Friday, December 23, 2011

All I want for Christmas

``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”  – “A Christmas Carol”

Dear Santa,

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a very long time. First, I want to thank you for George – that’s what I named the little mechanical dachshund you brought me in 1972, when we lived in that pretty house on South Joslin Court in Denver. We even had a fireplace for you! Remember?

You brought me some really nice gifts over the years, but I especially cherished George because I couldn’t have a real dog. I never got to show you my appreciation because right after that, my cousin Freddie told me there was no Santa Claus. So I never wrote you again.

Of course, I’ve since found out that Freddie was mistaken. “Santa Claus” is just a moniker; you’re really Saint Nikolaos of Myra, and you were born in what is now Turkey in 270 AD. You’re probably the world’s most famous Orthodox Christian  that nobody knows is Orthodox. (You’re in good company, with Telly Savalas, George Stephanopoulos, Nadia Comaneci and Nikola Tesla. But I digress.)

Anyway, “Santa,” they made you a saint because of the wonderful things you did for the poor – like secretly putting gold coins in children’s shoes as the family slept. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been poor back in the third century. 

I suppose that if you weren’t lucky enough to be the king, you were most likely destitute. There was no Social Security, no food stamps, no Medicaid. The children worked hard along with their parents, not for spending money but for sustenance. I bet that your gold coins prevented more than one family from starving.

So you’ve been traveling around the world ever since then, giving gifts to good children (and to bad ones as well!). And you’ve witnessed a lot of progress in the last 1,700 years. With electricity and plumbing and automobiles, most people are a lot more comfortable now than they were when you first started out.

But we still have poor people. And that’s why I’m writing you this letter, after all these years. I’m really lucky – there’s nothing that I need. I have enough clothes and food, and I have a house to live in. So you don’t have to bring me anything. But I’m worried about the people around me.

I don’t know if you read the newspaper or watch the news – I’m not sure how the reception is at the North Pole. But lately, all over the world, complicated political and economic systems are breaking down. People who used to have clothes and food and houses are losing them. People who worked hard all their lives are worried about their futures. People are protesting, and some people are getting hurt.

There was no “middle class” in third-century Turkey, but nowadays the middle class is a big deal. Middle class people aren’t rich, but they have everything they need – and a few things they want. Well, the middle class is disappearing. Here in the United States, the most recent census showed that half of us are “poor or low-income.” 

There’s a big problem, though – a lot of the poor, at least here in America, don’t “seem” poor. The Heritage Foundation says that the poor aren’t REALLY poor, because most of them have TVs and coffee makers. (I was at Goodwill last week and saw a TV for $10 and a coffee maker for $5 … just sayin’). The folks at Freedom Works think that unemployment insurance – which pays a fraction of what workers’ salaries used to be – keeps people from looking for work. The New York Times reported that the average job-seeker today searches nine months before finding work … which seems like a long time for a family to live on (at most) $1,320 a month, when the average mortgage payment is $1,295. Throw in health insurance, a car payment, and stuff like electricity and food, and … well, you can do the math.

This letter is getting really long, and I know you only have another couple of days to prepare for your big flight on Christmas Eve. But I just wanted to make sure you knew this. The people struggling these days don’t live like people did in your day, but if they can’t pay for medical treatment, or the bank is taking their house away, or their local food pantry has run out of supplies, they’re poor. Don’t you think…?

And come to think of it, with some people in the U.S. wanting to get rid of Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid, as well as child labor regulations … well, we might wind up a lot like third century Turkey anyway.

Merry Christmas!

Love, Teresa

Monday, December 12, 2011

Let’s fight to keep the ‘X’ in ‘Xmas’

“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn't for any religious reasons. They couldn't find three wise men and a virgin.” – Jay Leno

The most amazing thing didn’t happen to me yesterday.

I was at the grocery store, spending my last three paychecks on luxuries like eggs, milk and bread. As the cashier handed me my red-and-green shopping bag (after finding out whether my preference was paper or plastic), she smiled said, “Merry Christmas!” And without stopping to think – without measuring the possible ramifications – I accidentally blurted, “Merry Christmas to you, too!”

The realization of what I’d done hit me like a 20-pound snowball. I’d said the C-word. In public.

The blood rushed out of my head and I felt woozy. I stood there, frozen to the spot, waiting for the anti-Christmas police to swoop in and arrest me.

I began regretting that morning’s choice in underwear, expecting to be strip-searched. After all, I’ve been hearing about the “War on Christmas” for years, and GOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry himself has released a TV spot pointing out the irony of gays being able to serve openly in the military when “our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” (It’s on television, so it must be true.)

But nothing happened. Nothing at all. I waited until the elderly gentleman behind me shouted, “What the hell ya waitin’ for? CHRISTMAS?” When nothing happened to him, either, I realized that I was safe after all. But it was a close call. I live in the United States, where it is, apparently, extraordinarily dangerous to be a Christian and to honor Christ’s birth.

As I drove home, passing store after store with “CHRISTMAS DEALS!” signs up, and house after house daring to display colored lights and Nativity scenes, I meditated on how difficult it is to be a believer here. I could live in Egypt, where 26 Coptic Orthodox Christians were slaughtered last month. Or in Nigeria, where 45 ethnic Berom Christians were killed just last week. And since most of the stuff people are buying for Christmas is manufactured in China, I’m thinking it might be better to live there. After all, the only thing Christians have to worry about in China is being “disappeared.” 

Here, on the other hand, it’s really a nightmare. I’m trying to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, but there are barriers up everywhere. For instance, I work at a newspaper (and everyone knows the media are godless). I had to create a Holiday Worship guide, filled with stories about Christmas including one about certain events in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The publication was held together with glossy advertisements for merchandise, some of them brandishing the word “Holidays” but many of them actually using that C-word. We even have a big sign up in the office: “MERRY CHRISTMAS.” And a “Christmas party” has been planned. (I have to bring a cheese ball.)

On the radio, I hear seasonal music, much of it referring to Christmas either in a religious way (about God and stuff) or in a secular way (Santa, Rudolph, war heroes coming home). On TV, there are plenty of seasonal specials, again referring to Christmas – whether as a religious or a secular event. (My personal favorite? “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The ORIGINAL: You can buy a copy here. I can’t watch that one enough – especially the part where his heart grows three sizes! That is SO awesome.)

And I can’t begin to tell you how inconvenient it will be to celebrate the big day, seeing as like the majority of Americans, I get Dec. 25 as a paid holiday. It hardly seems fair, the effort I have to put into honoring my Savior’s birth. Even writing out the name of the holiday is laborious, so I often refer to it as Xmas. (Some people would tell me I’m trying to take the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” but interestingly, the X comes from the Greek Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ.) (Look it up.)

