d arrived in Vietnam, a young Chicagoan named Milton Olive, who was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was killed in action. He and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle on a search and destroy mission. The Viet Cong started lobbing grenades at them. They were in trouble. Image result for milton olive

The medal of honor citation speaks eloquently of the type of man Milton Olive was: “Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body.”

Milton Olive risked everything for his fellow soldiers. He didn’t have to. He had surely felt the sting of prejudice during his life. He was African-American. Further, one of the men he saved, Robert Toporek, was southerner. He and Olive had fought one another before they arrived in Vietnam. Somehow, that fight opened the door for brotherhood. Toporek, who survived the firefight, described how it happened - “After that, we were brothers. We were fighting the same Viet Cong. We didn’t care what color your skin was, what race you were.”

Robert Toporek, the white southerner, lived. Milton Olive, the African-American from Chicago, died to save him. That’s heroism born out of love.

Sophie Scholl was born in Germany in 1921, to what has been described as “free-thinking Christian parents.” She grew up reading Socrates, Augustine, and Pascal. She learned from the Bible that “words must be made real in actions.” (James 1:22) Her father taught her that “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” By the time she was 21, she had seen the evil of the Third Reich and believed that time for both words and action had come. She helped form an organization called “the White Rose” in 1942. For about a year they secretly printed anti-Nazi literature and distributed it. The sentiments were printed in bold fonts with simple messages - “LONG LIVE FREEDOM’”or “DOWN WITH HITLER.”  It wasn’t a glamorous protest, with media breathlessly hanging on every word they published.

In 1943, she and her “co-conspirators” were caught and subjected to a show trial. The Nazi judge’s verdict was a foregone conclusion. Sophie was to be executed on the guillotine. Her last recorded words to her cellmate spoke volumes - “Such a glorious, sunny day and I must go...What will my death matter if, because of our actions, thousands of people will be awakened and stirred to action.”

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Sophie Scholl was 22 when she died. She could have remained silent in the face of the evil around her, but remaining steadfast in principle meant more to her than life itself. That’s heroism of the highest order.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Catholic order of nuns that was founded in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan. Her mission statement for the order was simple - “My little ones, never forget that the poor are Our Lord; in caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus – what a great grace!”

The American branch of the order provides food, shelter, and nurture to the old, infirm, and poor. They ask nothing for themselves. They own their dignity and faith, nothing more. They take vows of poverty in order to do their good work.

Image result for the little sisters of the poor

Yet, the Little Sisters have run afoul of our government. They’ve refused to obey what they believe to be an immoral Obamacare mandate to provide abortifacients to those they employ. They’ve been threatened with fines so steep they would have to shut down their operations.

Their case has gone to the Supreme Court. It’s still in limbo. The Little Sisters are standing firm. They’re risking everything for what they believe. That, I submit to you, is heroism.

I have no axes to grind with the N.F.L. I just don’t consider what they’re doing heroic. When it comes to heroism, there are plenty of candidates who are more worthy of that honor.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

MEMORIES




“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine”
  • Mac Davis/Elvis Presley - “Memories” (1968)


The recent hurricanes have triggered a lot of thinking for Nancy and me. We’ve found ourselves wondering how we would respond if we’d lost our home and  all our earthly possessions. Would we be so crushed we wouldn’t be able to go on?

In terms of material wealth, we’ve been blessed far beyond anything a reasonable person could, or should, expect in life. Pop theology would tell us we earned it all. Christian theology, on the other hand, tells us, that material wealth is often a trap on the road to perdition.

Knowing that, we see that the most valuable things we have are one another, our shared faith, and the memories we’ve built in our 31 years together.

I met Nancy at a time in my life when marriage was the last thing on my mind. I’d done marriage once and I’d failed miserably at it.

My logical approach to life was simple. Being a bachelor freed me up to spend  Saturdays with my buddies, not antique shopping.

It started slowly, with pleasant conversations outside Broadway Baptist Church after a class Nancy and I were attending. As one week blended into another, my admiration for her grew until I was head over heels in love.  I was like the cartoon character whose heart was bouncing on the end of a spring, with train whistles blowing smoke from my ears.

I was hooked. We were married on September 13th, 1986.

