Sand in the Gears

Hammering art

February 10th, 2017 Posted in The Artful Life | No Comments »

They say all great men have a morning routine, so I figured I ought to rush right out and get me one of those. I’ll belabor the elements of that routine while subtly flattering myself for it some other time; the point today is that it often includes listening to Writer’s Almanac while I make breakfast. Yes, I know some of my right-leaning readers aren’t Garrison Keillor fans. His apology for mentioning Jesus Christ in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, his encomium to the journalist John Reed that neglected to mention Reed’s payola from Moscow, his selection of American pioneers that seems as if it’s passed before a review board comprised of New York Times editors and Berkeley political scientist professors—I get it, I really do. But find me even one person on the Right who has done more to elevate poetry—good poetry, not the navel-gazing intentionally obscure stuff that trained most of us to look for the exit when someone threatens to pull a poetry book off the shelf—and I’ll listen to that guy’s podcast too.

The fact of the matter is that I love Garrison Keillor. I love the tender mournful tone he takes on when he says, “Here’s a poem for today.” I love his humor and his humanity. I make no apology for any of this.

Soviet Union, Lenin (55)

But I come not to praise Keillor, nor to bury him, but to give you something to ponder. Today, I learned from Writer’s Almanac, is the birthday of both Bertolt Brecht and Boris Pasternak, and what an interesting contrast. Brecht was a poet and playwright who escaped Hitler, got himself on the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and eventually moved to East Berlin to run a theater company while writing crappy Marxist plays and decent poetry. (See how easily our biases emerge when we’re pressed for space and time?) And so here’s the Brecht quote Keillor provides on today’s Writer’s Almanac:

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

How very ugly and brutal and Stalinesque, no? At least it seems to me, now that I’ve had my coffee and mulled it over. But I confess at first, as I shoved my eggs around in their pan and listened to Keillor’s grandfatherly voice express this sentiment on behalf of Brecht, that I nodded in agreement. Yes! That is how we’ll fix the world! With a goddamned hammer!

But we’ve all seen art wielded like a hammer, haven’t we? It’s Christian fiction, it’s the unsubtle modish moralism of TV shows trying to make us more Progressive, it’s preening entertainers haranguing us about our retrograde beliefs. And whether the beliefs which art-as-a-hammer wants to beat into us are right or wrong, the hammer is itself wrong. It feels false and forced to anyone who didn’t show up with the intention of having himself pounded feet-first into the socially-appropriate peg-hole.

Even the Marxists understood this at some level. They knew people were more influenced by the dramatic picture of Lenin lecturing a rapt crowd than by his words. It’s why they pioneered techniques to airbrush people in and out of pictures like that based on their standing with Party rulers. It was deceptive and cruel and that’s art as a hammer for you.

And so then we have Pasternak, who was persecuted by the same people whom Brecht held in high regard, who had to hide himself away after the publication of Doctor Zhivago, who was barred by the Soviet Communists from receiving his Nobel Prize in literature. Keillor tells us Pasternak said this:

“I always dreamt of a novel in which, as in an explosion, I would erupt with all the wonderful things I saw and understood in this world.”

I can’t make any claim to understand the essence of art, but I keep coming back to the notion that we are all of us crafted in the image and likeness of an artist. We have become broken and short-sighted, but we still have within us something that grasps for the canvas, tubes of paint in our shaking hands, to try and portray not just what we see but what might be seen beneath the seeable.

It’s an impulse born of wonderment, and sometimes we are reminded that it dwells within us when we write or sing or make a loaf of bread with our own hands. When we screen in our porch or tar our chimney flashing or show a child how to bait a fish hook. We feel it well up within us when we shut up and shut off our electric distractions and consider the slant of light as the sun sinks behind the trees.

It’s a sense, in those rare moments, of the life of the world to come. Given all that we’ve done to this world, perhaps we should thank God that our mean little hammers aren’t what will shape the final frame.

RO , IS , Iasi , Lipovanian`s Church

Of mice and men

January 31st, 2017 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | No Comments »

The mice think I am a god. Not the God, but definitely a god. Their tithe is a fresh-hollowed hazelnut, rolled into the center of my floor every morning.

The nuts come, no doubt, from the two-pound bag they stole last month. I don’t know how long it took them, only that one morning the silver bowl we’d filled was undeniably emptied of everything but nutshell fragments. The mice probably didn’t even view it as stealing; the nuts were just waiting there, being ignored by my children, so the mice took them.

Soon after, we began to hear them in the walls. A furtive mousy gnawing that commenced whenever the house grew silent. Indignant, I put my face to the walls and shouted, I pounded them until the pictures rattled. In this I was more like King Lear than Jehovah, but I suppose to a small vertebrate protected from my fists by only a half-inch of drywall, it sounded pretty godlike in its fury.