Meanwhile, while I’m undergoing these trials and tribulations, another 2.6 million of my fellow Americans slipped into poverty since last Christmas – and the number of Americans living below the “official” poverty line (which is low indeed) is more than 46 million people – the highest number on record. I recently wrote a feature story on area food pantries; the sources told me that demand has increased threefold since the Recession began. And here in Madison – where things are better than most places in the country – the social service agencies are running out of stuff. Food, clothing, shelter.

Which brings me to what really confused me about Mr. Perry’s clever TV spot in which he “admits” to being an unashamed Christian. He admits there’s something going wrong in America. But what’s going wrong, he says, is that gays are allowed to serve openly in the military. In my Bible, Christ – whose birth we are preparing to celebrate – makes no mention of gays in the military. He does, however, talk lovingly of the poor.

And I’m wondering … maybe Mr. Perry SHOULD be ashamed.

It’s enough to make the Baby Jesus cry.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Correlation, causation, and the proof in the pudding

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words ... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint." – Hesiod, 8th century BC

In the wake of the “viral” videotape of a Texas family court judge whipping his teenage daughter, there’s been no shortage of discussion of corporal punishment (CP) of children, pro and con.

One problem with the dialogue is that no two people can agree on the meaning of the terminology. Is “spanking” a pop on a toddler’s diapered butt? Or is it administering 20 lashes with a metal-studded leather belt? This is like lumping the bow-and-arrow together with the atom bomb and calling them both “weapons of mass destruction.” If we can’t agree how to define the words, I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere.

But there are two bigger problems: perception vs. reality, and disagreement about what causes what. I mean, everyone knows that kids today are pretty rotten, especially compared to when we were their age. Smoking, drinking, drugs, violence, and sex … today’s teens are worse than EVER! And what could be causing this monstrous behavior? Well, obviously, it’s linked to the drop in popularity of CP at home and in the schools.

But the perception of “kids today” simply isn’t accurate. In fact, in many ways, “today’s kids” are BETTER than we ever were.


Let’s take the example of violence. Mom vs. the World” writes: “Spanking does not cause violence. The proof is in the pudding! Look at the youth of today and then come back and tell me the kids are less violent today than there were 20 years ago. You can’t do it … All you have to do is watch YouTube for a few minutes and see that violence among kids has grown not declined.”

Well, as long as we’re going to use the word “proof,” then maybe we can look at some actual, factual information. According to FBI national arrest statistics, the arrest rate of juveniles for violent crime (murder, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault) has declined each year since 1994, and is lower now than in any year since at least 1980.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime in schools has declined dramatically during the same time period. The annual rate of serious violent crime in 2007 (40 per 1,000 students) was less than half of the rate in 1994.

Literally hundreds of studies are showing the same results. In her blog, “Mom” says she doesn’t trust the “experts,” but I can’t help but ask the question: Why are so many different experts doing different studies and coming up with the same data? (Especially when many of these studies are conducted by entities that could receive more government funding if they OVERSTATED the problem…? Stick THAT in your blog and type it.)

It’s important to remember that correlation does not always imply causation. I certainly don’t believe we can prove a direct link between the drop in youth crime and parents spanking less. But it’s obviously inaccurate to claim that “teens are more violent today” and then to blame this “fact” on a reported decrease in CP.

In defense of CP (not simply “discipline,” which I think most parents agree is a necessity), “Mom” also says, “Kids need to learn about consequences when they are kids so they can gain a healthy respect for the laws and rules when they become adults.” This is the classic “I spank my kids to keep them out of jail” argument.

But here again, the data’s clear. A childhood background of CP (which may, or may not, be defined as abuse) is ubiquitous in the prison population. Based on a study of more than 2,000 delinquents, Dr. Ralph Welsh developed “The Belt Theory.” "The recidivist male delinquent who has never been exposed to the belt, extension cord or fist at some time in his life is virtually non-existent,” he says.

We can’t say for certain that CP caused these inmates to commit violent, illegal acts. However, it’s obvious that the punishment didn’t PREVENT these acts either.

By the same token, we can look at populations that, statistically, tend to rely heavily on CP – such as African-Americans and people without college degrees. Both populations are over-represented in our penal system. Perhaps CP didn’t cause their behavior, but again, it didn’t seem to PREVENT it. And wasn’t that the point?

Violence isn’t the only example. Drug use? Yes, it’s edged up a bit recently, but it’s still 50 percent lower than it was in 1979 (the year I entered high school). Drinking? Also down, and “much less a problem than it was 20 years ago,” says Dr. Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the Highway Research Safety Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smoking? After a peak in 1996, it’s been declining.

But surely, more kids are having sex? I mean, look at all that garbage on TV! Well, sorry to disappoint, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy is at its lowest rate in two decades and other indicators (age of first sexual activity, STDs, the abortion rate) are showing improvement as well.

Here we go with that pesky correlation-and-causation thing again. Over the past few decades, fewer parents are using CP routinely (or at least, this is what they report). Meanwhile, today’s kids aren’t perfect, but they’re not all going to hell in a handbasket either. So where’s that connection again…?

Of course, we all know things started going sour when they stopped CP in schools. But it seems that most people don’t realize that CP is still legal in the school districts of 19 states, and it’s not rare; last year more than 200,000 students were subjected to CP (disproportionately and repeatedly administered to minority, poor and special education students).

The top 10 states for CP (paddling) in schools: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky. And, as Gomer Pyle would say, surprise-surprise: by almost every measure (graduation rates, standardized test scores, violent crime and teen pregnancy, among others), things are worse in these states than in states where CP is illegal.

Golly gee. I’d like to pull a “correlation is causation” out of that hat, but I can’t. Perhaps there’s no link at all. Perhaps there is some unknown factor, like the color of the dirt or the prevalence of moths, in these 10 states, which simply appears to link school CP with negative life outcomes.

I don’t know. But I’d be interested in finding out what’s in the pudding that “Mom” is eating.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Live within a budget! And other stellar ideas

“Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it.”
–Benjamin Franklin

On my break from my minimum-wage job, I decide to go window-shopping downtown.

The first store I pass has the most adorable pair of Apepazza boots (a steal at $289). They’re on the feet of a mannequin that’s wearing a pair of 7 For All Mankind denim jeans (a mere $215), and an awesome Gucci satin blouse ($650 – OK, that sounds like a lot, but not if you wear it every week).

Let me tell you, it had been one of those weeks at work …whiny customers, the boss in a snit. And I have a party coming up Friday night. The outfit’s $1,154 all together – more than I earn in a month. But that’s no problem, because I have a MasterCard. And when the bill comes, I can just put it on my Discover. So I don’t have to spend any actual “money” at all!

What the hell…? I’m getting it. After all, a girl’s got to splurge once in a while.

