PRAYERS AND VIOLENCE

Hi again, dear readers.

I’ll state up front that as I sit down to write this blog, I’m out of sorts

For one thing, I’ve come down with my first cold of the season. You know the drill: stuffy head, runny nose, achy muscles. an overall feeling of lethargy and irritability.

Current events have also led to my being out of sorts. The little boy in me lost one of his heroes this week. Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in the past two decades, died in a solo airplane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Roy was only forty; the husband of his high school sweetheart, Brandy; father of two young teenage sons, Braden and Ryan. I was fortunate enough to follow his award-winning career while he played for both of my “hometown” ball clubs: 12 years with the Toronto Blue Jays, and four with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a hero of the adult in me, too. Rarely does a great athlete come along these days who deflects glory from himself, shares it with his teammates, is abundantly generous with his time and money, particularly with children with special needs. I confess that in reflecting on Roy, I have wept tears of sorrow…and gratitude.

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We know that over 25 people of faith were gunned down in First Baptist Church in Sunderland Springs, TX. I admit that mass slayings have become almost the “new normal” so that they don’t make as deep an impact on my heart as I should allow them to make. However, I recognize that these victims are brothers and sisters in Christ with me as well as fellow humans.  I didn’t know a single one of the victims, of course, yet still, I feel a deep kinship and mourn their loss in a particular way.

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The holocaust at First Baptist itself was bad enough. But the President of the United States made my grief and anger deeper (he never fails to do so) by saying, “This was a mental illness problem, not a guns situation.” Isn’t it almost a cliché after such shootings to attribute the event to some “deranged loner.” Are such statements aimed, as I believe they are, to ease our fear and salve our corporate conscience as a people? It’s a cop-out, I truly believe. It distracts us from looking closely and in a spirit of repentance at the culture of violence, particularly violence inflicted by guns, which we have allowed to thrive, if we have not actually encouraged and applauded it.

Besides, I would like to ask the President, “If you truly believe mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did your administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database?”

To top all that, a Lutheran clergy colleague, the Rev. Hans Fiene, polluted the discussion with some simplistic, distorted theological claptrap. The title of his post in his The Federalist blog was, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” His argument is based on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” His only understanding of deliverance is to be “saved” from this world (that “God so loves”, mind you) and transported to the transcendent realm of glory “where no violence, persecution, cruelty or hatred will ever affect us again.” He thus concludes that Devin Patrick Kelley “only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.”

Talk about putting the ultimate “good spin” on a tragic violent event which I believe breaks the heart of God! Following his ludicrous theological logic, couldn’t we argue that Mohammed Atta and the other 9-11 terrorists were serving God by delivering however many Christians were killed in the World Trade Center towers to their eternal peace and rest? Wouldn’t that or any other such act of violence please the heart of God in that God would be joined in heaven by a whole new slew of children while their time in this evil world was shortened?

It’s not that I don’t believe in that eternal realm. As a matter of fact, I rather look forward to it. But there’s plenty of evil right here in this world where we have been planted by divine design from which we need to pray to be delivered, and that I believe we are called to address and combat the best we can.

There. I’m not so out of sorts now at the end of my post. Oh, I’m still blowing my nose constantly; I still can’t believe Roy Halladay is dead; I continue to mourn the 26 brothers and sisters in Sunderland Springs; I’m not any better disposed toward President Trump’s explanation for the tragedy than when I began; and certainly Pastor Fiene’s misreading of Christian Scripture is a burr in my theological saddle. But as I said in my previous post about why I write, I knew that the exercise of simply sitting down and writing would be enough to make me feel better. And, it did.

Until the next time, cherish this unique and finite day.

 

JAS

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WHY DO I WRITE, ANYWAY?

              My next-door neighbor, Janet Benton, author of the excellent novel Lilli de Jong, asked that question of the readers of her blog a few months ago (https://janetbentonauthor.com/blog/.) I’ve been pondering it at red lights, grocery store lines, and waiting to be reconnected to the internet ever since. Today’s post is an attempt to take a stab at an answer.

 

              If you ask me, “Why do you write, Jack?”, you might as well ask me why I eat, or why I breathe. I can’t help myself. I don’t know what I think until I have written the thought down on paper. The notion of making up stories and chronicling events has been a part of my make-up since early childhood. Like many of you, I published a neighborhood newspaper, however short-lived) on an old black Royal typewriter rescued from someone’s trash when I was seven or eight years old. I must have been less than nine-years-old when I wrote a “play” based on a Classic Illustrated comic book version of The Tale of Two Cities, as I recall. I asked my mother for the fare and took the streetcar down to the local CBC affiliate station on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Shy, introverted, self-conscious little Jack handed it to the receptionist, who kindly told me that she would pass it on. As far as I know, it never appeared on the CBC! 🙂

              It was in high school, though, that I fell in love with the inestimable power of words. I can still remember the day, as though it were just yesterday when I was transfixed and transported to Long Island as I read the last paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…and one fine morning–“

              “God, I want to write like that!” I exclaimed to my fifteen-year-old self. “I want to put words together like those that move readers, that make them believe in the green light and stretch their arms farther.