And so the offerings began. Every morning an emptied hazelnut, smooth and round and exceedingly painful in the center of the foot’s sole. I mean, it has to be an offering, right? Surely a creature so small and insignificant wouldn’t taunt a being so much more powerful and knowing and prone to wall-rattling.

I credit “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for at least two years of my youthful atheism, but perhaps Jonathan Edwards’s meditation would make perfect sense to those mice, because it was with a great wrothful vengeance that I laid my traps.

The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.”

Because you see, I can maybe tolerate the theft, the daily nutshell underfoot, perhaps even furtive nibbles echoing faintly along my walls. But there’s a principle here, something about defending one’s castle, not to mention the rodential bubonic plague or whatever, and worse than this the eventual snakes that’ll come slithering in come springtime, if I allow a tribe of mice to stake this territory as their Promised Land.

The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.”

And while I’m capable of handling most quadrupeds with a specificity of force that minimizes overall household damage, the thing with a snake in the house is I’m just going to open fire, because I’d sooner replace buckshot-riddled flooring than touch a snake.

Yes, yes, I’m familiar with the verse about crushing the serpent’s head with one’s heel. But that was penned before the advent of the 12-gauge Mossberg.

So, out came the traps. After my first kill, the mice tributes ceased. Perhaps they grew angry, or lost their faith, or hardest of all—speaking from experience, having endured all three of these states myself—their belief remained, but with it a kind of despondent confusion. Why do you afflict me so, when I have offered unto Thee the firstfruits from among my hazelnuts?

And the thing that puzzles me still, is why they continued to get trapped in exactly the same location. Why did they keep trying to steal a dollop of almond butter on the trap’s catch, when they had between them a quantity of nuts equaling the weight of approximately 60 mice?

I mean, would a little platoon of men keep trying to steal food if they were sitting on six tons of it? Are we that greedy or desperate or insecure? Surely not, right? Not we morally advanced men.

And oddly enough, with each snap of that trap I got a little sadder. It’s not like the North Carolina winters are all that harsh. Take your stolen nuts and get out. Or just stop taking the bait.

Maybe some of them did exactly that. The trap has stopped springing, and the intra-wall nibbling has quieted. Maybe the survivors are enjoying their hazelnut bounty in a field somewhere, a little sadder, a little wiser. Then again, maybe not a one of them learned his lesson in time. Maybe my walls harbor a ghost town of nut-fragmented passageways.

I suppose it’s hard for a mouse to resist his nature. It feels that way as a man, too. Haven’t we all been that thieving creature with his neck stretched beneath the bar? But while Jonathan Edwards didn’t think we have a deeper instinct, I think maybe we do. A pre-thieving, pre-creeping nature. It’s just that we forget our true selves. We become less than ourselves, and then what good are our offerings? Then, I think, Edwards proves right: “The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury.”

Forgetting who we’re supposed to be, stretching out our necks and awaiting the fall as if it’s inevitable. But it isn’t. We’re more than animals, after all, even though we often forget it.

Then again, maybe I’m overthinking all this. It’s just some bait and a trap and some inconsequential creatures who are unable to resist taking what they don’t even need. What lesson for man lies here?

The unlovable

November 10th, 2016 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 12 Comments »

I guess before you read the rest of this you should decide how you feel about the fact that I didn’t vote for either of them. Nor did I vote for the Libertarian, or the lady who makes Bernie Sanders look like Milton Friedman and whose name I’ve already forgotten. I voted in every other race, mind you—governor, district judge, soil and water commissioner (yes, there is such a thing where I live)—but not the presidential race. I suppose for the same reason I de-registered as a Republican back during the Newt Gingrich days: I just don’t care to be associated with some people.

I mean, I thought about writing in Atticus Finch, but then I had a vision of every American abstaining from this race, doing their duty when it came to every other office but declining to participate in this fiasco, this false choice foisted on us by incompetent, self-serving elites. So in a moment of inspiration or perhaps fatalism I went all Bartleby the Scrivener and walked out of the voting booth with my incomplete ballot and I’m sorry I don’t have more sophisticated reasons but the truth is I just prefer not to.

I Voted Sticker

Yes, I know, I could have made a Difference. The stakes were too high to sit this one out. I didn’t vote so I have no right to complain. I’m familiar with the platitudes. Did you ever stop to ask who came up with them? Why they’re so desperate for you to parrot them?

Anyway, my point is I think we need to be reminded of some truths about each other. But maybe I’m not the one to say them. Maybe you need to hear from someone who wields a moral scale like in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the one Veruca Salt parks her ass on so that it honks and drops her down to wherever Roald Dahl sends the bad little boys and girls and eggs. Or maybe you’d prefer to hear from a saint, or a Public Figure.