Do you know this chick? I don’t. Oh, I don’t doubt that she exists. But the majority of Americans who are in debt today aren’t there because they were hypnotized by shiny objects. Medical expenses, job loss, and divorce wreak more havoc on peoples’ financial lives than that oft-demonized “daily latte.”

You wouldn’t know that, though, to listen to many of the financial gurus. Take Dr. Jason Cabler, who created the “Celebrating Financial Freedom” program. Dr. Cabler’s bio reveals the terrible difficulties of his first years of marriage, when he and his wife battled over the bills. They decided to develop a written budget, and voila! They now live debt-free and worry-free. (And, he says, you can too, if you purchase his program.)

But consider his curious case: He’s a dentist (median U.S. salary, $133,851); married to a banker (let’s pretend that she’s only a loan clerk: $35,522); living in Tennessee (the state with the lowest cost of living in the United States). He doesn’t mention having any children. His humor page contains jokes like “You know you’re broke if you make $40,000 a year and drive a $50,000 car.” (Ha, ha! He’s funny.)

Oh, and every time Dr. Cabler sells one of his “Celebrating Financial Freedom” programs, he makes $59.95.

Then there’s Dave Ramsey, who founded the Financial Peace University. By age 26, Ramsey was earning $250,000 a year; by age 28, he was broke. Ramsey is thumbs-down on credit cards (sensible) and thumbs-up on emergency funds (also sensible). (Parenthetically, though, he doesn’t mention what to do if your emergency occurs before you’ve saved up your fund.)

For $119 (a 40% savings off his regular price; I’m not sure exactly when his price is “regular”), Ramsey will sell you his debt-reduction program. (By the way, you have to use a credit card to order it online). He must be doing well, because he recently purchased a 13,307-square-foot home, assessed at $4,909,200, also in Tennessee (LOL!). Utility records show his electric bill alone is $1,285 per month (more than my mortgage). His master bathroom shower supposedly has 18 shower heads (does he feel dirty? I’m just sayin’).

And I really can’t finish this blog without bringing up The Duggar Family, even though Jim Bob isn’t, strictly speaking, a financial advisor. The Duggars have 19 children “and counting,” and they’re very big on “debt-free living” (especially because – like Dr. Cabler and Dave Ramsey – they happen to be conservative Christians).

The Duggars live in Arkansas, the state with the fourth-lowest cost of living (the other states rounding out the bottom five are Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas). Jim Bob’s a “real estate agent and investor” by trade. He credits the Jim Sammons’ Financial Freedom Seminar for teaching him how to support 19 kids without a mortgage and without resorting to credit.

His wife Michelle keeps a blog on living debt-free with super-smart tips like “(go) to thrift shops or pawnshops or whatever” and “(I tell my children to) shop around a little bit.”

I wonder if it helps, though, that the Duggars also have a reality show on TLC, and a 7,000-square-foot house that was completed by Discovery Networks. Also, corporate sponsors provided “the painting, decorating, furnishings, appliances, and other finishing touches, such as a stocked pantry.” (You know, I happen to be a big fan of Coca-Cola®. I wonder if I could get some kind of corporate sponsorship from them? Just thinking out loud here…)

We should all aspire to acquire as little debt as possible. We should all spend wisely and save as much as we can. Intelligent advice is always appreciated. But please, Dr. Cabler, Mr. Ramsey, and you Duggars (all 21 of you!) – spare me your condescending crap about living on a tight budget when you have no clue what it’s like.

People richer and brighter than me have sunk my nation so far in debt that we’ll never be able to climb out. So-called "entitlements" already earned may be lost. Tomorrow looks scarier by the day. So (while I have no intention of ever buying a $600 blouse) if I want to blow my money on a McDonald’s CafĂ© Latte ($2.29) tomorrow morning, then let me do it in peace.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Frank believes. Help, Lord, his unbelief.

“God have mercy on a man who doubts what he’s sure of.”
– Detective Frank Pembleton, “Homicide – Life on the Street”

Two detectives are walking away from the scene of a crime – a dumpster in the alley beside a Catholic church, where the naked and battered body of a young woman has been thrown like yesterday’s trash. The victim, Katherine Goodrich, had run a women’s shelter. As random and meaningless murders go, this one seems particularly random and meaningless.

“Damn him!” exclaims Detective Frank Pembleton.

“The killer?” asks his partner, Detective Tim Bayliss.

“God,” says Frank.

“Frank, I don’t think you can ask God to damn himself,” responds Tim. “And if you do, don’t stand next to me, because I don’t want to get hit by lightning. This is a new suit.”

“Homicide – Life on the Street,” a crime drama that ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999, was once called “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” by TV Guide. The series, set in gritty Baltimore, followed the lives of detectives who faced the ugliness of murder every day – and who, for their own survival, had learned to minimize the emotional impact of each case with postulating and gallows humor.

“Homicide” featured few shootouts, and ever fewer car chases. While many critics and viewers now hail it as the best cop show ever on television, viewers apparently wanted more action and less philosophizing. But on “Homicide,” the dialogue was the thing. As they went about their daily business, the cops discussed love and marriage, wealth and poverty, good and evil. And Detective Frank Pembleton was one of the rarest finds on network TV – a practicing Catholic who often struggled openly with his faith.

The character of Frank (played by the charismatic and mesmerizing Andre Braugher) had attended St. Ignatius Prep in his youth. “The Jesuits taught me how to think,” Frank tells people; “I haven’t felt safe since.” As an adult, Frank attends Mass regularly, often before his shift where he’ll be dealing with stabbings and rapes. Frank speaks Greek and Latin, and he takes the teachings of Catholicism seriously.

“You’re not Catholic and you took Communion?” he asks his partner in the episode, “Extreme Unction” (written by D. Keith Mano, a family friend). “Yeah. Why – is that wrong?” asks Tim. “Well, if my God wins, you’re screwed,” Frank says.

Frank has a wife and, eventually, a daughter. Every evening, after experiencing the traumas in Baltimore’s inner city, he goes back to the warmth and innocence of his home. But as the years wear on, and Frank sees slaughtered children and guilty men go free, he finds himself questioning the concept of a loving, omnipotent God.

When it comes to religion, television writers are fantastic at creating caricatures. You have your flashy Baptist … your neurotic Jew … your ethereal Buddhist. But Frank Pembleton, with all his complexity and paradox, is a rare find. Here’s a man who simultaneously trusts God and doubts Him; who loves his church but considers walking away.

In the mornings, Frank kneels and swallows the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; two hours later, he’s holding his gun to the head of a crack dealer. Religious status? “It’s Complicated.”

Frank gives credit where credit is due. When another detective tells Frank he’s fortunate to have avoided injury in a gunfight, Frank responds, “Luck had nothing to do with it. God reached down and graced a fool with wisdom.”

