Thursday, December 03, 2009

When a Friend or Loved One is Dying, How Do You Manage Your Time Together?

Saying goodbye is one of those parts of life that’s never easy, whether it’s after a night out with friends, a holiday weekend with family, or when a child leaves home for college. As difficult as those farewells are, there’s always the hope that you’ll see that person again soon and the separation will at worst be just a temporary break.

The enormity of the goodbye, though, takes on a whole new meaning when the farewell is forever, and the person with whom you’ve been talking or spending time is dying. It’s only then that are you shocked by the awareness that the time you’ve had together hasn’t been nearly enough and that all of the years you had to enjoy together have suddenly passed in the blink of an eye. All of the important things you always thought you’d have time to say suddenly and inexplicably seem to fall far short of what those fleeting last minutes together warrant.

Several years ago, I had my first experience with this when I paid my last visit to my maternal grandfather. Having been ill with cancer for a while and knowing that he was dying, he had come to terms with his prognosis and was at peace with it; I, however, I had not thought through it fully enough and tended to view it – in an unduly optimistic manner – as something from which he would recover. Just a few weeks before he passed away, I stopped to spend three days with him and my grandmother on a return trip to Alabama from a week of business in Washington. He managed to get out of bed and get dressed for dinner on my first night there, but that proved too much for him and he went back to bed for the remainder of my stay. During those three days, we had some great conversations and spent a lot of time talking (when I wasn’t out of the house running errands for them) – but never did the conversations turn to anything meaningful about what he was going through or move to a point where I was honest and forthright enough to tell him how I was feeling about his last days and how much I was going to miss him. I never got the guts to do it, and I regret it to this day – although I think he knew.

When it came time to leave, I was hit with the realization that this was it – I wouldn’t see him again. I leaned over the bed to hug him and tell him I loved him, and immediately broke down. For the first and only time that I could ever recall, he started crying too and said that he loved me. I’m sure those words had been spoken between us at some point during my life, but I couldn’t remember when; even now, this particular instance and my goodbye to him are the only time burned into my memory where I can remember either of us saying it to each other.

I still feel there wasn’t enough time with him, but there’s also a deep sense of guilt that I didn’t do enough in life to take advantage of the time I did have.

Not long after this visit, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie with the note that she thought it would be meaningful to me at that particular period in my life. I sat and read it in a single sitting one Saturday, with there being two results: one, I cried all over again with just as much intensity as I had when I said goodbye to my grandfather; and second, even more guilt welling up because despite the time Albom had missed with a college professor who he said had meant so much to him, he took time each week to go spend several hours with him – and despite the distance between my home in Alabama and my grandfather’s home in Virginia, I didn’t pick up the phone nearly enough.

This week, I had to confront it all over again. An older friend of mine who I have known for a number of years and who (along with her husband) had always been so kind to me and supportive during one or two difficult and challenging periods in my life paid a visit to my mother and, among other things, told her very matter-of-factly that she was dying. She, too, has been battling cancer for a while, and again I was hopeful she would recover, despite knowing how dire the circumstances were. Now, getting that email from my mother that this wonderful English lady was dying put me right back in my grandfather’s bedroom those several years ago.

I had written P. a note when I first found out she was ill without any expectation that I would get a response; after all, when you’re going through intense treatment to rid yourself of cancer, the energy to do something as simple as write a thank you note or send an email just isn’t there. My mother mentioned, however, that P. in the course of their conversation told me how surprised and delighted she was to get that note from me – undoubtedly surprised because she and I have had a chance to talk since a Christmas Eve service a few years ago, and delighted because I was not someone she was expecting to hear from.

And here, suddenly, was another opportunity to manage the time I had with someone who was important to me at a key point in my life. Within a few hours of hearing from my mother, I called P. – and we had a wonderful 30-minute conversation. Again, though, there was no talk of her situation (other than one mention of her treatment and her quick and almost subtle use of the phrase “in the short time I’ve got left” at one point during our chat), but this time it wasn’t really out of a fear on my part of bringing it up. No, it was – as my mother had warned me she would do – because P. left me feeling much better when I got off the call than I felt when I first called (and was afraid that I would fall apart on the phone). We talked about my wife and children, my job, and her children and grandchildren; we talked about the overall situation at a church our families had attended together; and we discussed our plans for Christmas. (If all goes well and she’s feeling up to it, we’ll actually have an opportunity to visit for a bit, which would be absolutely wonderful.)

There were no tears, no sadness, and no awkward silences as we danced near that line of discussing what was going on with her health. Instead, there was lots and lots of laughter, and in listening to P. I detected the same quiet acceptance and peace about what lies ahead on her path that I sensed in my grandfather.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has famously discussed the five stages a person goes through when faced with their own impending death. With my grandfather and with P., I found two people who had already progressed to the fifth stage of acceptance and who actually did more to calm me (whether they realized they were doing so or not) than I expected. For those left behind, though (and I certainly don’t think I’m stating anything either profound or original here), watching someone you love die isn’t something we can accept peacefully – we’re the ones who are often stuck in the phase of (in the words of Dylan Thomas) raging against the dying of the day, the dying of our loved one.

But rather than rage against this impending loss, or withdraw into a fearful place where you can’t find acceptance about the situation nor the courage to be open about your feelings, shouldn’t we be managing our time with these friends and loved ones more effectively?

There are all sorts of clichés out there - seize the day, live every moment to the fullest, take time to smell the roses – that relate to having a lot of time on your hands to fill. How do you fill that time, though, when the hours and minutes are perilously short?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What a Visitor at Church Gave to Me

Today, we had a visitor at church.

In and of itself, having a visitor isn't an unusual thing - we have visitors on many Sundays. The congregation tries to greet as many of them as they can, chats with them during the exchanging of the peace, and makes sure that they are included at the altar when it comes time to share in communion. What was unusual today, however, was what I got from this visitor.

It was obvious that he came from a difficult background, and after talking to him for a few minutes and learning a bit about him I couldn't help but think that much of what he owned was in the backpack that he brought in to church with him. He told me about having lived with someone who had more mental problems than he does, how it got to the point where he couldn't deal with it and had to leave, and how he often felt like he had gotten separated enough from church that he just couldn't go on. He didn't say where he was living or how he was getting by - although the answers to both of those questions seemed obvious just below the surface in what he wasn't saying - but he did tell me that he was hoping he would get something out of the service today. I responded by telling him that ours was a great church and that we were very glad to have him there with us.

Then there was a long pause, after which he looked at me and asked, "What do you find the hardest thing about being a Christian?"

I was floored. Here was a question that came from beyond left field, and it hit me such that I didn't have an immediate answer. Had it been anyone else, I might have tried to laugh it off or give a humorous answer just to get through the moment. But I could tell in looking at him that he wanted - he needed - an answer fror me. So I gave him the best one I could.

"The hardest thing for me in being a Christian is that I keep forgetting I don't have to do it all myself. I'm a diagnosed depressive, and it was hard for me to even get help for that because I'm 'the fixer': I'm the one who always tries to fix the problems my kids are having, or my wife is having, or my friends are having. I just can't seem to fix what's happening to me. Being in this church, though, I'm constantly reminded that I don't have to do it all myself, that there are others around to help. Most of all, being with these people is a reminder that that God is there to do things for us when we can't do them for ourselves, and puts others in our lives to help us. Even with that reminder, though, remembering that is the hardest thing for me."

I don't know whether that is what he expected to hear, wanted to hear, or needed to hear, but it was the answer I felt I should give him. Aside from greeting him again during the exchanging of the peace I didn't have a chance to speak to him - and I don't know whether he found what he was looking for when he visited us today. But regardless of what he may have gotten, he certainly gave quite a bit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dwight Eisenhower: Advocate for the Poor

Veterans Day is always a time where I surf the 'net for quotes from famous military figures and watch YouTube video of generals like Patton and MacArthur and Bradley. We shouldn't, of course, limit our remembrance of these men - and of every man and woman who has ever served in the military - to just this one day and Memorial Day, but the history and significance of November 11 is conducive to this sort of research.

As you've probably noted in my previous few entries, my attention has turned in a significant way towards much more social issues: homelessness, poverty, elections and the public welfare, etc. In looking through some military quotes this evening, I was stunned to find this quote from Dwight Eisenhower that ties those entries in to this Veterans Day: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Overlord, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and later President, was one I never expected to discuss something as significant as military spending essentially being "a theft" from those who are living without. I, like many, tend to keep him in the military box - talking to the troops the day before the invasion of Normandy, developing the grand strategy for victory in Europe, setting the parameters for the army's involvement in the reconstruction of western Europe. Never did I imagine (partly attributable to a lack of having read enough about him) that he would boil our overwhelming defense spending down to the lowest - but certainly not least sigificant - common denominator.