My most vivid early memory came when we moved to New Jersey. We rented an 1836 Victorian house in Montville. It was a lovely place. Nancy especially loved watching the birds in the morning as she sipped her coffee. On this special morning, she spied a visitor she hadn’t seen for a while. “Oh, Phil!” she exclaimed as she squeezed my hand tightly. “It’s the flicker.” The moment might have escaped my notice if it hadn’t been for the power of the squeeze. Nancy is quiet and contemplative. She prefers silence and introspection in the mornings where I prefer noise and activity. The power of that squeeze taught me that, while Nancy is quiet, there are very powerful things stirring in  her soul. That little bird clearly had a very special place in her heart.

I’ve never forgotten what I witnessed that morning. I’ll always treasure it.

A few years passed and the morning found us still living in New Jersey. Unlike her normally quiet times, Nancy was making a lot of noise downstairs while I was still trying to sleep. I got irritated  enough to ask what was going on. “If you get cleaned up real quick, we can make it to Cape May for breakfast,she responded with a sense of urgency.

Cape May, which is known for its bird sanctuaries and quiet little inns, was a hundred miles to our south, but how could I refuse?

A few hours later we were sitting in a little inn, ordering breakfast. As I looked around, I noticed something that had until then had escaped my notice. I was aging. I saw the other patrons and realized, “My God, I’m as old as them.” I was having an encounter with my mortality. Nancy seemed to pick up on it asked a really strange question. “So, Slick, tell me what you’ll do with your life if I die before you?” I saw right away what she was trying to tell me. Our morning encounter wasn't just about my mortality. It was about ours. I tried to avoid answering, but it wouldn’t work. Nancy persisted. “I finally blurted out, “I don’t want you to ever die,” then started blubbering like a fool. Nancy would have none of my sentimentality. “Look, Slick. We’ve got three choices - you before me, us together, or me before you and if I go before you I won’t be coming back just to please you. I’ll be in heaven, so you need to get past your sentimental Irish ways and figure out something productive to do with your life if I die before you.”

I didn’t sink in at first. It wasn’t till later that night as I read a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” that I saw how selfish I was being. If push were to come to shove, I'd have been willing to snatch her from heaven if it would benefit me. I’d forgotten that Nancy was a person distinct from me, that she wasn’t put here just for my amusement.

I think this is what Lewis must have been feeling when he wrote of the grief he felt when he lost his wife, Joy Gresham,  to cancer: What sort of a lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers? Even the insane call, ‘Come back,’ is all for my sake. I want her back as an ingredient in the restoration of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the first martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal?

Memories have been added over the years - international trips to Switzerland, Ireland, France, Austria, Israel, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, quiet morning conversations,  planting gardens, sipping wine on our front porch on cool Kansas nights as we watched the world pass by

We've been together for 31 years now. They've been the best 31 years of my life!

It’s so true. Possessions come and go, but memories stay. They really are the permanent things in our lives and we need to treasure them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

ANCHORS OF SANITY






Events in Charlottesville and the President’s response to them have all but sucked the oxygen out of the public square. It’s understandable. Neo-nazis and their ilk live by a creed most of us find absolutely disgusting. They have earned the condemnation being heaped on them, even if the President refuses to see it.

There are also other stories that hit the back pages of the news that are no less important than Charlottesville. That became very evident when I read the news coming out of Iceland and France on the morning of the 16th. In a dispatch from C.B..S. News, the people of Iceland reported that only two Down Syndrome are born in Iceland annually, thanks to mandatory pre-natal screening, which in turn has led to abortions of most unborn Down Syndrome children. They were quite proud of what they’d accomplished.

It’s also  being reported that that France has gotten the same sort of result with their mandatory pre-natal testing. Over 90% of pre-born Down Syndrome children in France are aborted before they’re born.

Apparently, the result didn’t completely satisfy the French authorities. On the morning of the 17th I read an essay written by J.D. Flynn written in “First Things,” the publishing arm of  the “Institute on Religion and Public Life.” This is from one of his early paragraphs:

“Last year, the Conseil d’Etat upheld a government ban on a television commercial highlighting the lives of people with Down syndrome in video was judged to be “inappropriate” for French audiences because it conveyed happy people with Down syndrome, who were “likely to disturb the consciences of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”

I guess French sensibilities are fragile, just not fragile enough to stop the abortions.
It makes me wonder who the next target might be. The autistic? Those with cleft palate? Spina Bifida? Fragile X Syndrome? It makes me wonder when, or if, this will be coming to America.

One of my great joys in life is spending time with Nancy’s developmentally disabled brother, James. I’ve known him for 31 years now.  I know him alternately as James, Beanblossom the Great, and my twin brother-in-law.