In addition, Frank doesn’t take God – or goodness – for granted. He’s seen far too much to believe in a “Precious Moments” sort of Bible. “You gotta know the darker, uglier sides of yourself,” he tells his partner. “Virtue isn’t virtue until it slams up against vice. So consequently, your virtue’s not real virtue. Until it’s been tested … tempted.”

And Frank’s faith is tested acutely when – as a young and healthy man with a newborn daughter – he suffers a stroke and must learn to walk and talk again. Having spent his adult life working against evil, he wonders just what God’s done for him lately. He faces a massive spiritual hurdle when it’s time to have his little daughter baptized, and he seriously contemplates denying her the sacrament.

“God has become ‘the great light show,’” he declares. “(He can’t help me because) He’s in the next county making hunchback babies.”

When Frank’s partner Tim is wounded in action, Frank’s anger at God peaks. “There’s no truth for me anymore, not anymore,” he announces to the department. But alone with Tim in the hospital room, Frank’s need to connect with the Creator is desperate and raw. “Dear God, make Bayliss fight,” he says. “God, please. I swear. I will do anything. Let him live. I’m askin.’ I’m beggin.’ Help my friend. I want him to live.”

Tim does live, but Frank’s had enough of the street. He quits the force abruptly, but not before he takes God on one more time. To a fellow detective who is weak in her Christian faith, Frank says, “Let ME box with God. Because in this line of work – be it mutilated priest or overdosed drug addict – faith only gets in the way and twists you up.”

“Homicide” writer Tom Fontana says that his character Frank reflects Fontana’s own struggle with his Catholic faith. “I’m in a constant debate with God on how He runs the universe,” Fontana says.

So often in the Christian life, anger and doubt are placed at one end of the seesaw, while joy and faith are on the other side. It’s wrong to have doubts about God, we assume, and it’s certainly wrong to be angry at him. But the truth is that neither anger at God nor doubt can exist without faith. How can you be angry with an entity you don’t believe exists? How can you feel righteous indignation that bad things happen unless, in your heart, you prefer the good?

Everyone is familiar with Mark 9:24: “The father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’” Here there is no escaping the fact that doubt and faith can exist at the same time. Doubt is not the problem: what matters is one’s willingness to leave a window open for the spirit to come through.

“There should be some desire to believe,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware, author of “The Orthodox Way.” “There should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus who as yet we know so imperfectly.”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Creating God in my image.

Recently, a "seeking" friend presented me with a phrase about God and asked me to expand on it in my own words. My response is below.

“The name that we give God is not even worthy of God."

This is really beautiful. I don’t know where it came from, and I chose not to Google it to find out - because I didn’t want anyone else’s theology in my head.

I’m quite capable of coming up with independent reflection – and I will – but I can’t help but be struck by how Orthodox the statement is. In Orthodoxy, there is the concept of apophatic theology (“negative” theology), which describes God in terms of what God is NOT. (God is NOT limited; God is NOT knowable, God is NOT definable, etc.)

In other words, we simply cannot grasp what God really IS because our own minds and hearts are not capable of doing so. He’s just so … MUCH. Apophatic theology is very much an Eastern concept, and I would not be surprised if the statement comes from someone who has been somewhat influenced by Eastern Christian thought.

Now for my own humble thoughts …

When I was in college and struggling with the whole born-again issue, feeling trapped inside a legalistic and rigid theology, I wrote down a “conversation” between myself and God. I didn’t actually think that I was hearing God’s voice, but I wrote down what made sense to me.

One of my questions to God was, “But didn’t you create us in Your image?”

And God answered: “At first, yes. But afterward, you created Me in YOUR image.”

To me, that’s what this phrase points out. In my view, it’s obvious that everything in the universe was created by an intelligent force. (And by this, I do NOT mean the pseudo-science that is “Intelligent Design,” which is simply Creationism by another name. ID denies that everything can ultimately be explained by science, and I believe that if humankind were to survive long enough, this could eventually happen.)

No, I believe that Existence, in and of itself, begs a Creator of some sort. Whether this Creator is a Diest being that simply wound up the clock at the Big Bang and then walked away, or whether this Creator is intimately involved in the day-to-day workings of our individual lives, is almost beside the point. I personally think the reality is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

So the question (for me) isn’t “Is there a Creator?” But “What is He/She/It like?” And that’s a much harder question to answer.

It’s clear to ME that God did not “dictate” ANY scripture – not the New Testament, not the Talmud, not the Koran, not any Buddhist or Hindu texts. There are simply too many contradictions in them for this to be the case. Had any particular collection of scripture been proven true beyond all doubt, solving all problems and providing provable information we could not otherwise have, it would have risen to the top already. It would be evident. There would be a single world religion, and we would all follow it.

Even within my own chosen faith, I have questions like “When Jesus was on earth, why didn’t he teach us about germs? Tell us about other planets? Explain how to make medicine? Warn us about nuclear weapons?” Even esoteric and Gnostic texts, with “hidden teachings of Jesus,” don’t contain such things.

That doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t God incarnate. It means that if he was, he still chose to allow us to discover things (and make mistakes) on our own.

So that leaves us in the dark, even in a post-incarnate world.

The human mind is an amazing thing to behold. Our ability to think, reason, and create seems almost unlimited. But we do have limits. For instance, we cannot imagine “infinity.” No matter how hard a person tries, he can’t wrap his mind around that concept. When I read that the universe goes on and on without end – or even that Pi does – my mind just shuts down. I can imagine to a point, and then I can go no further.

And it’s the same thing when we try to imagine God. We can only go so far. If this limitless universe … if time and space … if micro- and macro-physics (which are contradictory!) … were all created by this Creator, than this Creator is bigger than all of those things. Ironically, the more we discover through science, the bigger the Creator has to get.

So the only way I can begin to comprehend God is to compare him to myself, because ultimately, “myself” is all I have to compare things to. If I want to believe that this Creator is good, then I imagine myself as “good.” If, to me, being loving and forgiving and gentle is good, then God must be an awful lot like ME.

That’s why peoples’ understanding of God so often reflects their own limitations. Those who are angry, hateful, judgmental and bigoted worship a God that is just like them.

Therefore, whenever I invoke the name of God, I am – to some extent – simply invoking an image of my own self.

And “myself” is a million miles away from being worthy of all that this Creator is.

So …“The name that we give God is not even worthy of God."

-The sinner, Teresa

Note: This piece is not meant as an official statement of Orthodox Christianity. Clearly, our example of what and who God is is understood in the person of Jesus Christ. But my comments reflect our own limitations as human beings to recognize and to see. Pray for me, a sinner. -TBP

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When the bough breaks.

“A babe in the house is a wellspring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men.” –Martin Fraquhar Tupper

She had the most beautiful brown eyes, expressive and full of curiosity. But her life was stolen from her before it had even really begun. Her name was Nixzmary Brown. Never heard of her? Neither had I, until about an hour ago.