The Great Gatsby

              After that, the seeds of a novel, or actually, of many novels, were germinating in my fevered mind every time I read one like To Kill a Mockingbird; Johnny Got His Gun; Look Homeward, Angel; Franny and Zooey; or The Power and the Glory, among so many others.

         220px-To_Kill_a_Mockingbird         Look Homeward, Angel     Johnny Got His GunFranny and Zooey          

 Retirement turned out to be the occasion for some of the seeds to sprout finally and emerge as my first novel, Beginning Again at Zero (http://www.lulu.com/shop/jack-saarela/beginning-again-at-zero/paperback/product-22899604.html) about which many of you have said kind words. The seeds of that project were sown back in 1971 when Diane and I saw the movie version of Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land.

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              The late, great sportswriter Red Smith is purported to have said, “Writing is quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein…” Frederick Buechner adds to that, “For my money, the only books worth reading are books written in blood…” My newest project is a second novel, Accidental Saviors, about which you will be hearing perhaps more than you wish in the next few months. Reading and seeing movies all these years about the horrendous plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe during World War II, like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, is what opened my vein to write that book. The pain I feel for them in my own blood I will try to transfuse into my readers’ veins.

              The novel won’t be all blood and pain, however, I promise. My two protagonists are based on two actual Finnish historical figures, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska, who happened to be in Germany just as the war was erupting in 1939. Though they didn’t set out with this in mind, each became an “accidental savior” of the lives of countless, perhaps thousands by the end, of Jews trapped in Germany.

              One writing mentor advised me that a writer’s aim is to make a similar thing happen inside the reader as happened to you in writing. Though by no means 100% admirable, Kersten and Niska inspire me to be more courageous, more cognizant of, and possibly more willing to advocate for, those in my world today who are oppressed or marginalized.

              When they get to the last page, I hope that to make the readers of Accidental Saviors be that way, too.

 

Until the next time, dear Reader, cherish each moment of this unique and finite day.

JAS

 

 

TIME TO STEP UP

I was very near Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, at the Massanutten Resort in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, in fact. I was enjoying the company of five valued former colleagues who comprised the Churchwide Campus Ministry Team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Together, we oversaw and serviced the 140 or so ELCA ministries on college and university campuses across the nation. We were together as a unit for the first time since the CCMT had been disbanded in 2009 because of the acute fiscal condition of the ELCA.

We were reminded of our mortality by the conspicuous absence of the one colleague who had died since 2009.

We drove to Monticello, the plantation owned and designed by the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is located less than 10 miles (much less as the crow flies) from the august institution of higher learning which Jefferson founded, the iconic University of Virginia.

As the six of us enjoyed wine tasting at a local vineyard, good food in local restaurants, and much laughter and reminiscing over more wine back at our digs, the University of Virginia was in the news once again. We were blissfully unaware of the happenings in Charlottesville just a few miles away until we got to our various homes.

For the first time since August 12, several dozen torch-bearing white supremacists gathered to vent their hot air near the UVA campus. Thankfully, there were fewer of them this time, and no counter-protesters [present as a couple of months ago to inspire even more hatred in their polluted hearts.

Over the past two years, Donald Trump has almost single-handedly mainstreamed racism, tribal hatred, xenophobia, and suspicion of anyone or group different from the white majority in the United States. (There are echoes of the same in Canada, as well, the country of my citizenship.) Formerly fringe organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other overt hate groups have been emboldened by the President’s insensitive speech and mindless tweets. One mother I read about said that her South Asian adopted daughter had never heard a fellow student harass her because of her ethnicity and skin color before the last presidential election campaign. But since then…

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It’s not enough for me to simply point my finger at an uninformed and unprincipled President or express my rage at the white supremacists. That’s too easy,  and ultimately unproductive. I must, rather, seek some way to build bridges to those different from me.

That bridge-building begins with self-examination. We Christians call it “confession”. What racial prejudice, for example, still finds a dark corner in which to exist in my own heart?  In what ways do I make judgments about persons, their actions or attitudes, with the self-righteous assumption that my own unexamined actions and attitudes form the standard by which to make those judgments? Why is it that I allow myself to feel discomfort whenever I must travel through a primarily African-American neighborhood, and then feel a sense of comfort as soon as I reach my destination in a primarily white neighborhood?