James wasn’t born with any syndrome. He was the older of a set of twins. But, early on in life he developed spinal meningitis and double pneumonia simultaneously. The result is his developmental disability. Some of his cognitive skills are very limited, but one thing I’ve always seen in James is his uncanny ability to read discomfort in other people. He’s a great judge of character. He also a has one of the firmest moral compasses I’ve ever seen in a person. You can’t make James do something he morally objects to, not even under the threat of death. You’ll never find James preaching hate or carrying a Tiki-torch around Emporia.

Can James be difficult? You betcha.’ I’ve had more than one occasion when I’ve told him he’s driving me up the wall. Those little flare ups almost always end with James and I hugging tightly and forgiving one another.

The developmentally disabled can often teach us profound life lessons. My next door neighbor, Dewane Reed, is autistic. I think his disability may be profound, although I’ve never discussed it with him. The degree of his disability isn’t important when compared with his simple humanity. One of the connections we had early on was our mutual love of slapstick comedy. We both love the Three Stooges. I’ll sometimes see him early in the morning or the evening when my day’s labors are done and launch into my bad imitation - “Hey, Dewane, How you doin? Whoop, whoop, nyuck, nyuck, nyuck...coitenly!” I usually top if off by slapping my head, a la Curly. The silliness amuses Dewane no end.

Like James, Dewane just wants to be loved and do a good job. It makes life pretty simple. You’ll never find him sporting a swastika or carrying a Tiki-torch around town. And, unlike our political leaders and fat cat developers, James and Dewane aren’t dreaming up clever ways to pick their neighbors’ pockets.

The people of France and Iceland have decided the world is a better place without the likes of James or Dewane. It seems to endow them with a sense of superiority. As Flynn put it in his essay, “Shunning—or aborting—disabled people lets us pretend that we are stronger, smarter, and more independent than we really are.”

God, I hope this never comes to America. I don’t think I’d want to live in a world without James and Dewane. They’re anchors of sanity in an otherwise insane world. We need them far more than we need the spectacle of neo-nazis in their jackboots. In fact, we probably need them more than we need slick politicians or fat-cat developers.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

DEVELOPMENT DONE RIGHT

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On Saturday morning I took a pleasant morning stroll around Kansas City's River Market with our pups. While they concentrated on the scents left by other neighborhood dogs, I focused on all the changes that have taken place in the River Market since we bought our loft in an old industrial building about 10 years ago.

As Nancy and I were considering a second place in Kansas City, we explored Westport, the Plaza, and Crown Center. While each area had its charms and appeal, we eventually decided on the River Market, in part because the price was right and in part because we were offered a fifteen year tax abatement to buy our loft. It just made sense. The planners understood that if the incentives are given to homebuyers rather than developers and other speculators, a thriving community will spring up and businesses, almost exclusively small ones with good paying jobs, will follow the people who have moved into the neighborhood.  

When we first bought our loft, there wasn't a l ot of neighborhood activity. There were what you might call the old staples of the River Market– the Steamboat Arabia, Planter's Seed, the Al Dente Café, Carollo's Italian Market. But, my, how things have changed. As the dogs and I strolled along, we passed Houundstooth, a small specialty tailor's shop, Nature's Own, a health food/grocery store, The Farm House, a delightful eatery where all the food served comes from local vendors, small restaurants like A Taste of Brazil , Beignet, Bloom Baking, the Opera House. We passed a new loft development being built on the corner of Fifth and Grand and a recently completed loft complex a block north of that. A bit further east, there's a new condominium complex.

At 6:15 A.M. I heard the clang of the streetcar making its first daily stop.  It's become a familiar sound in the River Market for a over a year now. While some residents weren't sure about the streetcar project when the issue was being debated, the referendum passed and residents and business owners have now seen that the service has been a roaring success. It's given local residents free transportation to the Power and Light District, the Crossroads and Arts districts, Union Station and Crown Center. It's also given residents from other parts of Kansas City free transportation to enjoy the River Market vibe. The project has been so successful that the residents of the city south of the River Market have just voted to approve extending the streetcar service south all the way to U.M.K.C.  

Toward the end of our walk, we went west. The development is omnipresent there as well. At the far west end of the River Market district there's a huge apartment complex and a small convenience store. As we got back to our place on Second and Main, I looked across the street at one loft complex that was completed a few years ago and another that is under construction. When it's completed, it will be totally "green," including rooftop gardens.