I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Caylee Marie Anthony case, which has absolutely riveted the entire nation, keeping Americans glued to magazines, the Internet and cable TV for months. The trial ended yesterday with the surprising acquittal of her mother, Casey. While most of us suspect that Casey chloroformed little Caylee and dumped her tiny body in the woods near their suburban Orlando home, the jury was unconvinced.

But as heartbreaking as Caylee’s death is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Nixzmary’s life. By the age of 7, Nixzmary – who lived in Brooklyn, New York – had experienced horrors most of us literally cannot imagine. Nicknamed “Diablo” (The Devil) by her mother and her boyfriend, Nixzmary had been singled out among her siblings as deserving of special treatment.

For months, Nixzmary had been confined to a back room with nothing but a dirty mattress, a wooden chair (to which she was often duct-taped) and a litter box. She was beaten daily with a leather belt. She was not allowed to eat with the family. On the day of her death, Nixzmary was hungry. She got loose and took some yogurt from the refrigerator. Her mother ignored her cries as her boyfriend flew into a rage, dousing Nixzmary with water and pounding her head into the bathtub until she died.

Nixzmary, who should have been enjoying second grade, weighed 36 pounds at time of autopsy.

Nixzmary’s story brought to my mind a similar case, that of Elizabeth Steinberg, also 7, also beaten and starved to death over many months by her “parents,” also in New York City. In both cases, repeated calls had been made to child protective services by teachers, family, friends and neighbors, yet nothing was done. Nixzmary’s case resulted in “Nixzmary’s Law,” in which the state of New York made life without parole the maximum sentence for killing a child “in an especially cruel and wanton manner.”

Lisa Steinberg’s case, which happened in 1987 before the explosion of the Internet and cable, received what was then a huge amount of media attention. (A true crime fan, I confess to owning several books about Lisa’s life.) Her murder was considered all the more shocking because her caretakers were highly-educated professionals (Joel Steinberg an attorney, Hedda Nussbaum a children’s book author). But I’d never heard of Nixzmary until I did a Google search on “parent” “child” “murder.”

And that’s what gets me about the Anthony case. Not just that I believe the killer is going free, but that while millions of Americans have been captivated by the coverage case since Caylee’s remains were discovered in December 2008, it has seemed as if Caylee were the only child to be (allegedly) killed at the hands of a parent. And what’s more: many of these other young victims suffer unspeakable cruelties before they die.

Of course, no one will forget the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, which may never be solved. But, like Caylee, Jon-Benet was a pretty little white girl who lived in the suburbs, and appeared to have been well-treated – even cherished – until her death.

Have you heard of Lydia Schatz? She was one of three Liberian children adopted by a couple in rural Tennessee who belonged to a Fundamentalist Christian sect that demanded “Biblical chastisement.” During a homeschool lesson, 7-year-old Lydia mispronounced a word; as discipline, her parents took turns whipping her with a piece of plastic tubing for hours – until she died of kidney failure. Authorities removed eight other children from the home, several of whom had also been beaten.

Have you heard of Melanie Beltran? Five-year-old Melanie was beaten to death by her mother for throwing up her dinner. But first, Skokie investigators revealed, Melanie had been “routinely” tied up by both parents. She had been forced to eat hot peppers, been burned by cigarettes and made to drink from the toilet. She had seven siblings.

Have you heard of Brittany Jacks? Tatianna Jacks? N’Kiah Fogle? Aja Fogle? Their decomposing bodies were found in the Washington, D.C. apartment of their 33-year-old mother, who starved, choked, and stabbed them. (Demons had told her what to do.)

The deaths of all of these young girls were picked up by their local news outlets; I found out about all of them online. But none of these cases were covered in any detail by the national media. I don’t believe it’s an insult to Caylee’s memory to recognize the fact that these children’s stories were even more tragic than Caylee’s, given that they all suffered for months, or even years, before their deaths.

These little girls were Hispanic, Liberian and African-American. Their families lived in trailer parks and tenements. Some of their parents were unemployed. Some didn't speak English.

And if I didn’t know better, I would think that society – and the media – put a low price on their lives.

US Department of Justice statistics show that almost 37,000 children were murdered in the United States between 1976 and 1994 – most by beating, and most by a parent. Child abuse happens in rich and poor families, in suburbs and in cities, and in every ethnic group.

But doesn’t it seem strange to you that you heard all about Caylee, but nothing about Nixzmary or N’Kiah?

Yeah. Seems strange to me, too.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The united state of America

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” – The Statue of Liberty

My employer has given me next Monday off so that I can spend the day visit with family, drink beer, eat hot dogs and maybe catch some fireworks. This is how we Americans celebrate our nation’s 1776 declaration of independence from Great Britain.

While most of us enjoy our Fourth of July holiday, we won’t be forgetting that lots of things in the United States have ground to a halt. Red and blue, young and old, rich and poor, Americans are united in one observation: we seem to be speeding to hell in a handbasket.

The problem is that we can’t agree on who wove that basket and sent it on its way. Some people think that it’s the poor, the immigrants and the people who create regulations. Some people think it’s the people on Wall Street and the CEOs of giant corporations. And some people think it’s God Himself, who must be angry at America for allowing abortion and gay marriage.

My son – a young actor – is in the cast of “Myth America,” now showing at Broom Street Theater: a local venue for “non-traditional experimental … entertainment without censorship.” (He’s the blond hippie on the far right.) Written by Callen Harty and directed by Matt Kenyon, the irreverent satire somehow merges tacky jokes about transvestites and masturbation with thoughtful commentary about the nation we all think we live in.

The play reminds us that even though Republican Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann believes the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery,” half of the men who wrote our Constitution owned slaves, and in Article 1, Section 2 of the document they decreed that a slave would count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of voting representation.

Further, the play reveals what might be news to a lot of Americans: the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln was deeply torn about the issue of slavery. As he wrote to Horace Greeley in 1842, “If I could save the Union without freeing ANY slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing ALL the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would do that.”

One skit leads the audience through seven generations of the fictitious American Corporation, which first grows wealthy on the backs of indentured servants and then discriminates against the Irish, Asians, Hispanics and other “foreigners” who have come to America in search of the better life they’ve heard about.

But the most poignant moments of “Myth America” happen toward the end, when to the tune of Smile Empty Soul’s “This is War” (“Now it’s down to this, just you and me / I’ll blow your fucking head off for my country”), the cast lays bare the extent to which the United States has depended on violence to serve its interests. Reciting a literally endless list of armed conflicts through the years – with an ironic backdrop of U.S. Presidents’ quotes about peace – each member of the cast rolls up on the floor; they’re then covered with a bloody flag and mourned by Lady Liberty.