I confess I feel profound anger and downright disgust whenever I see photos of the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville.  My stomach begins to turn whenever I hear even a faint hint of the President’s voice from the television in the other room. Are these feelings themselves, in fact, telling symptoms of hatred within me?

After confession comes “repentance”. Not just feeling or manufacturing remorse for my sins. More than that, a “turning” towards new attitudes and behaviors. To see whoever is “other” in some way as more similar to me than different. To see the struggles of “others” as my own, and their successes as mine, as well. To remember that the “other” is, like me, a child of God. To remind myself that there is dignity, beauty, and truth in every human life. To dare to venture out of my liberal, “progressive” bubble and talk with—or more importantly, listen to, someone who is in a conservative, regressive bubble of his or her own. Who knows?  We may discover that we strive for the same goals, only by different means. Would I have the courage and love to do so over a cup of coffee with one of those white supremacists carrying a torch or wearing the white KKK bedsheet?

Suddenly, we may hear a wall between us begin to crumble and rejoice that we’ve started to build a bridge of love and understanding.

Until the next occasion, live this day to the fullest.

JAS

BORROWED ADVICE AND WISDOM when our own wisdom fails

Hello again, dear reader. It’s been a while.

During that time, I have been rehearsing, writing, and re-writing in my mind what I might say as a response to the recent rally of white nationalist and their counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA. But it seems that the words I come up with seem trite, and do not bear the weight of the gravity of the situation and the hatred, racism, and white supremacy revealed there.

I’m also aware that in my visceral reaction to President Trump’s statement in the wake of the events, I may so something I regret later.

Therefore, I am going to borrow the words and wisdom of songwriter and storyteller Courtney Ariel. My blog post this time consists of an almost entire reproduction of her essay For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies published on the website of the Sojourners Community in Washing ton, DC-www.sojo.net. In this essay, she gives some sage advice to white people (most of the readers of this blog are, indeed, Caucasian) as to how to express our support for and alliance with African-Americans, Jews, Native Americans and First Nation Canadians, other marginalized groups, and others targeted by the white supremacists.

 

FOR OUR WHITE FRIENDS DESIRING TO BE ALLIES

“I’m not going to do much coddling here; I don’t know that I believe that love requires coddling. Here are six things you can do to be stronger allies.

  1. Listen more; talk less.You don’t have to have something to say all of the time. You don’t have to post something on social media that points to how liberal/how aware/how cool/how good you are. You are lovely, human, and amazing. You have also had the microphone for most of the time, for a very long time, and it will be good to give the microphone to someone else who is living a different experience than your own.
  2. For one out of every three opinions/insights shared by a person of color in your life, try to resist the need to respond with a betteror different insight about something that you read or listened to as it relates to their shared opinion. Try just to listen and sit with someone else’s experience. When you do share in response to what someone has shared with you, it can sometimes (not always) feel like “whitesplaining” — meaning to explain or comment on something in an over-confident or condescending way. This adds to the silencing of the voices of people of color.
  3. Being an ally is different than simply wanting not be racist (thank you for that, by the way). Being an ally requires you to educate yourself about systemic racism in this country. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowand Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and so many other great books and articles that illuminate oppression and structures of white supremacy and white privilege. Use your voice and influence to direct the folks that walk alongside you in real life (or follow you on the internet), toward the voice of someone that is living a marginalized/disenfranchised experience.
  4. Please try not to, “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” your way into being an ally when atrocities like the events in Charleston, S.C.,and Charlottesville, Va., happen. People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome you. I want for you to come into a place of awareness. However, your shock and outrage at the existence of racism in America echoes the fact that you have lived an entire life with the luxury of indifference about the lives of marginalized/disenfranchised folks. Please take several seats.
  5. Ask when you don’t know — but do the work first. This is nuanced. Some marginalized/disenfranchised folks will tell you not to ask them anything; don’t be offended by that. Folks are tired, and that is understandable because it is exhausting to be a marginalized person in this world. However, there is something special that happens within human connections and relationships. In a nutshell, don’t expect for people to educate you. Do the work to educate yourself. Ask questions within relationships that feel safe, and do so respectfully.
  6. And finally, stop talking about colorblindness.It’s not a thing. Colorblindness is totally impossible in a nation whose land was taken from the indigenous inhabitants through an attempt at genocide and horrific colonization. The same nation that enslaved humans and exploited them in every way imaginable built a nation on their backs, hung them, hunted them, and for centuries kept them from their basic inalienable rights and still does. The same nation that exploits and deports immigrants who were promised refuge within the American Constitution. The same nation that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and continues to promote bigotry, exclusion, and violence against LGBTQ/gender non-identifying folks. This nation that allows swastika-wearing, Confederate-flag-toting, anti-Semitic racists to have a platform for their hate. The same nation that promised religious freedom, yet targets those who do not believe in a white, capitalist Jesus.

