The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘faith’

KISSING FROGS

About thirty years ago in Texas, the oil boom that had powered the state’s economy since the turn of the last century came to an unexpected end.  The decline in the price of oil through over-production made drilling for new wells uneconomical and many of the old wells were produced in only limited capacity.  This naturally affected those who had jobs on the drilling rigs and those who provided services to them.  Mary Jane and Bobbie Jo were two such women, holding down jobs as waitresses in one of the many diners that catered to those in the oil industry.

The two were out walking one Sunday after church when suddenly they heard a tiny voice cry out, “Ladies, please help me.”

The women looked around but didn’t see anyone and were about to continue on their way when again the voice cried, “Ladies, please help me.”

Mary Jane looked down and on the ground was a bullfrog.  The two friends walked over to him to see if he could be the one who had asked for their help.

As the two neared the frog, he opened his mouth and said, “Ladies, I’m not really a bullfrog but a west Texas oilman.  An evil witch cast a spell on me that can only be broken if a beautiful woman kisses me.  Won’t one of you help me?”

Without hesitation, Bobbie Jo swooped down, grabbed the frog and put him in her purse, zipping the bag shut.  Her friend was astonished.

“Bobbie Jo.  Why didn’t you kiss that frog, break the evil witch’s spell and turn him back into a west Texas oilman?”

Bobbie Jo replied, “Honey, at the price of oil these days, a talking frog is worth a helluva lot more than a west Texas oilman.”

Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps died last week at the age of 84.  God rest his soul.  His church of about thirty congregants, mostly family members, was well known for taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ and transforming it into a litany of hatred and intolerance.  Well known for his protests of gay marriages and military funerals, Phelps directed his followers to picket, disrupt and shout the most vile epithets at those who attended these rites.  There will be few who miss him or his dogma of alienation and self-righteousness.

That last sentence speaks to a common failing for those of us who call ourselves Christians.  It is easy to love and care for those who are loveable but quite difficult to hold those who offend us through their words or actions in the same way.  Yet we are called upon to do just that.

If the world were composed of people all of whom were saint-like, we would most likely all become saints, living out our life in charity, assisting those who were in need and being in the best sense of the Christian gospel, godly in our manner as we dealt with our fellow men and women.  In a deep sense, this is the argument against living a monastic life, only exposing ourselves to other like minded people and living out our lives without being exposed to the real challenges of a real world.  It has been argued that cloistered virtue is no virtue at all.

Most of us have not chosen that path and we must deal with the realities of the base, the vulgar and the depraved acts of many of our fellows.  While those who fit within those categories may not represent the majority of the world’s populace, they are certainly sufficient in number that they call themselves to our attention in our nightly newscasts.

Their actions, which we find shocking and reprehensible, command far more of our attention than the acts of kindness which are bestowed by members of the world’s human community.  Perhaps it is our attraction to the deviant and the lurid that fascinates us in the same way that we are absorbed by stories of werewolves, vampires and the occult.

There may be those who consider themselves Christians who rejoice in the death of Fred Phelps.  His manipulation of the Gospel was as far from the Christianity in which I was raised as I can imagine.  But if we rejoice in anyone’s demise, no matter how offensive his speech or actions, have we not adopted the exact same mindset as the late Mr. Phelps?  Are we any better in making our judgments than the judgment he and his followers heaped on those whom they defined as sinful?

We would all like to believe that somehow we can influence people, either in word, deed or both to be better people.  Very often despite our best efforts we see that our advice, counsel or example seem to have little effect.  Perhaps the most we can do is continue to do the right thing realizing that it is the right thing – whether or not it provides guidance or change for those with whom we come into contact.

A friend invited me to join him for a two day outing to an area in California where there are lakes and fresh water.  Perhaps there will be some frogs there.  I haven’t seen any since I moved from the Midwest.  If so, I’m going to try to capture one briefly and kiss it – and we’ll see what happens.

“WHO YOU GONNA BELIEVE?”

With the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday evening now a part of history I found it interesting that the President’s latest ad asks the question, “Who you gonna believe?”

The thrust of the ad is that Mitt Romney, that insidious successful millionaire, is planning on slashing the taxes of his fellow successful millionaires.   He will pass on the cost of the money this saves them to the remaining middle class who have survived four years of Obamanomics, by increasing their taxes $2500 per household.

This is fear in advertising at its absolute worst.

Let’s think about the scenario that the President paints in his ad.  You are already a multi-millionaire and this year you have another decent year.  You earn $10 million for your efforts and on your investments.   Depending on the sources of your income, that should leave you with about $7 million or so in pocket change.  Does any one of my readers know how they would possibly spend $7 million if they were given the opportunity?  And, of course, our multi-millionaire has already accumulated a great deal of wealth that goes beyond this year’s income.