As a proud parent, I’ve seen the play more than once and I plan to see it again before closing night. Someone on the other side of political debate might assume that when I leave the theater, I’m filled with hatred for the United States. But they would be wrong.

The truth is, I’m filled with pride that (at least right now) I live in a country where my son can be in a play like this and not fear arrest or torture. And I’m relieved that (at least right now) I can still investigate the “real” history of the United States, the bad as well as the good, and even blog about it without hearing a knock on my door. (USA PATRIOT Act be damned.)

Like most Americans right now, I fear for the future of my country – even though my fellow Americans disagree about what we should fear. But I still believe in the IDEA of America. The fact is, America has never been the nation we believed that it was. But unlike many other countries, it was founded upon an ideal, a concept, that I believe in with all my heart.

And that’s what I’ll be celebrating on Independence Day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Talkin’ bout my generation.

Dear Mister Ryan,

I’ve been hearing about the money problems you all are dealing with yonder in Washington D.C., and your “Roadmap for America's Future.” So I’m just writing to let you know that after work today, I’m going over to Sears. I’m going to find the biggest refrigerator they’ve got. I don’t care whether it has an ice dispenser. I’m just going to ask for the box.

You see, I figure I’d better get my refrigerator box now, before everyone else my age figures out what’s going on and rushes out to get their own. There’s a joke going around that in our golden years, that’s what we’ll be living in. (You probably haven’t heard it, though.)

I’ve read a lot about you, Mister Ryan, so let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a “Trailing Edge Boomer,” born in 1964. We grew up in the shadow of the “Leading Edge Boomers,” folks born between 1946 and 1955. The Leadings led the cultural revolution in America, fighting for civil rights and women’s rights and standing up against war. How I envied them! (I know you probably don’t like what they achieved, Mister Ryan, but I sure do.)

I got my first job at 16, flipping burgers at a McDonald’s in Milwaukee. (My condolences on the untimely death of your father, but I understand that you were receiving Social Security payments when you were that age, so maybe you didn’t do any burger-flipping.) Well, I sucked at flipping burgers, but with those paychecks, I started “paying into the system,” and I’ve been doing so ever since.

While I was in journalism school, I worked at the local newspaper. (I understand that when you were in college, you worked for Oscar Meyer, driving a Wienermobile. Good for you! And luckily, you were able to use your Social Security benefits to pay for college. That’s awesome.) I realized as a journalist I’d never be “rich,” but I’m not a diamonds-and-furs kind of person so that was okay by me. I married a pastor (which you should appreciate, being a practicing Catholic and all). My husband works as a chaplain, bringing comfort to the sick and dying. We both work long hours, but we like to think we’re making a positive change in the world. (That’s a Baby Boomer thing; you wouldn’t understand.)

So my hubby and I have been living a really nice little life. We’ve raised a son (a good kid), and we purchased a humble house (for much less than the bank said we could afford), and we’ve “lived within our means.” (Oh, and we’ve continued “paying into the system.”) Looking into the future, we never expected that we’d spend our retirement taking cruises to the Caribbean. We figured we’d sell the house, find a small place, do a lot of reading and enjoy each others’ company. Nothing extravagant (unless having a couple of cats is extravagant). A nice little life.

But now, Mister Ryan, if you’ll pardon the expression, we’ve gotten bitch-slapped six ways to Tuesday.

You see, the Leadings spent the majority of their careers in an era of economic expansion. True, there were recessions in 1969, 1973, and 1980, but these were relatively short-lived and mild. We all enjoyed the 1990s, but the party came to an abrupt end during the Bush presidency – just when we Trailings were entering our “prime earning years.” As you know, things went south in a hurry. Retirement savings were lost, homes were drowned, layoffs soared and lots of us lucky enough to have jobs are earning less than we did before. (Oh, and our country went from having a $236 billion surplus to having a bazillion-dollar deficit. But you know all about that.)

Low-income Leadings are suffering. But the way I see it, the Recession is especially cruel to us Trailings. We do have more years to prepare for our retirement, but we’ve spent most of our careers in an era of stagnant wages and rising healthcare, housing and energy costs. And now – when we should be at the top of our game – we’re stuck in the economic mud for the foreseeable future. Experts tell us we need to have at least $600,000 saved for retirement. Most of us have less than $20,000, and the next decade’s not looking pretty.

And then, Mister Ryan, along you come with your Roadmap. You want to privatize “entitlement” programs, Social Security and Medicare – but don’t worry, you say, the changes won’t affect anyone under 55. As a Trailing Edge Boomer, that doesn’t make me feel any better. See, you’re making $215,700 a year and your wife Janna is a tax attorney. You might be able to save enough to pay for the health care and living your vouchers won’t cover by the time you turn 65 (in 2035), but most of us won’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize our country is in financial hot water. But I’m wondering why you didn’t think about that when you voted for two unfunded wars and Medicare Part D? And why you supported massive tax cuts and want still more? I’m sure you’re sick of people asking you these questions, but really, why didn’t you…?

It seems like only yesterday the future was so bright we had to wear shades. But now a lot of us are pretty scared about what tomorrow will bring after all these years of “paying into the system.” You say you want to solve the problem, but I’m trying to figure out how slashing tax revenue from the wealthy and making health care harder to get could be anybody’s idea of making things better.

Sorry this was so long, Mister Ryan, but I just wanted you to know. And now that I think about it, I should stock up on catfood, too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bin Laden’s dead. Party over here. Party over there.

“Wake up! Teresa … You want to see this!”

I’d fallen sound asleep on the couch – I often do – and my husband JB was tapping me.

“Open your eyes,” he told me. “Obama’s on TV. They got bin Laden.”

I jerked awake, and tried to take it in. Yes, under the President’s orders, they had killed Osama bin Laden. My visceral response was elation. “YES!” I blurted. “That is AWESOME!”

But wait a minute. I’m a peacenik. I mean, just check out all the bumper stickers on the back of my car! How did it come to this?

When the Twin Towers fell, I feared U.S. retaliation and a spiral of payback violence. That winter, JB organized a “peace walk” of Christians, Jews and Muslims. And the night of March 18, 2003, my family marched with 5,000 people, singing “Give Peace a Chance,” to protest the proposed invasion of Iraq. The next morning, I cried as I watched the start of our “shock and awe” operation on the news.

Meanwhile, as the US was “spreading democracy” abroad, we were losing it at home. The PATRIOT Act passed with only Sen. Russ Feingold voting “nay.” Untold millions were being spent on the war, recorded in no one’s ledger. And the economic crash of 2008 would radically alter the future for most Americans, including me.

The day Barack Obama was elected was one of the most exiting days of my life. I’d gone door-to-door for him because I believed that he would usher in a new era. But I grew more and more disillusioned when he kept capitulating – abandoning a single-payer health plan, appointing notorious cronies, and extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The President had thrown me under the bus so many times, I was feeling like a speed bump.