I love Jesus. And promise, Jesus was not white (literally brown, and wonderfully Jewish) and would have never been a capitalist.

It will never be possible for us to be colorblind, and we shouldn’t ever want to be.

I heard a saying once at an Al-Anon meeting that offered me liberation: “We are only as sick as our secrets (and our shame).” Shame can only live in the darkness; it can live within the systems of denial and defensiveness that we use to cover it up. We have to name these things, acknowledge them, and begin to do the deep work of transformation, restoration — and reparation.”

Sage, thoughtful advice, indeed, Courtney. Readers: until the next time, live today to its fullest.

JAS

 

 

 

I must begin this post with a confession of sorts: for the last week and a half, I have been living with another woman. Oh, to be sure, I continue to cohabitate with Diane, my wife of almost 46 years. She actually knows this other woman, in fact, perhaps better than I do.

There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

            There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

 

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

 

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

 

Lilli’s is a harrowing yet inspiring tale. She is a Quaker in 1883, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia Lilli is educated enough by the Quakers (Society of Friends) to become a schoolteacher. Her mother dies when Lilli is still living at home, and her widowed father romances another woman, which earns him, and consequently Lilli and her brother Peter, not just censure, but expulsion from the Quaker Meeting as well.

 

Lilli has a one-night encounter with Johan, the good-looking, smooth-talking guy mothers warn their daughters about. Wouldn’t you know it, but Lilli gets pregnant. Johan pledges his intention to marry Lilli, and promises to send for her from Pittsburgh once he finds work there and is settled. Of course, Johan is gone with the restless wind.

 

There weren’t a whole lot of choices for unwed pregnant women, either in Philadelphia or anywhere else, for that matter, in 1883. Jodie Foster will have a much easier time of it in 1997. For a fleeting nanosecond, Lilli considers the option of abortion, which in the late 19th century was a crude, primitive and eminently perilous procedure. Besides, it violates her deep Quaker principles. Instead, she finds respite of sorts at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants.

 

She was to surrender her infant within three weeks of its birth to the well-meaning staff of the charity, who would then find adoptive parents. However, Lilli develops such an almost unhealthily boundless bond of love for Charlotte, that she is determined to keep her. Not an easy decision, by any means, in Victorian society. Lilli secures one of the only forms of employment available for an unwed mother: she becomes a “wet nurse” for the child of an affluent family. Meanwhile, she is forced to “farm out” her own daughter to an anonymous wet nurse elsewhere, with almost disastrous results.

 

That’s as far as I have gotten so far in this riveting novel, however. But I can tell that my literary neighbor has set me up to witness more heartrending hardship for Lilli, and undoubtedly for little Charlotte as well.

 

Having attended a book talk Janet gave at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got the distinct impression that most of those present who had already read Janet’s novel, or who lined up to purchase a copy after the talk and have Janet sign their copy, were women. That’s to be expected in a way. I’d wager many of those women in attendance were mothers, or were hoping to become mothers, and certainly had their own, undoubtedly often ambivalent relationship with their own mothers.

Lilli de Jong cover

But I have to say, that reading Lilli de Jong as a male, a husband, and a father of two sons, has been very enlightening. Much of the prejudice that Lilli encounters in her society, and the judgment she endures from religious leaders, was not new to me. By her decision to keep Charlotte, Lilli is rendered impoverished and powerless. The self-serving phenomenon of blaming the poor for their own situation remains with us today. Just listen to Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania talk derisively about Medicaid and its recipients.  I came to see in the course of the story, however, how even her mistress, her boss, Clementina, although wealthy and privileged, has only very limited choices and is virtually powerless in her own right. Powerlessness is a woman’s thing in the 1880s, not just a poor woman’s thing – even today, to be sure.

 

I’m personally proud of my author-neighbor Janet Benton. The advice often given to budding authors (like myself) is to hang out with more established writers and absorb the wisdom. So, how fortunate I am to be able to talk books and writing with a skilled novelist from my front porch to hers ,whose debut novel wasn’t merely selfpublished like my own, but by a real grown-up publisher,. I feel a kinship with Janet because we both like to read and write historical fiction.

 

Kirkus Review concluded its review of Lilli de Jong, with the following assessment, and I end this blog with the same words: “Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.”

Janet Benton portrait

Lilli de Jong is available as a e-book for $12.99 on http://www.BarnesandNoble.com. Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites sell the hardcover book at a discount. Philadelphia area friends: signed copies are available at local Barnes and Noble and Indie bookstores. If you are not near Philly, Janet would be happy to send you a signed bookplate. Let me know and I’ll shout your name and mailing address to Janet from my front porch.