My respect for him has certainly grown, and while his quote could be taken by some political types as justification for their current calls for a reduction in military spending (some of which has actually been carried out), I think it clearly - and surprisingly - demonstrates a much deeper and plainspoken concern for the poor in this country than I ever expected.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Would Jesus Vote?

Today, as most everyone should know by now, is election day (and if you're reading this in Virginia, New Jersey, or New York's 23rd congressional district and have forgotten to go to the polls, you may still have time). At various points during the course of the day, I was engaged in (read as "started") several debates on whether today's results - no matter how they turned out - would be a referendum on the first ten months of the Obama Administration. The comments were lively, to say the least, and there was a lot of passion from all those who weighed in with their remarks.

At this point, you're probably thinking to yourself that I had limited this blog to discussions of faith and my family, and that I was leaving the political discourse on one of two other sites on which I comment (One Man's Politics and Two Rhodes Diverged). What will surprise you, though, is that faith is involved very much in this discussion.

How? Quite simply, I began to wonder whether Jesus - if he were here today - would vote.

The Gospels of Matthew (22:21), Mark (12:17) and Luke (20:25) all contain the story of Jesus speaking to a crowd and asking for a denarii, at which point he got them to name which person's likeness was shown on the coin. He then responded, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." As Caesar was (in a very loose sense of the term) a politician supported by the Roman Senate, would the entire realm of politics and elections fall under that same division of "belongings"?

So if Jesus were here today, or if there were such a thing as the election of a Roman governor in the early years A.D., would he have voted, or would he have simply continued his ministry of social justice and the crusade to develop a sense of concern for the least of us by others in the population, and to heal and bring people to a knowledge of God and the imminence of His kingdom here on earth? I'll interject at this point that I first broached this question to a friend and priest to see what his initial thoughts were; his response was, "He couldn't vote... technically he couldn't register because he was from a Kingdom 'not of this world.'"

After giving me time to absorb the humor of that comment, he went on: "You could ask what the political process would look like in the Kingdom of God. I mean, if we're living with one foot in this world and another foot in the next (prevalent theological idea), one might ponder what God would want us to drag over from his Kingdom into ours. Our political system is flawed - and why? I think that it's because there's too much emphasis placed on "mine!" - and not enough emphasis placed on how we can band together and help 'respect the dignity of every human being.'"

So what would God want us to drag over from his kingdom into the one we have been told to prepare for here on earth (leaving aside, of course, the entire debate about whether Jesus himself was the personfication of that kingdom realized here)? One of the most serious attempts to show the role that religion can take in making informed political choices was undertaken by the group Sojourners in the lead-up to the 2004 election. You may recall that they issued a document with the headline "God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat." This paper, which was widely distributed around the country, laid out some key factors when considering which candidate to support on election day - and they are certainly relevant well beyond the Bush-Kerry election. In reading through this again, in Jim Wallis' God's Politics, I heard a 21st century version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Here are the portions of the document that I think are particularly relevant today, with my own insertion of parts of Jesus' sermon:

We believe all candidates should be examined by measuring their policies against the complete range of Christian ethics and values.

We will measure the candidates by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights; whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national, and special interests.

We are not single-issue voters.

We believe that poverty - caring for the poor and vulnerable - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries? (Matthew 25:35-40, Isaiah 10:1-2) - Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We believe that the environment - caring for God's earth - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it? (Genesis 2:15, Psalm 24:1)

We believe that war - and our call to be peacemakers - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies pursue "wars of choice" or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats? (Matthew 5:9) - Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies? (John 8:32)

We believe that human rights - respecting the image of God in every person - is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners? (Genesis 1:27)

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies? (Matthew 6:33, Proverbs 8:12-13 )

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates' positions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS-and other pandemics-and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life? (Deuteronomy 30:19) - Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.

We also admonish both parties and candidates to avoid the exploitation of religion or our congregations for partisan political purposes.

Looking back on all of this, and considering each of these points, I again asked myself: Would Jesus vote, or would he simply continue his ministry of social justice and the crusade to develop a sense of concern for the least of us by others in the population, and to heal and bring people to a knowledge of God and the imminence of His kingdom here on earth?

My conclusion? Both.

For you see, if you vote based on your faith and your convictions, you are doing your part to put others in a position who can contribute to the ministry of social justice. People who are in a position to better address our concerns for the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer. For refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger. And yes, even for our enemies and those who wish us harm.

I think there is a reason that Form V of the Prayers of the People in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has us pray for our church leaders and those in positions of public trust before praying for our fellow man. I think that if we vote based on all of the areas listed by Sojourners, we will have leaders who will truly work for the public good.

And so Jesus would vote - not because he has suddenly developed a political tilt, but because he recognizes that two or three, or a hundred, or a thousand, working for their fellow man can accomplish more than a single person.

One can change the world, yes - but think of how much change many could bring about. As Isaiah said, "They will not hunger or thirst, Nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For He [US!] who has compassion on them will lead them And will guide them to springs of water."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Into the Eyes of Christ

"You have heard some say, 'We don't need those people.' Well, Jesus is one of those people, and that is a great part of what it means for God to walk among us in human flesh." - Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Address at Trinity University, July 8, 2008

In this second day of considering how to live up to the standard set by Jesus and become more involved in reaching out to our fellow man, this second quote from the Presiding Bishop hit me like a thunderbolt.

"Jesus is one of those people." A carpenter from the poor town of Nazareth who wandered around with twelve men, living among the fringes of early-1st century society, shunning any sort of wealth, living wherever he was welcomed - wherever he could find a place to sleep - wherever he could find a meal. In reading this quote, though, I don't wonder if the bishop hasn't put the emphasis on the wrong word.

Read it her way again. Now, read it this way: "Jesus is one of those people." The first way, a statement of condescension; the second, a surprising statement of fact.

In the past, as I've walked by those who sit in doorways, beg on street corners, drag their possessions up and down the sidewalks of the city - not knowing where they came from and really not caring where they are headed - I tend to not look. I glance away not because of nerves or a need to shut out the problem, but rather because a certain amount of cynicism has built up over the years: the man who came up to me to borrow money because his truck had broken down and he couldn't get home from work, only to approach me the very next day with the very same story before suddenly realizing I had heard it all before; the one who asked for money for a meal only to walk instead into the package story for a bottle of liquor; the stories in the paper of young girls who live under bridges and who trade sex for drugs. Each of these people needs help, but I can't do it all alone and I was frustrated with the results when I did.

In today's economy, though, things have changed - and have changed dramatically. No longer do you look into the eyes of a man or woman huddled in a doorway and simply see the alcohol-riddled shell of a person, or a runaway, or a person looking for their next fix. Instead, you now look into the eyes of an engineer who has been laid off, burned through his savings, and lost his home. You look into the eyes of a young mother with three children who doesn't know how she will find their next meal. You look into the eyes of an older professional who lost everything as a result of shady hedge funds and crooked brokers and who is too proud to ask for help.

The eyes of the people you see on the street now are far different and tell far more stories than simply the tales of drug addiction or drunkenness. The group of people crying out for help through their stares and sad glances is far broader than we in this country should ever have allowed.

Their faces are the face of the suffering Christ, the rejected and scorned Christ, the crucified Christ. The Christ who on Friday had no hope. It is up to us to help these people with the transition to the Sunday miracle. Can any of us do it alone? Of course not - but the bishop's words are a stark reminder that we need to try, for every face you see is a creation of God and is in the image of God. Peter denied Jesus three times and was still forgiven; how many more times must we deny those in need?

No longer is it enough for me to tithe and contribute to charities and go merrily on my way. I need to get involved, and show my daughters the true value of helping their neighbor and the true worth in every man, woman and child.

We have Millenium Development Goals - not Millenium Development Hopes. It's up to each of us to reach those goals and - again - live into the full stature of Christ.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Crisis of Faith

Now that the title has grabbed your attention, I'll clarify and say that the crisis of faith - my faith - isn't with the having of faith. No, the crisis is of living out my faith in the world.