But I live in Madison, Wisconsin, now known as “Ground Zero of the Labor Movement.” My friends and I went to the Capitol in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” that wouldn’t simply affect unions – it would result in massive cuts to education, transportation, and health care for the low-income, disabled and elderly.

I don’t know anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. But I know people who teach in our schools, and children who attend them. I know people here on Medicaid and BadgerCare – people who could get sicker, or even die, without these programs.

As if to put a sharp dot under the exclamation point, Rep. Paul Ryan – also of Wisconsin (is it the water?) – released his Roadmap of America’s Future. And Ryan’s vision of tomorrow scared the living hell out of me, like nothing ever has.

Obama came out with his own budget plan. I realized that they were “just words,” but they were better words than what was being proposed by the other side of the aisle. Politics became a matter of life and death for me and people I love.

If my government chooses to give more tax breaks to millionaires – and the price of that is that millions of Americans will go homeless and without medical care – that matters. An American who dies from complications of lupus or diabetes because they couldn’t afford treatment is just as dead as an Iraqi civilian that has been blown to bits by a Mark 84.

So when bin Laden’s death was announced, I have to be brutally honest. My first thought wasn’t of my Christian duty to avoid schadenfreude. It was, “Maybe now the Right will take Obama seriously.” A win in 2012 seemed possible, and with it, Obama’s stated commitment to the poor, the sick, and the elderly here in the United States.

I didn’t go out into the streets to dance, and it’s a good thing – because by the time I would have gotten my shoes on, the halo effect was already fading away. First there were the Deathers, who believed it all was an elaborate hoax like something out of “Capricorn One.” Then there were those who credited George Bush, even though he’d closed the CIA investigation of bin Laden in 2006.

So it looks like we’re back where we started when I laid down on the couch that night and fell asleep. Is the world a better place because bin Laden is dead? I think so; but it’s up to God to judge the man’s soul.

The soul I’m most concerned about is the soul of my nation.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The long, strange journey of the Book of Revelation

Note: I originally wrote this in May 2008. I decided to delete it, and other articles I’d written, because I didn’t want to offend some Christians. But some Orthodox friends have remembered it and requested that I re-post it. If anyone disagrees, I respect their right to their point of view. But as weak as I am, as hard as I struggle in my faith, I’m simply Orthodox – and I can’t apologize for that. A blessed Easter to you. – TBP

A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. As 24-hour news outlets bombard us with amounts of information at a rate the human mind has never had to contend with, we see famines and earthquakes and floods and wars and every manner of evil in our own living rooms, compliments of CNN or MSNBC.

At the same time, more and more people are taking comfort in a particular interpretation of a book written 2,000 years ago: The Book of Revelation. It's everywhere you look: in the multi-million dollar, best-selling "Left Behind" series of books by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and bumper stickers that warn that "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned" (countered wryly with another bumper sticker that says, "In case of Rapture, can I have your car?").

The modern obsession with a theology known as Dispensationalism really began in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth." Certainly, at the time, the world appeared to be going to hell in a handbasket, what with pervasive drug use, free love and racial riots.

Lindsey warned of the imminent end of the world (since then, he's come out with a new book every few years - at this writing, 13 – moving the "imminent" just a bit further into the future – since the world keeps ... well, not ending.)

I'm no theologian. I have no direct pipeline with God that says my beliefs alone are correct. For this reason I can't disrespect or ridicule the beliefs of others regarding the future of the planet.

But history is something else – it’s objective. One either knows history or not. That's why I'd like to share a little of the history of the book that's caused all this hullabaloo (and earned people like Lindsey and LaHaye a ton of dough).

The reality is that worldwide, and over the past 2,000 years, only a tiny percentage of Christians have interpreted the Book of Revelation in the way the Lindseys and the LaHayes of the world have interpreted it. That is, saying that there will be a great (and necessary) war in Armageddon, near the Gaza Strip. But first, all "true Christians" will be taken up into heaven so they don't have to experience the literal hell that will follow. (There's much more to it than that, but that's Dispensationalism 101.) (Added April 2011: Here's a handy-dandy countdown.)

The belief in The Rapture the way it's explored in the "Left Behind" series can actually be traced to the reported visions of one Scots-Irish girl, Margaret McDonald, in 1830; her reports were published in 1861 and later popularized by John Nelson Darby. The year 1830 sounds like a long time ago, but what it means is that for the first 1,830 years of Christianity, no Christian interpreted the scripture in Revelation in this way. (That would include the apostles; the church fathers; those who wrote the Scriptures and the Creeds; and those who decided on church Canon.)

1,830 years is a long time. And a lot of Christians lived and died during those centuries.

But the questions go further back than Margaret McDonald. Actually, the Book of Revelation made it into the Bible only by the figurtive skin of its teeth.

During the period of time the books of the New Testament were being written, and the Church was deciding what would (and would not) be Canon, controversy about the Book of Revelation raged. Disagreement over the legitimacy and origins of the Book (was it written by John or someone else?), as well as its interpretation (Does it refer to the inner battle of one's soul? .... To events that will occur in the future? ... To events that had already occurred?) continued for more than 300 years before the book was finally (and reluctantly) accepted as part of the Bible we know today.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, advised against the acceptance of Revelation as Canon. (To this day, Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is not read aloud during services in Orthodox Christian churches. However, it’s untrue to say that the Orthodox do not "allow" the study of the book; rather, those who study it are encouraged to do so with guidance and a firm background in the historical context in which it was written.)

But it's not just the Orthodox that have concerns. Martin Luther – the very founder of Protestantism – initially called the Book of Revelation "neither apostolic nor prophetic" and stated that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it ... Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it."

And John Calvin, the theologian to which every Reformed and Evangelical church today owes its beginnings, wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except for Revelation.

You might ask why on earth I am spending so much time talking about a single book of the Bible. Well, it's because I've come to believe that in today's political and military environment, the topics of Biblical prophesy and militarism have become dangerously enmeshed.

One discouraging example – when I was in college, I was a member of both “Students Against Nuclear Arms” and “Campus Crusade for Christ.” I was told by members of the CCC I could not participate in anti-nuke rallies, since nuclear war was a prerequisite to the coming of Christ, and “people working for peace are working for the Devil.”

Do the questions that have always surrounded the Book of Revelation mean we should ignore it? Not at all. But neither should we use Revelation to justify military preparation to fight an "inevitable" war in the Gaza Strip.

You see, something happened to our understanding of human nature in the centuries since Christ walked the earth. We have forgotten that God saw his creation as "good."

To be sure: humankind has fallen. The evidence of this is not just in the Bible, but all around us. Humans are inclined to "miss the mark." We're likely to do what we think is best for us personally, rather than considering the needs of our fellow man.