Until the next post, live each day to the fullest because today is he only day that you are guaranteed to have.             JAS

 

 

A SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT FOR A MAN

AN EVENING WITH A WOMAN WHO TELLS THE TRUTH

I had the privilege last week once again this year of attending the Frederick Buechner Writers’ Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. We were a moderately diverse group of men and women brought together by our deep desire to write, our Christian faith (delightfully heavy on the progressive side), and our love for Fred. Buechner, now 91 and retired in Pawlet, Vermont, is a Presbyterian preacher, memoirist, and novelist who writes about life and faith in an inimitable way. People who have sat in the pews of congregations I have served have heard a lot of Frederick Buechner in quotes.

Older Buechner

            One of the keynote speakers was Anne Lamott. Among her other works, Anne has written several amusing, appropriately self-deprecating memoirs of her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her years of alcoholism and drug addition, her coming to Christian faith, and her honest reflections on the joys and heartaches of being the single mother of Sam, now also a published author. The first in the series of charming, witty, but at the same time biting, memoirs are Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually. 

            Speaking to a room full of writers who aim to communicate faith and hope in their work, Anne pointed out that the most important item in the writer’s toolbox is “your butt”.

I was a little stunned by that, but having several of Anne’s books I should not have been distracted by her irreverence. What she meant, she went on to explain, was “keeping your butt in the chair, no matter how blank is the page in front of you. “You can’t take the easy way out and get out of the chair. You’ve got to stick to it, even if all you write that day are a few lonely words.” Goes for life in general, doesn’t it, as well as writing?

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            A couple of other gems she shared with us:

I try to write the books I would love to come upon that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness – and that can make me laugh.

About her insistent self-revelation in her books, even of the painful times:

Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.

Another remark that spoke to how we live our lives as well as to how we approach our writing:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.

 

Anne is a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, and much of her wisdom about life and God she gleans from A.A.:

My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way, I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.

 

I am not writing to try and convert people to Christianity. I am just trying to share my experience, strength and hope, that someone who is as messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared as I can be fully accepted by our dear Lord, no questions asked. 

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for an evening of hearing the truth spoken, and for the years of being surprised by grace in your books as a reader who oftentimes, also feels “messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared.”

Until next time, friends, live each day to the fullest.

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: People Who Look to Trump for Salvation

One of the more eye-opening books I have read recently is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly

Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book club at my church read and discussed it. Some, like me, read it in the context of trying to wrap our heads around what to many of us was Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph in the 2016 presidential election.

Vance, now a Silicon Valley investment lawyer, began life in rural Kentucky a little over thirty years ago. His childhood family was what one could call a textbook “dysfunctional family”. He shuttles back and forth between his ne’er-do-well mother who is addicted to prescription pain medication and prone to hysteria, and his grandparents – Pawpaw and Mawmaw – plagued by alcoholism, rage, violence . . . and, it must be said, love.

After barely graduating high school, Vance enlists in the Marines, where he begins a life transformation. When he returns to civilian life, Mawmaw provides surprising encouragement for her grandson to continue his education. She feels he can transcend the “dead end” environment and lifestyle that his classmates embrace, thoughtlessly and almost by inertia. From Ohio State University, he proceeds to Yale Law School, where he succeeds despite feeling like a fish out of water. At the dean’s dinner in the first week of his Yale career, for example, he needs to be shown by a fellow student which fork to use first.

But Vance “made it”, despite what he calls “skyscraping odds”.

During his childhood and youth, his family relocated some 100 miles north to Middletown, OH. There the men take jobs at the local steel plant, which was going great guns in the 1950s (though not so much in later decades). With the generous steel industry wages at the time, the family achieves the material comforts of the middle class for the first time. Vance, however, discovers that the family had brought their Appalachian values with them into the suburbs. Some were wonderfully positive, like fierce family loyalty, profound love of country and respect for the military. But others, like a tendency towards verbal abuse and violence as the default method for resolving differences that were inimical to family life.

As he grows in years, Vance lives increasingly in two cultures: the hillbilly culture, for which he has a love-hate relationship, and the new upwardly-mobile worldview of white privilege in New Haven and San Francisco (more about my own white privilege in a future post).

It struck me in reading Vance’s tale that the “hillbilly culture” is not terribly different from that of blue collar working class and former mining communities in northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania, the “Rust Belt” and poor, former mill towns in the South.  A primary quality of hillbilly culture is what Vance describes as a kind of “learned helplessness”: economic insecurity and poor self-image caused by an inescapable reliance on jobs in the mines, mills, and factories, which of course in recent decades have gone the way of 78 rpm records and manual typewriters. “My friends and relations are convinced that the mainstream media lies unabashedly; that politicians lie; there are no jobs; and the universities are rigged in favor of the city “elites” and against the likes of us.” “What’s the point of trying and making an effort when it’s useless? Nothing can be done to change our lot.” So those around Vance reason understandably.