Or maybe you already know exactly who caused this mess, and you’re pretty confident that their little red wagon is gonna get fixed good and hard. In which case you definitely don’t want to hear from me.

So I guess I have no justification for intruding on your time other than the fact that I’m a parent who fears for his kids like maybe you do. Or perhaps you can relate because like me you’re a man who sees the Bad Guys winning—I don’t mean two days ago but for years now, and not just squeaking by but doing really well, like Evil had an IPO that they put their whole nest-egg in and now it’s had like ten stock splits—and you feel just, well, unmanned by it, because evil triumphs where good men do nothing and evil sure seems to be on a winning streak and so what does that say about you and me?

Or maybe you’re just a human being who feels sickened in your heart, and you can’t even say why necessarily, and all the experts are telling you they have the Answer, but they don’t look you in the eye when they say it, and your heart just keeps whispering No, No, No.

So can we start here by agreeing that most of us love our families? Maybe not always or well but most of the time, most of us? And—if you’ll please just consider this possibility—maybe most of us want a country where we’re kind to each other, and everybody has enough soup in his bowl, and kids learn to read and don’t get abused and aren’t afraid, and they don’t grow up just to be sent off to bleed and die in an endless war by men whose own children will never, ever be put in harm’s way, and where if you obey the law and work you have a fair shot—maybe not a guarantee but a shot—at a good life, and where you can speak your mind and seek out God or ignore him as you see fit, and where we all do our best to live and let live. Maybe not every politician and professor and power junkie thriving on whatever it is that makes you and me heartsick, but the rest of them. Your neighbors. My neighbors.

And so when you see that “I’m With Her” t-shirt and recall her ruthless attacks on every woman who exposed her husband’s predations, or that “Make America Great Again” cap and remember what he’s done to women in his own predatory path, can you maybe just consider that while it’s plain as day to you that he or she is unfit to lead anything but a sackcloth and ashes parade, to that person wearing her t-shirt or his hat maybe they don’t believe the truth, or some part of them is so hurt or angry that they just don’t care, and yes that’s frightening and frankly a little shitty of them, but really, how many times have you or I deceived ourselves about our own wrongs, and how well are we going to fare come Judgment Day—which, let’s be honest, we’re all a little worried might be sooner than we’d like—and so my point is, whoever your Sauron is this week, he or she probably isn’t pure evil, and the people voting for him or her really aren’t mostly Orcs, and so can we just maybe for a second consider the possibility that in our poor state of education and logic we can most of us want good things, yet be in radical disagreement about how to achieve them, and that this doesn’t mean half of us are evil?

Or maybe we are. Maybe half of us are not only utterly deluded about right and wrong, but our hearts are so blackened that we prefer the wrong.

I confess sometimes I think it’s well more than half of us.

Anyway, if we can’t pin down exactly how many of us are deluded and/or evil, we can probably all agree that number is somewhere north of zero. Like chilly north. Tundra country. But here’s the thing: while I’m no expert on human relations, I’m pretty sure no evil person has ever chosen to not be evil because someone called him names. And no deluded person has ever snapped back to reality because someone hit her in the face with a mirror.

And maybe you don’t think delusions and evil can be dispelled, and if so I’m really sorry because what a darkened world that must be to live in, like a really hopeless one, and I wish you could see that it’s not hopeless, that the heart of man can be transformed, and I’m here to tell you that’s the gospel truth because I am one of those men, not perfect or even all that good but better, and getting better still, and if I had a snapshot of the old heart to show you then maybe you’d believe me that a heart can change, but it’s not the name-calling or the lectures that make the difference but love. Love that listens but also speaks truth, love that waits, love that serves without expectation.

And so I guess the question is: do enough of us still have some of that in us? Can we show our children a better way to live with and speak about and see one another than this? I mean, are you surprised at the catastrophic growth in child suicide and anti-depressants and drug abuse and hours-long electronics-induced stupor? Can you blame them? Can we all just own some responsibility for that? I’m not saying we can make it all better overnight, but maybe we could start today, at the end of this sentence, by trying to love an unlovable person just a little, in faith that hearts can change, even his, even ours, and for the love of God they have to, they have to.

Befi time

A more perfect union

October 10th, 2016 Posted in Curmudgeonry, The Art of Parenting | 14 Comments »

“So, Dad, did you know Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are having a debate tonight?”


“Are we watching it?”

Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump - Caricatures


“Why not?”

“For the same reasons we don’t watch German porn, or videos about how to treat gangrene.”


“Also because I rented Jungle Book.”


“Trust me—it’s the new one, with the digital high-definition graphical supereffects and stuff. There’s giant snakes and jump scares. We’re talking PG, baby.”

“What do you think they’ll talk about?”