But Orthodoxy has never seen humankind as incapable of doing good. To the contrary: Orthodoxy sees humankind as having a choice to do, or not do, the right thing.

In fact, there is some evidence that humans ARE finally learning to do the right thing. Amazingly, statistics show that despite the unprecedented number of humans on the planet, the rate of violence has actually gone down in the last few decades.

As for earthquakes, floods, and other signs of “the end,” there is legitimate disagreement as to whether these events are actually increasing in number, or whether – due to new technology and the media – they’re simply being reported with greater frequency.

Orthodoxy recognizes that Scripture – while inspired by God – was not "channeled" verbatim into thee brains of those who wrote the Scriptures. The writers worked within the history and symbolism in the world in which they lived.

Further, not all prophesy comes to pass. Biblical prophesy is not a television screen into an unchangeable future. It is a warning to be heeded.

Our futures might be known to God, but each of us has free will. We're not puppets. The last book of the Bible has been written, but the last chapter of the world has not been completed.

So go ahead – pray for peace. Work for peace. Honor every human being as a child of God. You won't stop Jesus from coming. You won't throw a wrench into God's plans. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

Remember his words each day.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How the liberals have made Madison a hellish place to live.

I’ve been listening to what the outside world has been saying about my hometown. The nation recognizes Madison as a liberal oasis. Many (especially those calling in to the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows) see what they are calling “riots” of “violent thugs,” and blaming this on Madison’s left-of-center world view.

Madison is associated with “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the Progressive movement. Voters have chosen Democrats in national elections for more than 50 years. We’re called “The People’s Republic of Madison” and “The Left Coast of Wisconsin.” Madison’s counterculture became national news in the 60s and 70s with anti-war demonstrations, some of which unfortunately became violent.

In addition, Madison is home to the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It has a larger-than-average secular population, a larger-than-average gay population and a larger-than-average pagan population.

Sounds like a hellish place to live. So what’s it really like living in this cesspool of sin and socialism, corruption and communism, anger and anarchy?

From a variety of sources:

Madison is known for its exceptional quality of life. Money magazine named Madison the “Best Place To Live in America” in 1996 and the “#1 Best Mid-Size City to Live in the Midwest” in 1998.

Over twenty-five other major national publications, including Parenting, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Expansion Management, Bicycling, Outside, Ladies Home Journal and Entrepreneur, have recently honored Madison with top-tier rankings in key categories including:

“Great Places to Raise a Family”

“Best Schools in the Nation”

“America’s Safest Cities”

“Best Cities for Working Moms”

“America’s Best Places to Live and Work”

“Where to Retire”

“Best Places In America to Start and Grow a Company”

“One of America’s Seven Dream Towns”

“Best Cities For Women”

“Best Bike Towns in the County”

“Most ‘Child-Friendly’ Cities”

This is a partial list.

Also, released its list of the 10 best cities to look for work in 2009, and Madison tops the list. And Businessweek calls Madison one of the top places to ride out the recession. So apparently, Madison’s doing comparatively well in the financial area, too.

Maybe there are a lot of scary thugs in the Capitol right now (although I’ve been there and haven’t seen any). But I like it here. I think I’ll stay.

Monday, February 28, 2011

I’d like to return this American Dream.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Good morning! How can I help you?

ME: I have this American Dream, and I was wondering if I could return it.

Do you have the original receipt?

ME: Oh, goodness, no. I got it as a gift, actually, from my parents – way back in the 1960s, when I was born. If I recall correctly, it came with a pretty red bow called Unbridled Optimism.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: The American Dream …. Ma’am, our inventory records don’t show that particular product. What is it, exactly?

ME: Well, my dad was a union man, you see. He worked hard all his life, and when he retired, he had a pension, and Social Security too. My mom worked in a male-dominated field, but she held her own. I really looked up to her a lot, and I grew up believing – how did it go…? Oh, yes: “Work hard, and you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.” America had gone through some rough times, but by the time I came along people were looking into the future and thinking, “The sky’s the limit!”

CUSTOMER SERVICE: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

ME: Well, there was a sort of Set of Instructions that came with the gift – things like “Get a college degree, be a loyal employee and life frugally, and you’ll have financial security;” “Pay into Social Security, so it will be there when you get older;” “Purchasing a home is your best investment for your future.” Rules of that nature.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Did you follow the instructions properly?

ME: Well, I sure thought I did – and so did a lot of my friends. But it’s the damndest thing – the instructions don’t seem to be working anymore.

Like the job thing. I know of talented people who worked really hard, but got laid off because of this recession, and two years later haven’t found a job. Some of them are afraid they'll never work again. Other folks are lucky to be employed but still worry about layoffs, or are working for lower salaries than they made more than a decade ago. Does that make sense to you?

And I know people who purchased a home because they believed that paying rent was throwing money away. But now a lot of them owe more than their homes are worth, even if they didn’t take out funky loans. Or they want to move, and their house has sat on the market for a year. Some people are even saying homeownership isn’t even a good investment anymore. That’s bad news if you’ve already bought one!

My parents were able to send me college, so I was really lucky. But apparently the cost of a higher education has grown like gangbusters, while wages have stayed the same for years and jobs are hard to find. So now they’re saying that today, a four-year degree isn’t even worth the price. Is that crazy or what?

The thing that bothers me the most, though, is how people see the future. During hard times in the past, people still had faith in Tomorrow, and they were willing to invest in it. They built roads and schools, they improved things for minorities and women, and they expected each future generation to have a better life than the one before.

But now, we have a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion, and a national debt over $12 trillion. Now, I’m not good with math – but I know those are really high numbers! And everything is on the cutting board – education, health care, housing, our infrastructure, environmental protection, transportation and Social Security.

It seems to me that none of those cuts bode well for the future of Americans. In fact, every one of them will wind up decreasing our quality of life. Maybe I’m missing something – but isn’t that going in the wrong direction…? They say I have to pay for this economic mess. But I didn’t make it!

And that’s not all. And some people even think we’re on the brink of an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression. Well, this really sucks. You see, for most of us, this American Dream thing wasn’t about earning a lot of money. It was about feeling … well, secure. And I’m not feeling very secure at all these days.

I’m sorry, but this American Dream thing is broken somehow, and I can’t figure out how to fix it. So I’m wondering if you can give me some kind of refund.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I’m still not finding it in the inventory, you don’t have a receipt, and I’m not seeing anything about a lifetime guarantee. It sounds to me like what you really have is a complaint. That’s the next line over.

ME: Thanks anyway …. Hello. Is this the complaint department?

COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT: Yes, it is. Please pick a number.

ME: Hmmmmmm. I'm number 26,176,264. Wow. How long do I have to wait until I can talk to someone?

COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT: Approximately 37 years and 3 months. If we’re still here.

ME: Thanks! I’ll wait.