Until Donald Trump, that is. Vance wrote his book before Trump declared his candidacy for president. But a reader in 2017 feels his presence, nonetheless.

You’ll recall that Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky were in the Trump column this past November. It seems to me that the populations of Appalachia, the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt are easy targets for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” contrivance. Though the private-schooled, Penn-and-Wharton-educated Trump is as “elite” as they come, somehow he has duped Vance’s people and others into looking to him to resurrect the coal mines, for example, and reopen the shuttered factories, make all the vanished blue-collar jobs come back from China, and like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the bursting dike, hold back the inexorable, decades-long swelling tide of globalization and mechanization in the workplace (robots).

False, cynical promises. False, naïve hopes.

Until next time, live each day to the fullest.  JAS

A “DOUBLE-HEADER” IN ARKANSAS

Sorry, Mr. Hutchinson. The deadline was April 30. Time’s up.

That was the expiry date of Arkansas’ supply of the controversial sedative, midazolam. The state of Arkansas uses midazolam to numb death row inmates before their execution so that they suffer less pain when the actual “death drugs’ take effect and perform their fatal function. In fact, midazolam has been shown to work as promised only some of the time.

The expiry date lit a fire under Governor Asa Hutchinson. In order to execute as many inmates on Arkansas’ death row as possible before the deadline, he signed death warrants for eight of them, nearly 25% of the entire death row population. That would have been a third as many people as were put to death in all fifty states in 2016.

The first execution was scheduled for April 22, just eight days before the deadline. Because the courts intervened (Mr. Hutchinson, no doubt, would say interfered) and caused a delay, it was no longer possible to have one execution per day before April 30. So, the state performed the execution of two inmates on the same day, a dubious kind of “double-header” if there ever was one. That’s not surprising, I suppose. Arkansas carried out triple executions in 1994 and 1997 – a model of efficiency in the annals of state-sanctioned murder.

I have hesitated to post anything about this matter since it’s difficult for me to contain my anger. I am nothing less than passionate about abolition of the death penalty, so passionate that some have said I have lost all sense of proportion and perspective on the subject. I display very little patience and sympathy in conversations with people who advocate for the death penalty. No credible scientific evidence has emerged to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. The application of the death penalty is uneven, with minority inmates, the poor, and those of borderline intelligence and mental health being the most likely to be executed. If it brings “closure” for the survivors of the murder victims, it creates new survivors of a person put to death violently.

My opposition to the death penalty has been a lifelong passion. It was sharpened, however, since I became pastor to five inmates on Florida’s death row in Raiford, just thirty miles from the congregation I was serving in Gainesville. Since 1989 when I was invited to provide spiritual care to these five, the sentence of three of them has been changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One remains on the row, where he has been warehoused since 1987.

That leaves one, Ray. In 1990, I accompanied Ray to his execution in “Ole Sparky”, as Florida’s electric chair was ghoulishly referred to. That night and the following morning, I was sickened by the bizarre notion of the scheduled death of an individual. I was traumatized for months afterward. Even now, 27 years after the execution, my pulse beats faster and the adrenaline rushes. The barbarity of the practice is still overwhelming to me.

In the Arkansas case, there are features that make the occasion even more brutal and base. The fourth victim, Kenneth Williams, executed on April 27, had been determined by health care professionals to be “intellectually disabled”. He was executed, anyway. He may not even have been cognizant of why he was being killed. Can you call something “punishment” if the one being punished is not aware of why?

Even people traditionally in favor of the death penalty would agree, I daresay, that eight executions in a space of eight days is the epitome of irresponsibility and the trivialization of death. Why the rush when all eight had been sitting in 6’ x 9’ cells 23 hours a day for years, in a few cases, decades? Public defenders argued that the rushed schedule did not allow them time for essential parts of the legally-sanctioned defense process, such as applying for clemency, which cannot be done until the death warrant has been signed. Several of the public defenders were working on the case of more than one inmate, an impossible task under even the best circumstances, much less under the duress of eight or fewer days.

The state of Arkansas paid little heed to the psychological and spiritual health of the numerous individuals assigned to perform an execution. A state investigation, resisted, by the way, by Governor Hutchinson,   found that the extremely tight schedule caused “untold stress” on the staff, and recommended that future executions be spaced apart. The report pointed to the higher risk of mistakes in such hurried executions. More than two dozen former corrections officials from across the country signed an open letter to draw attention to the impact on the executioner, a forgotten person in the process, also a victim of the barbarity.