So ask yourself the question.  If you would be hard pressed to spend $7 million on things that you really want, how would you spend the $7.2 million that the ad suggests you would have under the “Romney tax plan?”

Well, that’s all theoretical.  But let’s look at some numbers which are suggested by the ad and which Vice President Biden offered in the debate.

The Veep says that this scheme is designed to benefit 110,000 wealthy tax payers at the expense of all middle class tax payers.  Each of the wealthy would get a $200,000 tax cut – and every middle class family will get a $2500 tax increase.

If you do the math which underlies this statement, here’s what you will find.  According to Vice President Biden, the United States of America, out of our population of 310,000,000, has a mere 8.8 million families who are “middle class”.

I realize that things have been tough for everyone under President Obama but is the Vice President suggesting that is the totality of the middle class that is left in this country?  If that is true, that is sufficient enough indictment to throw the two of them out of office.

Let’ return to the debate for a minute.  Frankly, I was uninspired by both participants for different reasons.

I have heard Rep. Ryan speak on many occasions and have been impressed with the sincere manner in which he delivers his information.  By contrast, I thought he seemed very “mechanical” in the debate.  Perhaps that is because it was his first experience or perhaps because the main focus was on foreign policy.  I am not making excuses for him because “it is what it is”.  I have heard him do far better and was a little disappointed.

I felt insulted by the demeanor which the Vice President projected.  I thought he was rude, condescending and generally obnoxious.  He obviously has a wealth of experience, (he told us that several times) and I felt he would have better served his cause by simply delivering his message in a forthright and factual manner.  I half expected him at some point to turn to Ryan and say, “Listen, Sonny …”

He also had the annoying habit of starting to answer a question and then, without finishing his statement, change the subject.  This is the typical tactic of the veteran politician who either doesn’t know the answer or doesn’t want to offer an answer to a question.   If you taped the debate, I suggest you watch it again to see what I mean.  I counted six separate instances of it in the 45 minutes that the Vice President held the floor.

Well, according to those who are politically smarter than I, Ryan slightly edged out the Vice President – but it was, in essence, a draw.  But there was one part of the debate that I thought was most interesting and that was the discussion about abortion.

For the first time in U. S. history we have Vice Presidential candidates on both tickets who are Roman Catholic.  It’s common knowledge that the official view of the Roman Catholic Church is that abortion constitutes murder of the unborn.  Both the Vice President and Rep. Ryan are aware of that.

Ryan offered his explanation of why he is opposed to abortion from a personal standpoint.  He referred to his unborn first child’s ultrasound when she was only the size of a bean – but he could see her heart beat.  He went on to explain that because of this experience, he and his wife had nicknamed her, “Bean”.

The Vice President approached his support for abortion in what could easily have been misinterpreted as an almost statesmanlike way.  While he would never personally have a child aborted, he explained that other people did not accept his Catholic theology of life beginning at conception.  Therefore, it would be wrong for him to impose his personal beliefs on them.

There is a problem inherent with that statement.

Some people believe that murdering another adult – if it suits their purpose and is the way for them to attain their personal ends – is perfectly acceptable behavior.  You have only to read a newspaper on any given day to know that is true.  Thumb to the section covering the ongoing violence among members of the Mexican drug cartels.

Civilized societies dating back thousands of years have generally frowned on that behavior.  The Roman Catholic church considers murder to be so serious that it is classified as a “mortal sin”.

But if we take the Vice President at his word, I can only presume that he similarly is opposed to all the laws on the books, in every state and every jurisdiction, which punish adults who commit murder.  Even though  his Catholic upbringing informs him that it is wrong for him to murder someone, he shouldn’t impose that belief on others who hold a different view on the subject, just  as he refuses to do in the case of abortion.  Or is imposing his Catholic beliefs something which he only selectively declines to do?

Of course, the Vice President’s quasi-libertarian view on the subject of abortion introduces an obvious corollary issue.  If it is wrong for those who oppose abortion to impose their will on others, is it not equally wrong for those who favor abortion to require those who find it immoral to pay for it with their tax dollars in contravention to their conscience and right to Freedom of Religion?

Politicians promise a lot of things.  If you’re in your thirties or older and are the least observant, you will have noticed that those promises are very often empty.  While they sound good and encourage us to vote for them, hoping that they are sincere in their statements, the sad truth is that seldom is the case.

We have seen how “Hope and Change” have played out for four years of this administration.  In their ad, Obama/Biden asks the question, “Who you gonna believe?”