Ten years ago, the River Market was struggling in the aftermath of rampant crime and mafia influence. Today, it's the place to be in Kansas City. The area is overflowing with life.  The shops, cafés, and bistros are full to the gunwales.  How did that happen in such a short time? It was simply economic development done right. Incentives were given to homebuyers rather than developers and residents got to vote on other issues as development moved along. The result of this "development done right" has been beneficial for everyone – residents, the city, business owners, and even developers.  
When we got back to Emporia on Sunday evening I took the dogs for a walk downtown and spotted some hopeful signs. Lofts, with what will be small shops on the lower levels, are being built, thanks to Cory Haag, a young entrepreneur who seems to get the concept of people first. It's development done right in the right place.  

On Monday I drove  to Wal-Mart and couldn't help but notice the Hobby Lobby project in its final stages. It's a testament to what I believe is old school economic development, where few profit and many pay. Pretty soon now we'll have another big box retailer and more westward sprawl, thanks to a combination of an incentive-seeking developer and readily available land. The developer will profit, as will the landowners who sold to the developer. What will the rest of us get? A one percent bump in sales tax on any purchases we make at Hobby Lobby.  

While it's good to see a few encouraging signs in downtown Emporia, it's discouraging to see that too many of the old ways still persist. It makes me wonder if we'll ever learn.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

'STAGGER ONWARD'

Something Josh Barro recently wrote in a “Business Insider” essay struck a raw nerve with me - “Except on abortion, where public opinion remains about evenly divided, conservatives have implicitly admitted that they have lost certain parts of the cultural war.” He’s probably right. Most Conservatives can see that our culture is changing at what appears to be breakneck speed. 


As I observe the changes, the question for me as a Conservative is no longer “How do I/we stop this?” We’re well past that stage. 

Once in a while in conversations with friends I allude to the old slippery slope, which instantly makes me the target for their loving scorn. “This isn’t the slippery slope, Phil. It’s progress.” The conversation usually ends there, with me stubbornly clinging to my thoughts of humanity at the highest point of the roller coaster, poised to take the plunge straight down into the abyss.

The signs of change are becoming more and more pronounced. A case like Charlie Gard, where the State apparatus has supplanted parental rights, has become legally acceptable. At what point will society decide this arrangement is also morally acceptable? Will it become normative?

It wasn’t too long ago that euthanasia was almost impossible to imagine. Now, it’s becoming increasingly tolerable, even to the point where involuntary euthanasia is being practiced (NCBI/NIH abstract “The Illusion of Safeguards” – 6/2012). Polite discussions about what to do with unwanted or unhealthy children are now taking place, thanks to the work of ethicists like Princeton’s Peter Singer and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, both of whom advance the grisly idea that killing a child is a morally sound decision. Coyne recently put it this way in a blog posting dated July 13th: “This change in views about euthanasia and assisted suicide is the result of the tide of increasing morality in the world.” 

Not to be outdone, Gary Comstock, a philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, wrote about the painful death of his newborn son. After reflecting on his agonizing experience, he decided “that the repugnant has become reasonable. The unthinkable has become the right, the good. Painlessly. Quickly. With the assistance of a trained physician….You should have killed your baby.”

How far into the abyss have we plunged? Just this morning I read a piece in the Palm Beach Post about some teenage boys in Florida who mocked and filmed Jamel Dunn, a 32 year old disabled man, as he drowned. The more Dunn pleaded for help, the more they mocked. “Get out the water, you gonna die” one teen can be heard shouting. Another yelled to the man “ain’t nobody fixing to help you, you dumb (expletive).”

According to Florida law, the teens hadn’t done anything wrong. There may be a statute they violated by not reporting a death, but mocking a dying man and making a video of his ordeal isn’t illegal. Is it immoral? It probably is now, but will we get to the point where even things like this will become morally acceptable?

I just finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option – A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” The book is in part a tome and in part an indictment of the modern Christian Church. Dreher bores in right away, arguing that the Church, which should be a counterforce to secularism, has become “content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.”

Dreher argues that Christians have some very important decisions to make. As a baseline, he cites the work of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who saw that “the time was coming when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.”
Dreher then argues, quite persuasively, that Christians need to pull away from the rest of society? He calls it the “Benedict Option.”

I think he may be right.

We Conservative Christians need to understand we have lost the culture wars. The question for us is no longer how to stop the wheels of the machine, but rather it is now a question of how those who choose to can live a meaningful, Christian life in such an environment.

The signs of the times all point to one thing. The Christian pilgrimage for many right now is difficult. Our input is neither valued nor wanted. The path is narrow; the light seems dim. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, we need to press on, in our own way. As W.H. Auden put it in his short poem “Atlantis,” we must:

“Stagger onward rejoicing
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse”