30 June 2009

The Michael I Remember

It's been a tragic week in the entertainment world. But in the midst of all the furor surrounding Michael Jackson, I'm forced to think back to 1983, when a nine year-old boy and his seven year-old brother would run upstairs after coming home from church to see if "Billie Jean," "Beat It," or "Thriller" was still #1 on the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.

This is the Michael we'd all like to remember. Some folks remember the child with the beautiful voice who pleaded for us to remember, "I'll Be There." I'm sure all of us will agree that we wish the man with all the issues had remained the incredible entertainer he once was, rather than the cartoon he became.

What I wonder is, how much did that fame and celebrity contribute to his illness? What inner demons drove him to such extreme depths? How did we who once adored him contribute to the brokenness that may have comsumed him?

This is just one of the reasons I'm generally avoiding celebrity anything these days. It's hard to avoid entirely: the media seems to think that all of us want to know the latest about Jon & Kate, who's getting divorced, who's having weight problems, who can't stop drinking/smoking/doing drugs. We may not be able to avoid it entirely, but we can try to avoid feeding the frenzy.

How about we focus more on people who put their celebrity to good use? Like, say, Stephen Colbert's recent trip to Iraq? Tom Hanks' work to honor the veterans of World War II? Matt Damon's recent work with the ONE Campaign? If we must have celebrity, and a media who follows their every move, why not use it for good?

Grace & peace,

29 June 2009

The Futility of Revenge

I heard on NPR this morning that Bernie Madoff is going to be sentenced today.

Some of his victims were interviewed, and one of them, to my mind, showed uncommon wisdom and, unfortunately, an all too common resignation. In essence, she said it didn't matter how many years Madoff serves in prison: twelve years, (the suggested sentence from Madoff's lawyers), 20 years (what most seem to think will likely be the result) or even 150 years (the prosecution's request) will not even begin to repair the damage caused by this massive betrayal.

Madoff's lawyer was also interviewed, and he said something to the effect of Madoff "beginning to show his remorse for this terrible crime." I call bullshit there. Talk is cheap. Madoff's wife has surrendered much of what they held in common, but she gets to keep $2.5 million - she won't be suffering much beyond the obvious discomfort of living with this crime for the rest of her life. It's easy to SAY "I'm sorry." It's much more difficult to actually do something to repair the damage from the wrongs we've committed.

Madoff will be in prison, likely until he dies or close to it, but who benefits from his prison term? This is the futile nature of our justice system: revenge, not reparation, is the name of the game. Bernie Madoff is not a danger to society in his present state, so prison time accomplishes little in terms of protecting society. What if we were imaginative enough to sentence Bernie Madoff to spending the rest of his life working to repay the people he defrauded? His personal fortune has already been claimed, but that's a drop in the bucket - what if we forced him to use the intellect and ability, through which he stole billions, to spend the rest of his life rebuilding some of what he stole?

This is in some ways a pipe dream, of course: you can't rebuild those fortunes in the short years Bernie Madoff has left, nor do I think it's likely anyone would trust him with the capital required to do so. But I am left questioning, once again, the wisdom of our punitive system and whether or not we can do better. It is one thing to incarcerate those who pose an actual danger to society: it is another thing to throw gasoline on the fire of bitterness by using prison to punish rather than being inventive enough to sentence criminals in such a way that they might actually begin to repair the damage they have done. Can't we do this better?

Grace & peace,

26 June 2009

Summertime and the Livin' Is...Boring?

I'm not really sure what to make of this week.

Beloved is off on a mission trip in South Dakota, so I'm in charge of our progeny. We are having a beastly hot and humid week in Iowa, and perhaps that has something do do with the lethargy that has swallowed me up. Campus life has crawled to a near stop, and without a regular Bible study or anything beyond our small Sunday night worship services, I'm perhaps feeling a bit under-utilized at the moment.

All I know is, some days it's hard to feel as though I'm accomplishing much in the way of contribution. It's hard to blog because our internet is still not functioning properly at home. Several home projects remain uncompleted because by the time I get the girls to bed all I want to do is sip a beer and breathe easy. (Though I did manage to get one nearly completed this morning, and should finish it up tonight with a bit of good luck). I have managed to get to the gym several times this week, which is good, but frankly it's a poor substitute for the running I'd rather be doing in this weather (oddly enough I really enjoy a hard run when it's hot like this).

It could just be the June drag. This is our "Resource Fair" season, when I spend two hours every day connecting with incoming first year students during their Orientation sessions. It's been good - we've made a lot of contacts and our partners in local congregations seem to be telling their kids to be sure to connect with us once they're on campus. But after three weeks it does begin to wear on you a bit, the constant repetition of catchphrases and the pressure to be "on" with complete strangers.