As someone who has been actively involved in the life of the last three churches I've attended - as a vestry member, a former youth leader, and a person keenly interested in organizing exciting and thought-provoking events and speakers - I'm always one of the ones encouraging others in the congregation to live outside the four walls of the church and to engage in the larger community. I once read that the people in the church aren't the ones who need help, but it's the ones outside the church who are in need; as such, I think it's important that congregations get more involved in the life of the larger area they serve.

Suggesting that people become more involved and actually becoming more involved are two different things, however, and I have fallen far short of realizing the mission that I'm encouraging others to undertake. In doing this, I'm also falling short of what it means to be an Episcopalian and a Christian.

In an address to the Urban Caucus in February 2007, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori talked at length about what we as Christians are tasked to do in the world. As she said, "That vision of a healed and restored world is what you and I are charged with being and doing in this world ... Jesus himself acts out those images in feeding the multitudes, healing the sick and urging the people around them to feed them and restore them to community ... The Millenium Development Goals are a contemporary illustration of the work that Jesus did himself - and of the work to which he continues to call his followers ... We would do well to recall that we cannot love God whom we do not see if we do not love our neighbors who we do see. The world is not reconciled as long as some live without - without food, good news, adequate housing, peace, clothing or justice ... The work of this church is to build a world of shalom ... adequate food, drink, housing, employment, health care, education, equality, and the peace that only comes when justice is present and available to all."

I talk a lot about what I see wrong in the world and what I think should be done to fix it. Jesus, however, didn't talk - he acted. If I don't start acting, I will never - as the Presiding Bishop wrote - live into the full stature of Christ. So why don't I act?

At this stage in my life, my mind (politics) and my heart (faith) are really coming into conflict with each other. As I wrote a few months back on this blog, my position on the death penalty changed when my belief that everyone should receive a New Testament forgiveness (heart) superceded - after much internal debate - my desire for harsh, Old Testament punishment (mind). Many of my friends and I have debated the current health care reform efforts in Congress, and I am torn between my belief that everyone should have health care coverage (heart) with the belief that the government shouldn't be the body responsible for running the program (mind). I am conflicted about the fact that something should be done to end world hunger, disease, and poverty (heart) versus the thought that we shouldn't leave it up to organizations like the United Nations (mind).

Does this make me a flawed Christian? Of course; there is no perfect Christian. Is it too late to change and become more actively involved? Of course not; it's never too late. But as I blogged quite a while back, there's a certain amount of cynicism that I must overcome - especially when it comes to confronting those on the street who approach me for help. It's easy to help those you don't see - the food banks and homeless shelters that solicit through the mail and receive assistance through my tithes at church. The difficulty comes in helping those right in front of you, and that's undoubtedly where I need help.

Again, I turned to the Presiding Bishop's words: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend expecting nothing in return ... none of what we have is really ours; it belongs to God and we are only stewards ... Don't give anything with strings attached, for those strings are a kind of shackle that binds the receiver and the giver. Give freely, and set the other free in turn."

All of this can actually be summed up as a series of two questions presented to us during the homily of a mid-day Eucharist I attended earlier today: “What is it that makes God concrete for you? What do you do to make God concrete for others?”

What makes God concrete for me is simple: my family, my friends, my health, and the activities in which I'm involved. But I have a long way to go if I'm going to make God concrete for others - and become a better, more effective Christian in the process.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some Brief Thoughts on Prayer

These comments from the book Jesus Wept, by the Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Crafton, jumped out at me as I read them earlier and have given me a great deal about which to think. I feel certain they will for you as well."

We must begin by questioning the importance of words in our prayer. We are wedded to them, afraid of getting them wrong, irrationally afraid that if we pray for the wrong thing something terrible may happen ... We pray as if it were all up to us, when in fact, almost none of it is. We pray as if we were giving God treatment plans to follow, as if nothing could possibly work out well if we weren't there to plan it. We imagine that we must 'know what to pray for' in advance, and that we cannot pray if we don't. That if we cannot 'name it and claim it,' our prayers will be to no avail ... Often we do not know what should happen in a given situation. And sometimes we know that the things we long for cannot be ... We cannot look at prayer with an open mind and not conclude that, whatever else it may be, it isn't like placing an order at a pizza parlor ... God is in and around all of human history, absent from none of it. God is not a figure outside of our experience and in need of information about it. We don't really need to pray about anything; we're not in charge of much of what happens in the world. We can content ourselves with prayer from within it all.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hubble, the Universe, and Our Place In It All

My only thought for today is to take a moment and just consider how grand is the universe we are fortunate enough to inhabit. All it takes is a quick look at these photos from the Hubble Telescope, which show the work of a true Creator and Master Artist...








Friday, August 14, 2009

In Honor of Woodstock: Hanging with the Opening Act

I missed Woodstock by about 8 months - and not as some would expect just because I didn't know it was going on and arrived late. No, it's because I wasn't born for several more months, and thus missed all of the fun. However, it ultimately wasn't a total loss, and in 1995 I had a chance to spend a few minutes with the festival's opening act, Richie Havens, just before he performed at the Rainbow Room in New York City. In short, he was a very nice guy.

This time, instead of being late for the festival, I'm going to actually be early for the anniversary and share this photograph.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Incident Shows There's Still Work to Do

REVISED - July 27, 2009. As more information comes out on this, I find that I have been guilty of the very thing that so many others do: I jumped to judgment on the circumstances of this incident. While I admit that this post was simply my musings on what had happened, I shouldn't have jumepd to certain conclusions below about the woman who called the police and the events surrounding this incident. So while I stated in the original posting that I expected more from the country, I should also expect more from myself.

ORIGINAL POST - Here we are, July 23, 2009, and I'm disappointed - for I expected more from our country.

Nine years into the 21st century, I was optimistic (perhaps naive is a better word) that we had finally turned the page on race relations in this country. With the election of President Obama in November of last year, I thought that perhaps the dream of such leaders as Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois was finally realized. If we could have a black president, perhaps things were in fact getting better, and the differences of our past were at long last being put aside.

And then we heard that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested under very questionable circumstances, and my optimism was quickly tempered with a big dose of reality. Like millions of Americans, I wasn't there and can only rely on what I hear and read in the news, but it seems to me that misperception played a role in this incident from beginning to end. Someone saw a black man trying to get into a house, and they assumed he was a burglar. The police arrived and ultimately arrested someone who they astonishingly seemed to perceive as another angry black man - not a professor from Harvard, the rightful tenant of the home, and a resident of that particular Cambridge neighborhood.

Truthfully, I can't say that I would have reacted any differently than Professor Gates were I in his situation; if a policeman is standing in my house holding two different forms of identification proving that I live there - and yet I still am not believed - then I'm pretty sure I'd be angry as well. The difference is, sadly, that I don't think I as a white man would be arrested for yelling ("disorderly conduct," as the Cambridge police report reads). Granted, there should be a certain amount of discretion displayed by anyone dealing with a person who wears a gun on their hip, but this incident seems to strike me as absurd.

I'm impressed by what I've heard about how Professor Gates is responding to this: he will use the incident as the impetus to explore the continuing difficulties for blacks in this country. To his credit, he will be putting this issue squarely back in the public spotlight so that we can continue to confront a national relationship that should be all rights be in much better shape than it is at this late date.

I've always admired the work Gates has done during his career, and the series of specials he has put together for PBS exploring the ancestry of famous men and women of black and Asian ancestry (he had just returned from China exploring the past of Yo Yo Ma when this occurred) has been first-rate. Despite the tragedy of what took place on a quiet Massachusetts street, I think he will turn this into another teaching tool - and it is a lesson to which we would all be well-served to pay attention, to consider, and to discuss in a very serious manner.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite: And That's the Way He Was

Broadcast news is much different now than it was when I was a child. Rather than having parents flip to one of the three big networks to watch their evening coverage, we now have access to dozens of 24-hour cable channels filled to the brim with crawlers, split screens, cutaways, and just about every other gimmick and gizmo imaginable. News broadcasts are no longer something that you plan as part of your day - you're surrounded by them, and they're accessible no matter what time of day or night you grab the remote and flip on the set.

News broadcasters are no longer the same, either. Rather than the hardened journalists of decades ago, many of those on television today are entertainers - folks picked because of their humor or their good looks. Yes, many of them cut their teeth working at any of the thousands of local affiliates around the country, but the end result is something much different than I think Edward R. Murrow and his generation would have expected.

With last night's passing of Walter Cronkite, we've lost another link to the era when news was something serious and when journalists were literally tested on the battlefield. Cronkite came up through the Depression and was on the front lines with the troops in North Africa and in Vietnam and was someone who seemed to feel a genuine, emotional investment in the news he was reporting. In watching the old clips, he fought hard to control the overwhelming grief the nation was feeling following the assassination of President Kennedy, and watching his reaction to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon was like watching a kid on Christmas morning.

I don't remember much first-hand of Cronkite's reporting when I was young, but I remember the voice, and I remember the way that everything seemed to come to a stop while people listened - my father sitting in his chair in front of the television, and my grandparents making sure that dinner was finished and everything was cleaned up in time to catch the news. It just doesn't seem that way anymore with the news, and for that I think the passing of Cronkite is a loss for everyone.

I hope that broadcast journalists everywhere will take time over the next few days to remember his impact on their profession and to express a bit of gratitude for his hard work and efforts to build trustworthiness with the viewers. He was a pioneer, and they would do well to remember all he did and all he meant to the viewers.

News has changed, yes, but everyone should recall Walter Cronkite and his style of news and remember how that's the way it was.



Monday, July 06, 2009

By Looking Away, Are We Robbing Someone of Their Legacy?

By not looking someone in the eye as you walk by them, or by turning away from someone in an uncomfortable situation, what is your action doing to that person?

Could you, in fact, be robbing them of their humanness – of their identity and their place in the world?

I’ve been wondering about that question ever since A. and I toured the Holocaust Museum earlier today (her first visit, my second), and it came about as the result of something I noticed while walking through the exhibition halls. In the areas where the displays consisted of photos of large groups of people, old video footage, artifacts, and mementoes of that period in history, everyone seemed to be giving their undivided attention to what they were seeing. By and large, the lines moved slowly through the areas where the victims were not taken as individuals, but as part of the larger group of those so tragically eliminated by Hitler’s regime.

In other rooms of the museum, though – rooms filled with individual photos of families and folks enjoying happier times in life – it seemed visitors were jetting through as quickly as possible. I didn’t see anyone take the time as I did to look at the pictures of brothers and sisters dressed in their finery for Shabbat services or the families enjoying a vacation in the mountains. No one was pausing to consider the photos of the old Zayde – the grandfather – sitting on the front porch of his home, or of the children gathering for an afternoon of fun in the town square, or of the little girl sitting on her bed staring innocently into the lens of the camera. In short, no one was stopping to take a glimpse into the lives that were interrupted and in many instances cut short – the lives of the boys and girls who never had the chance to experience life beyond their childhood, and the lives of the elderly who had stolen from them the opportunity to pass on their wisdom, their knowledge, and their heritage to younger generations.

Is it enough for the visitors who rushed through these areas to consider the Holocaust – indeed, all such horrific periods in human history – in broad, general terms, rather than really delving into the underlying collection of stories making up the history of the Jewish people? Do they not want to look deeper, preferring to keep things in a general, “read about it in my history book” sort of summary?

Or do they move by because they are afraid to look more carefully into the eyes and the faces of those who have suffered and who continue to suffer to this day, afraid to move beyond what they’ve been told into a much more emotional realm? If you look into the faces of those men and women, the young and old, in those photographs, you are stepping through a doorway into their lives, their loves, and their familial joys. In essence, you are putting a human face on a situation that many today only know through books and movies. But to look away, to not see what was taken from the world, are the voices of the past being robbed of a bit of their legacy – of their humanness?

Are they afraid to look because they know that once they see the problem – once they see the difficulties of the past and the challenges of today – they will be compelled to act, and action makes them uncomfortable?

I saw one other thing at the museum that really made me think even more about these questions. When first entering the exhibit, everyone has the opportunity to take an identification card – a little booklet that tells the story of a single victim or survivor of the Holocaust, from their childhood to the end of their lives. Mine is sitting on my desk in front of me (the story of Welek Luksenburg of Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland) as I write this, but I saw several folks open them, give them a cursory glance, and then throw them in the closest trash can as they headed through the exit.

Do they not care, or do they simply not want to know?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

There Won't Be a Disco Comeback Unless...

Think for a moment if you will about studio musicians - those men and women who toil in near obscurity, making their careers and eking out a living providing support to top-flight recording artists and bands. On rare occasions, those studio musicians - Jimmy Page, former session guitarist, and Boston, former session band, are perfect examples - are able to move out on their own and develop impressive careers, but for the most part the only reputation they develop is on the quality of their work out of the spotlight.

On rare occasions, you may actually hear about some of these folks: "Mr. X is a successful guitarist whose work can be found on albums by such bands as the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd;" "Mr. Y played bass on albums for many of the most successful pop groups of the last thirty years." You probably even heard recently a brief mention of Bud Shank, a flutist who played the flute solo in the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'." Everyone at some point gets the credit they are due ...

... except for the disco string players. Not once have I heard anyone give a shout out to the gentleman who was first violin on Gloria Gaynor's remake of "Never Can Say Goodbye," or the lady who doubled on cello and second viola in the orchestra used in "A Fifth of Beethoven." At least Barry White, with "Love's Theme," had the decency to give blanket credit to the Love's Unlimited Orchestra. For all those children who take violin or cello lessons, hoping to one day be the next Anne Sophie Mutter or Yo Yo Ma, how can we in good conscience look at them and say, "Well, you've got a great dream; pursue it! But if you don't make it to the concert stage, there's always the recording studio" if there's no credit to be had?

Until we give proper respect to the folks who really made disco great - the backup string orchestras - then the comeback we've been hearing about for so long just won't happen...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Can You Spare Five Minutes to Change Someone's Life?

During his weekly sermon at church this morning, our priest-in-charge made the point that all of the news this week about Michael Jackson and the other celebrities who have passed away has diverted attention - both of the news networks and of each of us - away from more important problems like the ongoing bloodshed in Iran. Yes, news is a fickle thing and changes rapidly, but the events of the past few days have given us a chance to turn away from the problems facing our neighbors overseas (and, more directly, the problems of our immediate neighbors here at home). Why? Quite simply, looking away allows us to prevent being put into the uncomfortable sport of trying to come up with solutions and ways to help these folks find a way out of the problems they are facing.

It was a powerful point. Rather than working to help our fellow man, we look for any and every reason to step aside or find a way around the difficult situations we find in front of us every day. I talked a bit about my feelings in this regard back in December 2007 (you can read that post here), and of course in the ensuing 18 months the problems of those I see here in the Washington area have not gotten any better - in many regards, they're even worse.

Everyone in our congregation has been challenged during the coming week to take just five minutes to listen to someone who may be having some sort of problem, to learn about them and to find out what their needs may be. We will then be writing their names on index cards and putting them into the collection plate next week, where they will be presented at the altar and we as a single body can begin praying about ways to help these folks find a way out of their problems.

Can you do that? Can you spare five minutes for one of your neighbors, five minutes that could make a huge difference in - and potentially change - their life?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Dance That Never Was

I suppose since everyone else is sharing their favorite Michael Jackson-themed story or their memories of the gloved one, I should do the same. However, my recollection doesn't involve the man but rather one of his songs.

I was in ninth grade, at one of the Friday night post-football game dances that the different clubs in my high school sponsored on a rotating basis. On this particular evening, the French Club was in charge of the event - refreshments, the deejay, tickets, the whole bit. At this point, I was still a horribly awkward teenage boy, not sure yet of who I was or what I was supposed to be doing in life, and as such it seemed really odd that I would be hanging around a big school dance. By and large, I was still painfully shy around most folks and really didn't like crowds and spent much of this particular evening standing on the gallery that circled the top of the gym - a place where folks would gather to watch what was going on on the floor below and plot their next move.

And then it happened. The school's most beautiful girl, who was a senior during this, my freshman year, walked out to the edge of the gym floor and stood there, talking to her friends. All I could do was stare; this was the girl who all the guys thought was unapproachable, someone who the year before I had asked to sign my yearbook only after summoning every bit of courage I could ever hope to find. I continued to stand and watch her in the glow of the lights illuminating the dance, and at that moment the song started: Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." The French teacher and sponsor of the club saw me standing there and asked me if I wanted to dance with the girl I was watching; I replied that I did - and she said, "So go ask her."

I was shocked! There was no way that I could ever hope to get this particular girl, the senior admired by all the guys, to dance with me, and I said as much in response. She said something to the effect that, "Well, if you notice, no one else has asked her to dance yet, so you've still got a chance to be the first." I pondered it for a moment, turned ...

... and walked to a spot further down the rail to continue watching. Before long, the song ended, the dance ended, and this senior that I had worshipped from afar was headed out the door - and a few months later, headed out of the school forever. However, to this day, I can still plainly hear Michael's voice - "If they say why, why? Tell them that it's human nature ... See that girl, she knows I'm watching..." - in that darkened, cavernous gymansium, lyrics bouncing of the walls and echoing around the vast room.

And I still see the shy, gawky teenager that I once was, standing high above the gym floor watching silently as he let the opportunity to dance with his ninth grade crush - that one magic moment - slip through his fingers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Prayer for the Children

Today, I'm thinking about the children.

No, not my children (though they're never far from my mind) or the children of my neighbors or friends. Today, I'm thinking about the children of Iran.

Over the past several days, the news coming out of the country has gone from a feeling of hope for a free election to the crushing pain of a fraudulent outcome. And things continue to get worse; although the reports cannot be verified, people inside Iran have been telling of men and women thrown off of bridges, attacked by secret police carrying axes, and dragged out of homes and hospitals to be taken to secret locations - in many instances, never to be seen again. I can't see their faces in the grainy images on television, and I can't picture what the people look like who are Twittering and Facebooking and using every tool imaginable to get the word out.

But for some reason, I can see children - and it hurts. Children who are seeing their loved ones, people who only wanted a better life for their families and a brighter future for their country, dragged out of homes before their very eyes. Children who are exposed to the brutality of a regime that will do anything (or almost anything, though the fear that worse actions are still just around the corner) to suppress a revolution and seeing people attacked and beaten and shot. Children who probably never had to worry about what the next day would bring and who now have to fear what will happen in the next few minutes or hours.

As I write this, my daughters are safe in their beds, and all is quiet in my neighborhood. On the other side of the world, though, there is no safety and no quiet, and children there are only experiencing fear and uncertainty. I - we - can't comfort them or hug them or tell them that things will be alright the way that we would our own children during a summer storm or after they've had a bad dream. But we can pray, and pray we should - for the end of the violence, yes, but most especially that these young boys and girls can again know peace rather than fear and quiet rather than chaos.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Images

There are so many great blog posts and stories that have been published discussing the importance of Father's Day and sharing memories of this day - past and present - that I fear I can't come up with anything original that hasn't already been said. However, in thinking about the day thus far, there are little scenes and statements from my girls that taken collectively have amounted to a wonderful little day.

  • Being awakened by MB at about 8:00 this morning with a very loud whisper in my ear, "Daddy! It's time for Happy Father's Day!"
  • The excitement my oldest had as I opened her gift - not the gift that she had made in Sunday school class last week or the one that she had picked out with her sister and mother, but the pillowcase full of little plastic dinosaurs that she wanted me to see.
  • E. running up to me every ten minutes with a new book that she had pulled out of somewhere in her room, excitedly saying, "Tory-time! Tory-time!"
  • MB telling me as we went to pick up dinner tonight that she has decided that she doesn't want babies when she gets married. When I asked why, she said, "Because they hit you in the nose!" I reminded her that she and her sister had both done that, and she replied, "I know. I don't want them to do it to me!" (I didn't even ask her why she's considering marriage at age 5...)
  • MB deciding that E. had done enough to decorate her card to me, and taking it upon herself to add her own bit of flair.
  • E. determined to finish her dinner at the same time as her sister, and shoving nearly 1/4 of her quesadilla into her mouth while looking at me and giving a big, toothy grin.

I hope everyone's Father's Day has been full of such a collection of wonderful little moments as these - and that together they made for a great day for all of you.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Following the Trail of Carbon Footprints

(This was also posted on my "One Man's Politics" blog, but I felt like sharing it here as well.)

Carbon footprint.

Carbon offsets.

Green houses.

Green jobs.

Energy efficiency.

Global health.

If you haven’t had at least one of these phrases thrown at you – by television commentators, op-ed and editorial writers, or by someone with whom you’ve been having a conversation – during the past week, then you are one of the fortunate ones who must be isolated from the rest of civilization. (Side bar: If you are, please let me know how to get there so that my family and I can escape the insanity that resides inside the Beltway.) The cap-and-trade side of things has certainly been a big issue for my place of employment, and I can tell you that after having read all 900-plus pages of the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454 for all of you policy wonks out there), there’s some scary stuff on the horizon – and I hope folks take the time to educate themselves before it’s too late.

I finally caved and took some time today to use one of the multiple on-line tools to determine the level of environmental destruction that my family is thrusting upon the earth (or at least our little portion of Northern Virginia). The first one (http://www.carbonfootprint.com/) calculated, after I answered a series of questions on energy usage and recycling and shopping habits, that we are responsible for 6.44 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Based on the cool little “footprint” graph on the results page, that’s less than half of the national average and more than twice the world target.

Moving on, I tried a second calculator developed by the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/) and after answering very similar questions was told that we are responsible for 55 tons of emissions per year.

Say what? Well, which is it? My habits didn’t change between the first and second calculator (unless my wife burned down the George Washington National Forest during those four minutes), and yet the Conservancy holds us accountable for 49 more tons of emissions each year. This itself presents the first problem: how, if the government is going to try and restrict (sorry; “cap” – there you go, Chairman Waxman), will they calculate who is responsible for what? I can honestly say I don’t have much confidence at all in the scientific data that will be used o the methodology for gathering this information – particularly if an organization like the Nature Conservancy is going to blame me for nearly 400 percent more emissions than your average group.

Next, I was given the option of offsetting the natural disaster that my wife and kids and I have unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Yes, long before industry will be required to do so through auction, I can purchase my very own offset credits. Here are samples of what I can spend (just for my 6.44 tons; I didn’t bother looking for the 55 tons):

Certified Emission Reduction - fully verified by Kyoto/United Nations standards and used to support Clean Development Mechanism projects. Cost: $174.39

Clean Energy Portfolio – supports clean energy generation projects around the world. Cost: $90.20

Americas Portfolio – supports reforestation projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Cost: $95.67

Reforestation in Kenya – supports “the planting of broad leaved trees in the Great Rift Valley” (sounds glamorous). Cost: $89.15 (for seven trees)

UK Tree Planting – does just what it says, although you get to pick the region of the UK that you’d like to reforest. Cost: $145.61 (for seven trees)

This brings up question two: who’s administering this money, and what guarantee is it that in our effort to mitigate our personal environmental destruction this money will actually even go to whom and what they claim it will? Here’s an interesting quote from Steve Milloy in Green Hell:

The CO2 offset marketplace is pretty shady. According to an August 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, carbon offsets have no uniform quality assurance mechanisms or standards of verification and monitoring. “Participants in the offset market face challenges ensuring credibility of offsets,” the GAO concluded. In other words, buyers have little idea whether the offsets they buy actually reduce CO2 emissions.
Milloy continues, “Former Clinton administration official Joseph Romm bluntly summed up the situation, writing that ‘the vast majority of offsets are, at some level, just rip-offsets.’”

So to review: we need to adjust our carbon footprint, but no one can accurately calculate our footprint; we need to buy personal offsets to mitigate our footprint, but no one can assure us the money is going to where it is intended – or how much of it is actually going anywhere other than the pockets of those administering the program.

Are the sorts of changes we would need to make even feasible? Milloy says, “Based on my carbon footprint profile, to meet this goal I’d have to driving, flying, using electricity, and heating and cooling my home.” All cases may not be as extreme, but how much will you have to scale back your life and habits to compensate?

Moreover, are you willing to do it?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Shabbat Shalom! A First Experience with Judaism

Several years ago, A. and I completed a four-year program administered by the University of the South at Sewanee (Tennessee) entitled Education for Ministry (EFM). This program - which has been in existence for a number of years, since I can recall my father taking the course when I was a child - is designed to give members of the Episcopal Church a stronger knowledge of church history and theology, and to give them the tools to become more effective lay leaders within their congregations.

As important as it is to know about the development of one's own denomination and the history of their faith traditions, I think it's equally important to learn as much as you can about the development of other faiths - of Judaism and Islam and Buddhism, among many others. Just as learning what the other side of the political spectrum believes in order to make yourself better informed on the issues, I think that you make yourself a stronger and more effective Christian and citizen when you take the time to learn and experience what others believe. So for my own personal enrichment and for the benefit of my family, that's what I've decided to do.

Last night, A. and I attended our very first service with a Jewish congregation (MB was originally going to go with us, but at the last minute decided that it was more important for her to spend time with her grandparents than with us), and it was a magnificent event. I had emailed the rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom here in Northern Virginia to inquire whether they would allow us to visit (I'm the sort of person who believes that you don't just show up somewhere without first asking if it's acceptable, particularly when visiting a different faith tradition; I like to be respectful of their practices and not just be the one "crashing the party"). Not only did we receive a positive response, but within a very few minutes of her return note I had gotten an email from a member of the congregation who graciously offered to meet us, give us a tour, and sit with and guide us through the service.

Our visit was in some ways a bookend of having watched Elie Wiesel's remarks at Buchenwald, moving from the solemnity of his visit to the joy of the family Shabbat service (which our host referred to as the "Shabbat Rocks" service, because of the upbeat music and band there, and the dancing which the kids and some adults did during the service). Before the service, we were given the privilege of looking at one of the congregation's Torah scrolls which is actually going to be used for the bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremony this weekend for some of the young people in the congregation. The scroll had been copied by hand from a previous scroll (something which I had read once is a way of passing the Torah from one generation to the next), and in fact there are certain instances when each member of the congregation is given the opportunity to contribute one letter to a new scroll as it is being copied. I can't really explain the emotion I felt as A. and I helped him remove the crowns and the covering from the scroll before he unrolled it; while I know the Bible is representative of my tradition as a Christian, I often make the mistake of viewing it in the context of its form as a book - with the Torah scroll, I felt as if what I was watching was in fact our host unrolling and opening the centuries of Jewish history before us.

Before sitting to chat for a few minutes, we were invited to go with him as he placed the Torah back into the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary, which is illuminated by a light which is never turned off - representative of the oil lamp in the original Temple in Jerusalem which was never extinguished. We then had an opportunity to talk for a bit before the service began - about some of what we would see in the service, a bit of the history of the congregation, and about the children who were about to be recognized and accepted as adults in their faith after their mitzvahs. He had mentioned that the recitation from the Torah was a very big event for these young men and women and that there are generally a lot of nerves - with them, hoping they do a good job, and for their parents, who view this as a tremendous source of pride for them.

As he was talking, I thought about my confirmation when I was 13 - a very different event, but really the only comparison that I could think of from my Episcopal background. I then began to wonder if these children felt any sort of pressure for what was about to happen in their lives. Let me explain - when I was confirmed, I knew it was a big deal, but I viewed really as a rite of passage where we were finally considered members of the congregation; nothing else really came to mind - no thought of the history of the church or anything along those lines. With bar- and bat-mitzvahs, however, these 13-year-old boys and girls are not only becoming adults, but they are inheriting the entire history of their people and will begin to shoulder the burden of that history, both the good and the tragedy. I asked if the kids understood the enormity of what they were about to take upon themselves, aside from being viewed as adults, and he replied simply, "Oh, yes."

The service was very good and alternated between joyous and solemn. Officially, it is know as the Kabbalat Shabbat, the service which is the time of welcoming the Sabbath. There was magnificent music, a great deal of participation from the congregation, and a point where every child in the room - and some of the adults - joined hands and danced their way among the aisles and past the ark (which A. and I thought MB would have absolutely loved had she been there). There was a pretty even mix between sung and spoken prayers, and thankfully - in addition to translations of each in English - there were spelled out pronunciations of the Hebrew so that we could try (as best we could) to sing and speak along with them.

Two of my favorites were one of the opening songs and the one sung at the end of the service, the words of which (in order) were:

Hallelu...Kok han'shama, t'haleil yah, halelu, haleluya! (Loosely translated, this means, "The breath of every living thing praises God," and comes from Psalm 150.)

Mi shebeirach imoteinu, m'kor hab'racha l'avoteinu. Bless those in need of healing with r'fua sh'leima, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit and let us say: Amen.

One of the latter parts of the service was the very moving saying of the Kaddish in memory of all those who have died, whether it be in recent weeks or within the past year. The rabbi asks that everyone sit silently as the names of those individuals are read out loud, and as each name is read the family members of those men and women stand in silence. Others in the congregation are then given the opportunity to stand and offer the names of loved ones who have died. At the end, the entire congregation joins in a show of support for all of these family members by saying the prayer (the text of which I don't have in front of me, but an example of which can be heard here). I've often read of people saying the Kaddish for their loved ones, but it's very powerful to actually hear it being done.

The service ended and we were invited to join them at their reception before heading home. We didn't stay long, just enough time to thank the rabbi once again for allowing us to attend and to talk to our host a bit more (who was very kind and said we were welcome to visit at any time). I had hoped to have an opportunity to talk with one gentleman in particular, the Temple's founding rabbi and a survivor of Auschwitz, but it never worked out (I certainly hope to have a chance to do so in the future).

Much is made of the fact that the world's three great religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - are all descended from Abraham. To truly understand the root of your faith, no matter which denomination or religion it may be, it would be well worth your time to try and make a visit similar to that A. and I made to Temple Rodef Shalom; you'll be moved, you'll be inspired, and you'll get a glimpse of what lies at the very heart of where we are today.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald

Elie Wiesel - someone who regular readers of this blog will know I hold in very high esteem - accompanied President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel to Buchenwald today to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of men, women and children murdered there during the Second World War. While Merkel and Obama presented very good remarks, I think Wiesel more than any other person there was able to put it all in perspective in very powerful and emotional terms. I don't see how anyone could listen to this, particularly the portion about his father, and not be moved.

In recent years, Wiesel has become more and more concerned that the world has learned nothing from the lessons we should have learned from the atrocities of the past. As a father, I think it is my duty to make sure my children know and understand what humans have done so tragically wrong throughout history and help them to know that they can be a part of ensuring it never happens again. As Wiesel has said, "Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other."

May our children and grandchildren, here and around the world, all learn to pass on the gift of peace and never forget the consequences of what happens when peace, fellowship and understanding are abandoned.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

So What Can "American Idol" Teach Our Kids About...Cheating??

Honesty and fair play: two concepts that we constantly try and instill in our children. Try your hardest and be proud when you’ve given your all. If you don’t win the race, it’s alright as long as you did your best. If you can’t win honestly, it’s better to lose than cheat.

As parents, we hope that these are ideas that will sink in with our sons and daughters and help motivate them to do their best regardless of the circumstances – as long as it’s done in a respectful and honest manner.

So what does it mean when a cultural phenomenon like “American Idol” - a show that so many young people look to as an example of how hard work (and a bit of luck) pays off in the end – is suddenly in the news for cheating??

As the New York Times reported just a short time ago, AT&T may have rigged the system somewhat so that more votes were cast for the ultimate winner through a block voting system than were for the runner-up. In fact, according to the Times story, “AT&T…might have influenced the outcome of this year’s competition by providing phones for free text-messaging services and lessons in casting blocks of votes at parties organized by fans of Kris Allen, the Arkansas singer who was the winner of the show last week...There appear to have been no similar efforts to provide free texting services to supporters of Adam Lambert.”

Simon, Randy, Paula and the new judge (you can tell I watch this show a lot) didn’t smash someone’s dream of fame and fortune. It wasn’t even millions of fans voting for Kris over Adam who did it. No, it was a company – a sponsor – who decided (allegedly) to rig the system.

What does this teach our kids about fair play, hard work and honest effort? No matter what you do, someone else can change the rules on you at the last minute?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Special Little Moments with Your Kids

There’s so much rush to life: getting up, ready, and out the door on time for work; making sure the kids are up and dressed and have their show-and-tell items ready for preschool; scheduling the biweekly lawn mowing; meetings; family visits. The list of responsibilities for parents is never-ending, and it seems like everything is a constant rush to complete one task and get going on the next one.

As such, it’s the quiet times that really make the rushed times worthwhile. Our oldest daughter going to great lengths to set up our living room for a show she’s about to perform, and making sure we have pennies to buy our tickets and seats with a good view. My youngest daughter coming down to get me to read a story to her and then falling asleep in my lap for two hours. Both of them shrugging off my concerns over their being afraid to enjoy their first-ever viewing of two of the “Jurassic Park” films – surprisingly, without the crying and screaming I expected (case in point with my oldest, after a pair of T-Rexes has divided one of the characters among themselves for a quick snack: “Daddy? Will the others now go try and find him? Did he hide in the jungle? Will they be able to put his head back on?”).