It’s interesting that for the four executions that were not blocked by the courts, at least one was put in jeopardy when the Rotary Club was unable to find a sufficient number of volunteers to witness the act, which are required by law. In Florida, I recall that folks were lining up to volunteer whenever an execution was scheduled. Perhaps times have changed, and people have grown more repulsed by the practice. Probably wishful thinking on my part, I admit.

A personal heroine of mine, Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana (See Dead Man Walking) has called upon those who, like me and her, oppose the death penalty, to continue the effort to work towards abolishing it. She hopes that the obscenity of eight, or even four, executions in eight days, will wake people up to the horror that is committed by the state in the name of all its citizens.

A dark subject this week, to be sure. But nonetheless, until the next post, live each day to the fullest. If you favor the death penalty, I promise to patient and receptive to your comment if you wish to leave one.

JAS

“Ants in the Pants of Faith”

The Pew Research Center reports that the fastest growing religious group in North American is the “Nones” (not “nuns”, though the way things are going, there may be none of them in the foreseeable future, sorry to say). “Nones” are those, primarily among young adults but not exclusively so, who do not identify with any organized religious group. Neither do the “Nones” embrace any particular creed or champion any particular body of theological tenets. If they do, it’s the view that since all theological systems have their valid points, it’s not particularly desirable, therefore, to espouse any one body of doctrine.

As a pastor and chaplain on college and university campuses for a quarter of a century, I encountered many “Nones”. They weren’t difficult to find on campus, but they were hard to engage in a conversation about religious manners. The idea of religion simply didn’t appear on the iPhone screens and so was pretty well irrelevant to most.

However, every once in a while, I’d manage to get a “None” to sit down with me and carry on a conversation over a cup of coffee. A couple of those conversations come to mind now. In both cases, the young person indicated to me, somewhat wistfully, that he/she had been taken to a Sunday school by his/her parent or parents, but felt they had “graduated” and moved on.

“Do you think anything you learned in Sunday school had stuck with you?” I asked.

“Sure. The idea that God was a big judge up there whom I had to please, or else. I did like Jesus, though. He seemed like a nice guy, somebody I’d like to have a beer with.”

“Do you talk to him regularly now?”

“No. When I got into me teens, I found I just couldn’t believe wholeheartedly in many things I’d been taught about the Christian religion.”

“Can you say more? What kind of things didn’t make sense for you?”

“Gee, I haven’t thought about these things for a long time. It’s hard to remember one just now . . . I suppose the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin, for one. That was too much of a stretch. At my childhood church, we used to say ‘We believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary”. I couldn’t say that, or else I’d be a hypocrite. So, I kept silent during that part. After a while, I just stopped going to church completely since I couldn’t buy the whole package of goods they were selling.”

A shame, really, to abandon one’s religious quest just for the sake of what I consider a side issue in the Christian faith. It seems this person got the idea somewhere that by faith, Christians mean for one to give intellectual assent to certain doctrines. Therefore, if one cannot give such intellectual assent to something like the virgin birth, then one is being faithless, a “None”. So goes that line of reasoning.

I recall thinking that way myself when I was younger. I almost panicked as a college freshman when I couldn’t incorporate some things I’d learned at church into my developing intellectual worldview. The virgin birth was one of those things, though there were others. What would my pastor or parents say if I told them I had doubts? How could I even consider becoming a pastor if I couldn’t accept unswervingly every doctrine contained in or suggested by the Bible? Secretly, I feared I was disqualified from being a Christian, much less a man of the cloth.

It was my own campus pastor, the late Larry Martin, who helped me understand the nature of faith. “If you know something for a certainty,” he would say to me over our own cups of coffee, “that’s knowledge, information, not faith. Faith is to trust in the reality of something when you don’t know it for certain.”

“Do you believe that all that is has been created by a loving God?” he asked me once.

“Yes,” I said, “provided we can agree that God didn’t literally fashion it all in six days, but is somehow a power or force that is embedded within and perhaps guides a process of evolution.”

“Agreed,” he said. “Well, then, don’t you think the Creator of it all, by whatever means, can arrange to be incarnated in the womb of a virgin, or anybody God chooses?”

“Good point,” I conceded.

“Besides,” he continued, “I’m surprised that as an English literature major you can’t appreciate the poetry of the Bible when it talks about things like the virgin birth.”

I felt a little slighted. But also liberated. For one thing, Larry didn’t chastise me for any doubts I had about the virgin birth and any number of other matters that troubled me that he and I discussed during my college years. Secondly, I could apply my brain and use reason in reading the Bible? That was a novel concept for me at the time.

Larry was the first to teach me that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather an essential part of it. Doubt is as unavoidable for faith as is our own shadow on the sand at the beach on a brilliantly sunny day. It comes naturally and unavoidably with the territory.