Anyway, life is good - the girls are happy and we're having fun while Mommy's away, but it definitely isn't quite what I thought this week would be. Maybe the guys at Car Talk nailed it when they named the Head of their Working Mothers' Support Group "Erasmus B. Dragon" (sound it out): my ass is definitely dragging today, and I've got the weekend to survive yet. Uff da.

Grace & peace,

The illustration is "Ennui" by Mike Reed.

19 June 2009

Leader of the Pack

We have apparently reached the "for the love of God, just HOLD ON!!!" point of parenting two children under the age of three. I wish I could say it's all wonderful, but what sucks is that we're exhausted at the end of the day, the house is a disaster, AND we're gaining weight because there's not enough time in the day to exercise properly. And this is fair how?

Along with the eternal craziness that is parenting, we of course have the menagerie of pets we've adopted to add a delightful nutty edge to our insanity. Our Sunday/Monday night went something like this:
  • 8:00 PM - both girls in bed, Ainsley crying but eventually falling asleep. Directly behind the door, with a poopy diaper, but asleep nonetheless.
  • 9:00 PM - Beloved hits the sack.
  • 11:00ish - I follow suit.
  • 1:00 AM - while rolling over and sticking my foot out of the covers, I discover that the dog has vomited on the bed. Much muttering and grumbling ensues from Beloved. Strip the duvet cover and put it in the wash, stuff the stained duvet in the hall closet, grab some quilts from downstairs and go back to sleep.
  • 6:30 AM - while dressing, Beloved discovers that one of the cats has peed on the clean laundry stacked inside the closet. Grumbling gives way to outright profanity.
  • 6:45 AM - I discover I'm out of coffee. This is about where the wailing and gnashing of teeth started...
My seminary buddy Nate said, "Remember when you wondered why you hadn't gotten a dog before? This seems to be a good reason here." He's most likely right. But for all the craziness, we're happy and content, if a bit dazed by the end of the day most of the time.

I've made some time for household projects this week. Here are some shots of the fence I've been renovating in the backyard so we can trust Jack to stay put:

Disassembling the gate from the old fence.

New fence pickets on the old posts with reconfigured crosspieces.

The old fence - I removed the pickets, moved the top crosspiece to the top of the post and attached new pickets, pictured at the right end of the old fence.

A comparison of the old and new fences. Other than the gate, it was a really easy project.

As we've gotten to know our Jack over the last few weeks, it's become apparent that we needed help when it came to properly training him. He's not a bad dog at all - just rambunctious and easily distracted, and it was getting very difficult to keep him in line. Kristin found a local branch of a national training chain who does on-site training, which includes looking around the house from the dog's point of view and hands-on help getting started with proper commands, correction and rewarding. The trainer came this afternoon, and after he left, we felt a whole lot better about our life with Jack - especially the 'out in public' parts where we need him to understand who's in charge.

I've tried to do a theological bent on the whole thing, but it just doesn't compute without the pastor winding up the dominant person in the pack, and I'm not sure I want to go there. So, no big theology tonight - just the thought that, sometimes, it's nice to be the one issuing commands. Even if, just as in real life, sometimes those commands go unheeded. And you still have to deal with someone else's crap.

08 June 2009

Running, Reading and Resource Fair

We got back from a wonderful weekend in Lincoln last night. I ran in a charity 10K with my brother and two of our roommates from college. The race went fairly well: I ran it in 55:14, with just one stop to say hi to my girls and catch my breath after several long hills. We also spent lots of time with my college friends and their families, including a trip to Olive Garden with 8 adults and 8 kids, church with the same group of folks and many, many brats, beers and other good eats consumed over the weekend. Pictures to come as soon as I can convince those who took them to email me copies.

I'm in a bit of a reading quandary at the moment. I read Neal Stephenson's novels and Snow Crash and The Diamond Age a few years back and loved them both. But now I've tried two of his more ambitious projects and have found both really hard to read. Quicksilver was some sort of alternate history that just seemed to wander all over the place and never really do anything, even after several hundred pages. Anathem, my latest attempt, is just flat-out bizarre; I've only read about 20 pages, but I'm already tired of flipping to the glossary to find the definition of terms again and again. It seems to me that these are both novels I should like but, for reasons unknown, I just can't get into them at the present time. If anyone out there has tried either one and found enjoyment, would you please offer any suggestions you might have?

In other news, it's Freshman Orientation month here at Iowa State, and that means Resource Fair for us campus ministry types. Today I had the pleasure of meeting several young people who seem to be very interested in campus ministry, including one young lady whose former youth director is one of the three women responsible for Kristin and me becoming Kristin and me. We've gotten seven or eight folks to sign up for our mailing list each day thus far, which is always a good sign.