Life can be brutal, exhausting, and often demoralizing. The work never ends, you never seem to have enough time or enough money to do everything you want or need to do, and you juggle all of this with trying to be a good parent. But that’s where kids can be helpful and give each of us a gift with the little things they try to do – to entertain us, to get our attention, to make us feel loved.

Make sure you enjoy those small moments that will help keep you going.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Your Child is Dangerously Ill; Would You Support Their Decision to Refuse Treatment?

For the past few days, network news has been riveted by the story of 13-year-old Daniel Hauser, the Minnesota boy suffering from Hodgkins lymphoma who has refused chemotherapy and whose parents are respecting his wishes. I’m not certain whether Daniel doesn’t want to proceed due to religious convictions or as a result of how the first round of chemotherapy made him feel. However, the pace has certainly picked up; in short (for those not familiar with the story), a judge intervened in the matter, Daniel and his mother have now disappeared, and an arrest warrant has been issued.

There are two issues that I see here which are troubling to me and which I can’t sort out in my mind: parents respecting the wishes of a child versus pushing for something which could save his life; and the right of the courts to intervene in decisions which should be made by a family. To begin, I can’t judge the maturity level of Daniel nor his capability for making such a decision about his own health; after all, he is only 13, and I can’t recall that I’ve met anyone at that age who is able to tackle such life-changing decisions. His parents are certainly doing what they feel they must in order to support their son. However, I look at my children and try and reconcile the anguish these parents must be feeling between honoring and respecting your child and doing whatever you need to do to save their life.

I don’t have a common frame of reference with those whose religious convictions lead them to turn down medical assistance and instead wait for direct intervention from God (although I do feel that the abilities with which our doctors and nurses have been blessed in order to save lives is direct intervention from God), and as such I’m in no position to judge anyone based solely on that. However, even if I did believe that, how in good conscious – how as a course of loving my children – could I look at either of my daughters during a time where their health is in danger and not want to sweep them in my arms and get them to the best care possible? Isn’t one of the roles of a parent to want the very best of everything for your children, including medical care? Even if one my kids was at a point where they were young enough to be under the age of majority and still decided they didn’t want to pursue medical care, I have a feeling I would have to resort to the “I know what’s best for you” argument and force them. Choosing between supporting your children and doing what you – not they – feel is best for their well-being is a decision I hope never have to face.

At the same time, where does the court system have the authority to intervene on a matter such as this? I know that there are a multitude of laws on the books regarding endangering the well-being of a child, and certainly the parents could be considered to be endangering Daniel by not forcing him to receive treatment. But Daniel made his decision for whatever reason he felt was appropriate, and if by some chance it is as a result of a strongly-held religious view wouldn’t the court’s intervening be a violation of a person’s First Amendment protections against infringing on their religious beliefs?

At its core, I see this situation as it stands today being just a terrible period of fear: a child who thinks he knows what he is doing (even though doctors have said his chances for survival improve to nearly 90 percent with treatment) but is afraid because of the decision he has made; parents who are fearful of the consequences of their supporting his position; a mother and child on the run who are afraid of being caught. And above all, there has to be an overwhelming fear of the potential for this mother and father to lose their son.

I don’t know what I would do in this situation. Do you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

There's More to Life Than What's Right in Front of You

Today started off great – up early, ready early, out the door on time. Driving to work, all I could focus on was the list of projects awaiting me on my desk and in my email inbox. It’s Thursday, the weekend is almost here, and I was about to knock off some important work before riding off into the Friday evening sunset in just over a day.

To quote Ethel Merman, “Everything’s coming up roses!”

My car, however, had other ideas. It’s odd, but it seems that alternators seem to have this built-in ability to detect the most inopportune time to malfunction. Waving battery needles and red “Hey! Look down here at the dashboard! What do you think is wrong with me?” lights start dancing around in front of me, and before I knew it I was sitting on the side of the road, cell phone in hand, pacing a rut in the median while waiting for Triple AAA to tow me across the Potomac.

If Ethel was trying to tell me everything was coming up roses, Judas Priest was countering with, “You’ve got another thing comin’!”

So, instead of being at work at 7:30, rifling through the morning papers and my stack of news clippings, I was at my desk two hours late, cursing the car, the delay in tackling my work, and my dumb luck. Franz Schubert once said “A man endures misfortune without complaint;” obviously, Schubert never met me on a Thursday morning when my Type A schedule was getting shoved into Type E chaos.

And then I had a chat with a friend. The details of the chat aren’t important; it is sufficient to say that it is someone with a lot on their plate – actually, a lot on many different plates – and it put my car troubles (and griping) solidly into perspective. This friend gives a lot – to their family, their friends, their colleagues; I can certainly say that I’ve been given the gift of some valuable time, conversation, and insights over the past couple of years. On this day, at this particular time, I saw that I could try – in my own inimitable way – to give a little something back.

It certainly never seems, when trying to repay the kindness of friends, to measure up to what I’ve been given, but even in trying to give something back to this friend, I got something back: an awareness (not quite the burning bush, but not too shabby in its own right) that alternators and getting to work on time and clearing off a to-do list are secondary to the needs of others.

A famous Vulcan once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Today, I got a great reminder in the midst of the chaos that was my own that it’s sometimes more important to focus on the needs of the one and the chaos that they might be battling in their own life.

So thank you Ford Motor Company – if it wasn’t for your lousy alternator, I might have missed out on a great gift!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just Because You Leave High School Doesn't Mean Your Teachers are Done

In yet another sign that the years since my graduation from high school continue to quickly fade into the past, I received word last night night that another one of my high school teachers has passed away.

She was 83 years old and had lived a long and happy life, devoting her working life to English and her retirement years to her friends, her family, and what I've heard was an absolutely magnificent garden. I hadn't actually seen her in the two-plus decades since I left school, but I had spoken with her on the telephone a few times over the years and I received word from time that she had made a point of keeping up with what I was doing with my life.

I always felt guilty over the years that we had played some ridiculous pranks on her during our youth - setting her turntable speed to 16 rpm just before she was due to start playing a recording of one of Shakespeare's plays; setting the alarm clock on her filing cabinet to go off in a class later in the day; reversing all of the desks in the room so that she was facing one wall and all of the students were facing the other. We always thought we were being funny, but as time went on I always felt badly that we had tormented her as much as we did.

Another of my teachers from those years - a wonderful lady who is godmother to my oldest child, was like my second mother during my parents' divorce, and has become a very dear friend - was the one who had informed me of Mrs. O's death, and she was the one in whom I confided my guilt over the pranks we had played. The response was not what I had expected; she simply laughed and said that teachers are very forgiving folks who understand that they are teaching kids, and that Mrs. O never held those pranks against me. In fact, she told me that the two of them had had many conversations over the years about the direction my life was taking, about some of the writing I had been doing (historical articles published in an Alabama magazine), and about my marriage and the growth of my new family.

Quite unexpectedly, here was another lesson I learned from these two teachers: that they can be very forgiving, and that interest in their students never ends with the walk across the stage in cap-and-gown, diploma held high.

Guilt? It's gone. Now I'm just smiling...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

An Evening with Christopher Buckley

From my younger years, I have vivid recollections of William F. Buckley, Jr., mostly from his role as host of PBS' "Firing Line." I don't know how often my parents watched the show, but I have strong memories of Buckley, reclining in his chair, notes on his knee, speaking with his inimitable accent about important news of the day. As I got older and my political beliefs were being developed, I discovered just how important Buckley had been to generations of conservatives in this country as the father of the movement.

The next generation of the family, son Christopher, wasn't as well known to me. I had heard of his many humorous novels - I suppose the most famous being Thank You for Smoking - but hadn't actually read any of them, and until recently hadn't read any of his columns (which are carried on the website The Daily Beast; I highly recommend them). I also recalled that he had incurred the wrath of the hard-right conservatives when he broke with family tradition and endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election. So when I saw that was appearing at Politics and Prose last night to discuss his latest book, Losing Mum and Pup, I took advantage of the opportunity and attended to learn a bit more about him.

As with my previous visits to the store, I opted to arrive early and am glad I did - the place was absolutely packed. I was fortunate to get a good seat, and the friend who was joining me managed to arrive just two or three minutes before I would have been required to relinquish the seat I was holding for him. What was most surprising to me was that contrary to what I was expecting in terms of the age of the crowd, a large majority of those in attendance were in their 70s - seemingly more from WFB's generation than that of his son, but was certainly pleased that his writing holds appeal to such a large segment of folks. One lady seated near me asked if I was familiar with his work, and then proceded to give one of the best layperson's explanations of his writing that I'll ever get - "He takes people from Washington that you'll probably recognize and puts them in situations that aren't really absurd - but then drags them out to as absurd an end as he possibly can."

This was Buckley's thirteenth appearance at Politics and Prose, and he celebrated this event by bringing his son and daughter with him - both of whom really seemed to enjoy being there with him (I can't say all kids their age would have enjoyed doing something like this on a gorgeous Friday spring night in Washington). He was an extremely witty and charming gentleman and reminded me of a cool college professor that takes the class out for beers at the end of the semester. The audience was quite taken with him and hung on his every word.

He began by reading a chapter of his newest book, which covers the year of his life between the death of his mother and the death of his father (the New York Times recently published a great review, which can be read here). It was very poignant but full of humor - made all the more real by the emotion he put into reading it - and we were all obviously on a fine line between laughter and tears. At the conclusion of his reading, he then took several questions from the audience - and it was almost painful listening at some of the insane queries being posed: one gentleman was intent on hearing every opinion Buckley had about the feud between his father and Gore Vidal resulting from the famous incident at the 1968 Democrat convention (a clip of which can be viewed here), which quickly got old; one lady, who had also lost her parents, went into a long explanation of how she had learned things about them as she was going through their papers and how she was so moved by Buckley's experience that she literally "curled up into a fetal position around the book" (he ended his response to her by thanking her for curling up with his book, "however you did it"); another gentleman tried to be very respectful as he asked Buckley if he thought his father's mind had become sclerotic towards the end of his life (which elicited an audible groan from the audience). Despite the inane quality of most of the questions, he handled each of them very gracefully.

Then came the stampede for the signing line, which one gentleman beat by starting to walk towards Buckley during the answer to his last question, just to ensure that he was at the table immediately. My friend and I found a spot towards the end and had a nice visit as the line moved - surprisingly quickly, in fact, as it seemed most of the crowd left after he finished with the question-and-answer session. He took time to chat with everyone and pose for photos for those who asked, and I had an opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed reading his Daily Beast columns and was looking forward to his books.

All in all, it was a great evening - and seeing as how Buckley and his family live here in the Washington area, I'm hoping to have more opportunities in the future to hear him speak.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lunch Served by the Dalai Lama

One of the most remarkable stories I read in the media over the weekend was one which described the visit paid to a California soup kitchen by the Dalai Lama. In addition to greeting and speaking with those utilizing the kitchen's services - he referred to himself in his remarks as homeless as well, which I'm certain did wonders to give the patrons a sense of elevation - he also put on an apron and jumped behind the counter to serve lunch.

You see politicians and celebrities here in the U.S. making these sorts of gestures all the time (genuine or otherwise) and they often go without much notice (just because you see it so often).

This is definitely something you don't see every day...

You can read the full story here. The photos that I've included here were taken by photographer Noah Berger and ran with the story.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Rethinking the Death Penalty

Consider this: your spouse or one of your children heads out of the house to run a quick errand – picking up a gallon of milk or gassing up the tank of the car. While there, a gang of kids approaches them in the parking lot and demands their wallet or purse. Your family member resists, and in the course of fighting off the robbers they are killed. There’s a trial and conviction, and because the killing occurred during the commission of a robbery, the potential sentence could be for the guilty to be put to death.

Fast forward to the sentencing hearing, and you are asked to speak – either in support of the death penalty or of life in prison.

What would you do?

For many years, I always thought that it would be an easy question for me should I (God forbid) find myself in that situation: execution. If someone is going to take the life of someone I love, then it’s only fair that there be retribution and that they pay with their life. I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve seen a news story or investigative report about a killer somewhere had their execution delayed time after time (and I get particularly angry when the killing involves a child) and gotten upset over the delayed justice.

In the past few days, however, everything I thought I knew about how I would react – and my support of the death penalty in general – has been turned on its end. After reading a review of Thomas Cahill’s newest book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, I decided to go out and pick up a copy, and without question it has made me rethink my entire position. Dominique was a young black man arrested, tried and convicted of a murder during a robbery and later sentenced to death. The conviction came about through a combination of ineffective legal representation, backroom deals between the prosecutors and other white defendants, and a flawed system of justice in Texas whereby a person doesn’t even have to be the triggerman to be sentenced to death.

Cahill makes the point that he’s not even sure whether Dominique was guilty or not of the murder, and Dominique - who always insinuated that someone else pulled the trigger – never named names. However, he does an outstanding job of outlining the horrific miscarriage of justice brought about by the Texas judicial system, and it is infuriating to read about court-appointed attorneys not pursuing leads, prosecutors taking the word of white defendants over that of a black man (with absolutely no evidence to back up their position), and countless other intentional “slips” and sidesteps that ultimately pushed Dominique to his death by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas in 1994.

In the midst of the book, there were several things in particular that really seized me and wouldn’t let go. One was a quote from Sheila Murphy, a retired judge who came into Dominique’s case towards the end and who made a valiant effort to save his life; she is speaking here about witnessing wives and girlfriends bringing their children to visits with their husbands and boyfriends on death row: “No place for children to play, no books, no coloring books. They just have to sit and wait while their mother talks on the phone to their father. They just look on with eyes so sad – such inhumanity to innocent children under color of law.”

Another point that clung to me was reading about Dominique’s horrible childhood: drug-addicted and abusive parents; a supportive grandmother who died while Dominique was still young; and ultimately fleeing the home with his younger brothers to protect them from the same beatings and burnings he had endured. He had to resort to selling drugs and stealing, but all the while doing so knowing that he couldn’t allow his brothers to travel the road on which he was moving.

There was an overwhelming level of support Dominique received from various individuals and groups, both here and in Europe. Cahill talks at great length about the amazing men and women involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome who, after one member responded to a letter from Dominique published in an Italian newspaper, went out of their way to show him support and – most significantly – love. They developed a deep and genuine affection for him and were in many ways responsible for the transformation he underwent during his 11 years in prison.

I developed an even greater level of respect for Archbishop Tutu than I already have because of his involvement in this story; he took the time in the midst of a packed schedule in the United States to visit Dominique – to listen to his story, to laugh with him, to cry with him, to show (as with those in Sant’Egidio) him a love and compassion that he hadn’t experienced from his own family. Tutu became a champion of his cause and a source of inspiration for Dominique and for all his fellow prisoners on Texas’ death row. During a sermon following his visit with Dominique, he pointed out one of the great paradoxes about the United States: “You are a very generous people, Americans, and it is very difficult to square with your remarkable vindictiveness, which doesn’t square with your remarkable generosity.”

I was amazed by the transformation which Dominique underwent. Recognizing that he was receiving extremely substandard legal representation by his court-appointed team, he took it upon himself to read every aspect of the law and educate himself about every bit of his case. He read books to improve his mind and strengthen his spirit, and over the 11 years of his incarceration his writing and communications skills evolved from someone with little formal education to a young man of great intellect and articulateness.

But the most powerful take-away from this book (and to bring this entry full circle) was the power of forgiveness – the forgiveness that Dominique had for those who had wronged him, but most especially the forgiveness of the victim’s family towards Dominique. They forgave unconditionally, were strong advocates of a life sentence versus lethal injection, and because of their opposition to the sentence were not invited to witness the execution. One of the sons told reporters, “I felt it was dirty, and the state will have their chance to face a higher authority – that is, God…I mean, Andrew Lastrapes was my daddy in the first place, and I forgave Dominique. I know God has a place for Dominique in heaven. The person I met doesn’t deserve to die. He became close to me, and I pray that he goes to heaven.”

The book left me with quite a few questions. On the surface, how can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – allow such an atrocious judicial system as that found in Texas to continue to exist? How can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – be in such a rush to put people to death, the way Romans crucified without hesitation.

How can we do this – a nation as advanced and moral and, according to many, as Christian as we are?

There are questions on a deeper level as well. How is it that a family who has actually gone through the experience of losing a loved one at the hands of someone else can forgive so easily, and yet for much of my life I have felt there should be no forgiveness? Why is that I have tried live by much of what I learned from Christ in the New Testament, yet have such an Old Testament view of punishment? Is forgiveness learned, or is it just done?

Yes, this book left me with quite a few questions – questions that I’ll be struggling to answer for quite some time…