And we should all be asking, “Who do you think has the ability, understanding and committment to deliver?”

 

ON APATHY

The first step on the road either to success or defeat is trying.  If you are unwilling to get in the game you certainly will not lose – but you also deny yourself the possibility of winning.  Is that why we are a nation of spectators – whether it be sports, the environment or politics?

Our insecurity at the thought of losing overwhelms our sense of adventure and potential for accomplishment.  We’ll let the “other guy” do it – and live by the consequences of his efforts – grousing about the results if we don’t like them.

Apathy is defined as “a state lacking emotion or interest.”  We have another word for it.  That word is “zombie.”

One of my favorite modern musical artists is Judy Small, an Australian native.  She is a prolific songwriter and performer and has composed meaningful songs that cover a wide gamut of social issues.  This is her take on “apathy.”

“You can only make a difference if you try to make a difference.”

Here’s hoping that you enjoyed the song, put down your remote and found a good reason to go out and change the world.  After all, it’s your world to make better.

SOUL FOOD

As I was thinking about the meaning of Easter and preparing for it in a practical way, in other words planning the menu, I was pleased that one of the local supermarkets had collard, mustard and turnip greens on sale for only fifty cents a pound.  These simple vegetables were my introduction to “soul food”.

Although you can find almost anything here on the buffets in Las Vegas, greens have a tendency to be overcooked in the first place.  And when they sit for any length of time on a steam table they almost inevitably meet that fate.  So I prefer the ones that I make which are gently steamed and then finished with a topping of sautéed caramelized onions cooked in chopped bacon.

Although it was late January in 1972 it was a bitterly cold day when I arrived home somewhat later than usual.  I scurried to get in from the cold and the wind which was fierce – to be greeted by Tristan my Irish Setter and his companion, Josh who was a Newfoundland/Belgian Shepherd mix.  I had only a few minutes to warm up before taking them out to attend to their duties.

I sincerely hoped that Josh wouldn’t dawdle as, with the protection off his extremely dense coat, he seemed to enjoy this near zero weather.  Perhaps it was the fact that I had come home a little later than usual or that the dogs took pity on me but they both did their thing quickly and I gratefully cleaned up after them and returned home.  My fingers were still cold even though protected by heavy gloves.

After I took off my outer clothes and heated up my hands under some warm water, I began preparing their dinner and turned on the little portable television that sat on the kitchen counter, primarily for the purpose of providing some background noise.  I went about getting the kids their food and had just placed their bowls on the floor when a news flash came across the screen.

Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music had suddenly passed away in a suburb about fifteen miles south at the young age of sixty years.  I remember the chill that ran through me when I heard this – as though the kitchen windows had been flung wide open and the bitter cold had found its way into my apartment.

Although I had been raised in Christianity’s more liturgical traditions where services were very specifically laid out and where the rituals were well defined, from time to time I would visit other churches run by members who had come from a different tradition of the faith.  There were no small number of Southern Missionary Baptist churches on Chicago’s South Side from which I could choose.

These were the churches which were the birthplace of Gospel Music – the music over which Mahalia reigned.  So different from the Gregorian chant and the works of Mozart and Bach which I knew, these were hymns written by people who had the genetic memory of slavery firmly etched into their experience and into their minds.  They were the religious version of the more secular music known as “the blues”.

There was an honest spontaneity on the parts of the congregants to the minister as he would preach his sermon on the selection of Scripture which he had chosen – with enough “Amen-ing” to fill Carnegie Hall to the rafters.  There was a great deal of swaying in the seats as they received the Word of God and a great deal of fanning of the face – as though to disperse the Holy Spirit among all the members of the church who had come that Sunday.  And, of course, there was the music.

Mahalia sang the hymn, “Precious Lord” at the funeral service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was written by the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey after his wife died in childbirth and their newborn daughter died the day later.  I present it to you for your enrichment while wishing you a wonderful Easter.

This is the real soul food.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as1rsZenwNc

ON CHANGING THE WORLD

When I was a child I realized that I had different interests than the kids who were my classmates or whom I knew in the neighborhood.  That is not to say that they were better or worse than my friends and acquaintances  – merely that they were “different.”

I wasn’t concerned about who had the prettiest “aggie” marble.  Or who had the best collection of baseball cards or the biggest collection of dolls.  I was concerned about the meaning of my life – and I still am.

I think I was about ten when I began pondering the imponderable – “Why am I here and what does my life mean?”  (I’m still working on that).  But I took stock.  I realized that I had at least a few talents and wondered how I might utilize those to change the world.