My second novel, currently nearing the end of the first draft, deals with the fate of Finnish Jews and Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I have been able to weave thoughts about profound doubt into the story. As Jews in Finland begin to hear about Nazi atrocities in Europe, their faith in the God of the covenant with Abraham is sorely tested by doubt. I help my character’s struggle with faith in the shadow of Auschwitz.

A few years after college, I discovered Frederick Buechner, novelist and preacher extraordinaire, who has been my bookshelf companion ever since.  He called faith “the ants in the pants of faith”; hence, the title for this post. “They keep faith alive and awake and growing.” For other such gems of religious and practical wisdom, see http://www.frederickbuechner.com/wishful-thinking-a-seekers-abc/ 

Until next time, live each day to the fullest. Keep asking questions and voicing your doubts, perhaps in the space for comment below. Or send me a personal message. Don’t forget to click the “Follow” button for future posts.

 

 

 

 

WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT GOOD FRIDAY, ANYWAY?

The front page of this past Saturday’s Inquirer (that’s the Philadelphia daily newspaper, not to be confused with the notorious purveyor of fake news and “alternative facts”, the National Enquirer), featured a color photo of the bloodied face of a bearded young man carrying a large wooden cross. The young man, compete with a crown of thorns, was a Mexican immigrant portraying Jesus in a live re-enactment of the Good Friday passion in Bensalem, PA the previous evening.

I thought it significant that the great majority of the 300 or so who followed Jesus’ progress along the Via Dolorosa were also immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador – many of them, according to the accompanying article, undocumented. They came into the open to witness the re-enactment, in spite of President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigrants.

It’s not at all surprising that in the current political climate in the United States, immigrant communities, like the one in Bensalem, is under duress. Many, especially children and youth, are fearful for their future, or that of their parents, even if they are in the United States legally.

It makes eminent sense to me, therefore, that such painfully realistic re-enactments of Jesus’ suffering and death have a particular appeal for immigrants, especially ones who have fled from oppression or violence in their native country, and now may be made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by many in their adopted country.

German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was sentenced to prison by the Nazis during the Second World War. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote that “God helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”  As the bewildered, often guilty German people were trying to make sense of the rubble of defeat as the war was coming to a close, Bonhoeffer said, “only the suffering God can help.”

As my pastor was doling out reading parts for Holy Week and Easter services last week, she assigned readings from Good Friday to me. Because she and I had discussed earlier my positive feelings about Good Friday, she added with a smile, “It’s your favorite service, anyway.”

She’s right. In the rather earnest Lutheran piety in which I was raised in northern Finland, Good Friday was the liturgical pinnacle of the church year. One got the impression, in fact, that Easter was merely a necessary add-on to make us conform to the rest of Christendom. But Good Friday was where it was at.

A little historical background about my native country might help explain. For most of its post ice-age history, Finland has been a land of oppression, suffering and poverty. For five centuries, the Swedes lorded over the Finns, and after 1809, it was the czarist Russians. Even after independence in 1917, the country was racked by a bitter and bloody civil war. In 1939-40, and again in 1941-1944, the Finns fought the invading Russians valiantly, but both times had to surrender and accept punitive terms for peace.

When my family and I left for Canada in 1955, before the ascent of Nokia, Kone and Marimekko, Finland was still a chronically poor agricultural economy.

So, it’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Jesus’ radical vulnerability and apparent defeat on Good Friday speak so profoundly to the Finnish psyche. Don’t misunderstand me: Finns celebrate Easter, too. But, Finns know that “only a suffering God helps” a people acquainted for much of its life with grief.

There is suffering in other places and among other peoples as well, of course. Boy soldiers in the Congo; girls abducted en masse by terrorists in Nigeria; mass starvation in South Sudan; refugees drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to flee a dictator who poisons his own people with sarin gas.

I am almost to the point some days where I am tempted to tune out the daily news – uncharacteristic for a newshound like me. The juvenile “mine is bigger” contest between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seems, at first blush, a matter to chuckle about until one realizes the unspeakable suffering and destruction if one or the other doesn’t blink, turn down the volume of the bellicose rhetoric, and walk away.

So, immigrant or not, documented or not, we live in a world where there is plenty to fear. Don’t we feel hopelessly vulnerable much of the time? In that kind of world, nothing short of God’s submitting his own heart to be broken will enable God to reach the terrified hearts of the people God loves. Only a God willing to be totally vulnerable in the person of Jesus on the cross will help.

Yes, my pastor had it right. I thoroughly enjoyed Easter service this past Sunday. The world surely needs the good news of life in the midst of death, of hope beyond despair. But the news of resurrection and victory would be infinitely less credible for me and have a less profound impact on me, if I were not convinced that the one who was raised on Sunday was first crushed on Friday.

 

That is why Good Friday remains at the top of my personal theological pinnacle.