But I also have some ambivalent feelings about what we do at Resource Fair. It feels like a popularity contest: each booth lines up their pictures and brochures and tchotchkes so students will remember us when they empty that gigantic bag o'crap out once they return home. We play the game, too: our pens, highlighters, brochures and a piece of chocolate make their way into as many bags as possible. Of course, I try to explain what it is we do in campus ministry and why I believe so strongly in what we do, and that part is genuine. But some of it feels like 'selling' our ministry, and I'm very leery of crossing that line, so much so that today I considered electing to skip Resource Fair next year.

It's not that I don't believe in evangelism. I'm just fairly certain there are better, less coercive means of being evangelical than handing out highlighters at the Resource Fair. What if we accidentally promise something we can't deliver - does the world need yet another disappointed, disaffected fence-sitter using our mistakes as a reason to reject faith altogether? And let's face it: even with every attempt to be as honest and forthright as possible, when we talk about our ministry in an environment like this, there's always a certain element of "Please, Like Us And Come To Our Church!" in what we say and how we say it.

I remain convinced that true evangelism comes from people whose lives have been transformed by God, and they simply must tell the story of how that happened. Do we have some of those folks in our midst at University Lutheran Center? Of course we do - and they do tell that story often. The Spirit is at work in the ministry we carry out here. I'm convinced that we are providing a necessary, important, sometimes life-saving ministry in what we do. So, with the fear that I might actually become some glad-handing, back-slapping snake-oil salesman constantly running through my mind, we'll continue to be at Resource Fair, telling the story of campus ministry as authentically as possible. But if it gets to the point where I'm trying to figure out whether 3 Musketeers or Snickers will be more likely to get students to come to worship, just shoot me, okay?

Grace & peace,

02 June 2009

What Are We When We Terrorize At Home?

terrorism: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
United States Federal Bureau of Investigation
On my way home tonight, National Public Radio was speaking with Dr. Warren Hern, a colleague of Dr. George Tiller, killed Sunday morning as he prepared to serve as an usher at his local church. Here's a quote from the NPR story:

Hern is pleased that President Obama spoke out after the murder, but he wants to hear more.

"I think the president of the United States needs to go to a national television broadcast and say to the American public, 'Safe abortion is a fundamental component of women's health care. Anti-abortion terrorism and violence will not be tolerated. We will stop you.'"
The full text of the story can be found here.
As I was listening to the radio, I got so mad I pulled off the road and into a coffee shop to start blogging. Never blog angry, folks: nothing good can come of it. Thankfully, a nosy, annoying coffee shop barista kept me from writing the whole post, so here's my more reasoned take on things.

I'd like to go one step farther than the course of action which Dr. Hern proposes. I'd like to see picket lines at clinics which provide abortion procedures made illegal, defined as an act of terrorism and as such no longer defensible under the right to free speech as set out in the 1st Amendment.

Let me be absolutely clear: I detest the very idea of abortion. But I detest even more the thought that women making such an agonizing decision, and sometimes the men responsible enough to share the burden of such decisions, should be subjected to intimidation, fear-mongering and abuse for the sake of a public display at medical clinics carrying out a fully legal medical procedure.

The definition of terrorism quoted above uses the word "violence." Is all violence physical? No. Should the picture of an aborted fetus shoved in the face of a pregnant woman be considered violence against her rights as a citizen as defined by law? Yes, in my opinion they should be, because the intent behind such displays is to intimidate, frustrate and deny people access to medical treatment guaranteed under the law.

Protests and picketing have their place, and normally I tend to fall more on the demonstrators' side. I thought the demonstration restrictions at the political conventions over the last two presidential elections bordered on tyranny, frankly. I've attended anti-death-penalty protests in the past and will do so again in the future. But picketing Planned Parenthood for providing abortions is like picketing Walgreens for providing condoms: it may be unfortunate that some have to make these decisions, but it is legal to do so under current law, and those who make such decisions should be allowed to do so without the added violence and stress of picket lines and shouting protestors.

Let's face it: Roe v. Wade is not going to be reversed. Frankly, it shouldn't be: there are times when the least harmful course of action involves the terrible choice to terminate a pregnancy. I've lived through such choices with friends, and it is no easy, flippant decision, much as some would like to believe it is. I can't think of anyone who is pro-abortion; even the most ardent defenders of reproductive rights acknowledge that in a utopian world all pregnancies would end in the miracle of a living, healthy child. Using picket lines, blown-up photos of aborted fetuses and protest chants at clinics that provide abortion procedures doesn't decrease the violence, though: it increases it by scapegoating those whose spirits are likely already burdened by regret, pain, and loss.

We can be better than this. We must be better than this, if we are truly pro-life, and, in the end, aren't we all in favor of life?

Grace & peace,

Later note: My beloved pointed out that a few sentences above were unclear. I wasn't angered by anything Dr. Hern said - what angered me was the fact that he felt as though it needed saying. I was angry that we should need to have this discussion at all. Apologies if I misled anyone into thinking I disagreed with what Dr. Hern said - I agreed, and would like to take his suggestions several steps further.