People always found me to be physically “cute or adorable.”  But cute and adorable didn’t make me a ravishing beauty – certainly not of Hollywood stature.  So depending on my physical appearance didn’t seem to be the way to change the world.

I was “smart” – but compared to an Isaac Newton or a Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, I was pretty much “run-of-the-mill.”  So sheer genius didn’t seem to be my avenue to change the world.

Then there was politics.  But unless I were Queen of England or President of the United States – I doubted that I would have a great deal to say about changing the world.

I was an excellent pianist – but without the genius of a Vladimir Ashkenazy or an Anton Rubenstein or Alicia de la Rocha.  I believed that I would be unable to offer the world anything with my musical  semi-brilliance.

So how would I change the world?  Would my comings and goings for however short or long a time make any difference?  My ten year-old mind continued to ponder the un-ponderable and I remember becoming quite depressed.

But then, after a wonderful meal of oxtail stew that grandma had prepared, comforted with this warm and filling food I hit on an idea.  It was something that I could achieve – and as much as dinner had filled my belly – this idea filled my mind.

I could change the world! 

If I could extend kindness and courtesy, love and compassion to only two people during the course of my lifetime which would enable those two to become better people than they otherwise might be; and if those two people could do the same and the following four do the same and then the eight and then the sixteen and … well you see where this is going.  I had an opportunity to do something important.  I could change the world.

Each of us makes his mark as we go through life.  The question we must face, deep down to the roots of our being, is not whether we can change the world – but in what way shall we accomplish our task?

TO STEVE

Today is the 30th anniversary of my friend Steve’s death.  He died from AIDS which he contracted through a blood transfusion he received during the course of an operation.   He was 28 years old.

We went on a picnic together to one of the beautiful forest preserves in Cook County and after we had finished eating and were enjoying the late spring day Steve looked at me and said, “I have something to tell you.  I have AIDS – and you might not want to be around me because you might be afraid of getting it.”

I was shocked and angry at this statement.  Shocked that he had contracted this disease and mad that he had gotten it as a result of the surgery he had undergone.  I was shocked that Steve thought me so shallow that I would abandon him and our friendship because of his illness and mad at myself that I might have ever given him a reason to believe that.

We hugged and we both cried.  At that point, having AIDS was a short-term death sentence without possibility of parole or reprieve.  I didn’t want to ask the question, “How much time do you have?” but I knew that it wasn’t going to be long.  As it turned out the disease took less than eight months to do its deadly work.

During the time between the picnic and his death, Steve and I grew even closer than we were before.  In that time I saw this handsome, athletic man go from 170 pounds to less than 110.  I saw the ravages of the disease sapping his strength, forcing him to leave his apartment where he lived alone, into hospital beds and finally into the hospice where he would die.

Steve struggled every day to wake to another day.  He didn’t easily relinquish his short life to the reaper.  But the death sentence had been pronounced and then it was executed.

At his funeral service I read this Dylan Thomas poem:

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This post is dedicated with love to Steve and to all those who have died from AIDS. 

May you be in a better place.

INVICTUS

I remember the trepidation with which I faced taking my SAT exam.  As I saw it, my whole future depended on how I performed on this test.  I was truly fearful – wanting to do my best – and not wanting to disappoint my parents and grandmother.  This was a lot of responsibility for a 16-year old.

I was to take the exam on Saturday.  I realized that I had a decent vocabulary – one of the things that would be tested – and that my math skills were excellent.  I simply had to put aside my fear and allow the years of quality education  to flow through me and on to the answer sheet.  I needed to calm down – confident in my abilities.

So I decided that rather than spending the day worrying about what tomorrow would bring I should do something to relieve my anxiety.  I found an anthology of poetry among my parents’ library and happened to turn to the following poem:

INVICTUS

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

The Friday that I read this poem I knew nothing about its author.  I do remember a sense of overwhelming comfort and confidence about my exam the next day as I read and re-read it.  I went to my Encyclopedia to find out a little about the poet who had penned this beautiful piece.

Henley is best remembered for this poem – supposedly written after his left leg was amputated – the result of the tuberculosis of the bone from which he had suffered since he was 12 years old.  He was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and was purportedly the basis for that author’s character Long John Silver because of the peg that was inserted in place of his missing limb.

At a time in which there were handicapped people but no handicapped accommodations to assist them – I can only imagine the difficulty of getting through the day to do day challenges that each of us faces.   After learning more about the author, this poem took on even more significance for me.

I cannot say whether it was because I had received an excellent education, reading the poem, “Invictus” or both, but I did very well on the SAT exams.  And to this day I hold strong to the belief that,

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

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