“Oh you know, should Mowgli go live with the other humans, is Shere Kahn’s rage really about revenge or more of a self-destructive Oedipal contrition kind of thing—typical Disney.”

“No, in the debate.”

“Ah, yes. Well, mostly they’ll argue about who is less fit for public office, whose family has done more violence to women, who’s squandered more of other people’s blood and money—typical DC.”

“Is that what politicians usually talk about?”

“They try to impress us when they think we’re listening.”

“I’m not impressed.”

“You’re not their target demographic, my man. You can’t vote.”

“Who are you going to vote for?” (Here the boy sees me roll my eyes.) “If you had to vote for one of them.”

“You mean like, I’m going to get shot if I don’t vote for one of them?”

“Yeah. No. If one of us—” (gesturing now to himself and his brothers, one of whom is practicing Dude Perfect1 tosses with a Gatorade bottle, the other of whom is puzzling over one of those comparative distance problems2 that I just know he’s going to ask me for help with) “—will get shot.”3

At this point I give my answer, quickly followed by my tactical reasoning,4 and the reminder that it was he who steered me into the Strait of Messina.5 He regards me with disgust nonetheless. I feel like I have too quickly expressed a preference after being asked whether I’d prefer to copulate with a warthog or a blobfish.6

“Where are they debating?”

“Before a live studio audience of undecided voters.”

My interrogator winces. His brother stops flipping the Gatorade bottle. His other brother looks up from a chart plotting various permutations of R x T = D. “Wait. You mean there are people who still don’t know who to vote for?”


“Where are these people from?”

“Well I don’t know their street addresses, but I’m confident they are a demographically representative sampling of your fellow Americans.”

My nine year-old explains with exacting if not misguided detail whom he intends to vote for and why, his point being that if a nine year-old kid can figure this out, how freaking hard can it possibly be.

“Dad. How do they not know who to vote for? Can’t they read?”

“Don’t they have a TV?”

“Don’t they have the internet?”

“Are they just real dumb?”

I understand that I have raised intolerant and judgmental children. You can spare me your emails on this point. I try to explain that some people just need more time to make up their minds. “It’s not an easy choice,” I explain.

“But, like, do they think something’s going to change?”

The nine year-old offers some unsubstantiated but likely quite accurate observations about the character and secret machinations of the candidate he hates more than the other one.

“Yeah, I mean, what are they waiting on? For one of those idiots to suddenly stop being an idiot?”

“Guys, I don’t know.”

“Well why do they get to be on TV? Why not get people who actually know something?”

“That would be unfair to the candidates, don’t you think?”

Insert here a cacophony of opinionating about moronic citizens and unfettered access to the ballot and parasitical news media and slavering political candidates, all of it so retrograde I dare not publish it for fear of landing them on some kind of watchlist.

“So what do they talk about when nobody’s listening?”

“How’s that?”

“You said all the fighting and stuff is because we’re listening, so what do they talk about when we’re not listening?”

“I don’t imagine they talk much at all. They’re too busy planning what they’ll say next time they’re in front of a camera.”

“So they’re like . . . actors?”

“Yes. Exactly. Really unattractive and insincere actors.”

“Well I hope their movie ends soon.”

I offer my children one of those long dramatic southern sighs that was a kind of performance art for my mother. “There’s always a sequel.”

“Sequels suck.”

“You got that right.” I wiggle the Jungle Book DVD. “But remakes, on the other hand. . .”7


1 Okay, crash Dude Perfect course: Five white exuberant fun-loving reasonably attractive genuinely nice youth pastor-type bros do increasingly complicated and amazing but relatively safe stunts before increasingly complicated and amazing camera equipment to garner about a zillion followers on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc., and more corporate endorsements than your average Super Bowl champion. There’s also a panda.

2 E.g., if Hillary’s limousine leaves for a Hollywood fundraiser at 3pm and travels at 70 mph, and Donald’s Ferrari sets out after her at 4pm and travels at 120 mph, what time will he run her off the road?

3 The boy anticipating here, see, that I may try to distract him by quibbling over what part of my body, exactly, would be shot, and what caliber and type of bullet, and from what distance, and are there medical personnel standing by and do they have my blood type on hand, and so on.

4 Imagine here a lot of hand-waving about looming recession and historical trends in midterm elections and tax/regulatory trends under divided versus unified governments and several pro hominem references to my political science PhD. Include one really long digression on the series of historical American political choicesa that now force us to choose between a fascistb and a corporatist.c If all of that bores you perhaps you will prefer this summary from the boy, who concludes that direct democracy coupled with unfettered government power is like giving a monkey a machine gun.

a Key among these being the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 1952 Ray v. Blair Supreme Court decision, and of course a host of major party reforms stemming from the Hubert Humphrey fiasco at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

b This is someone whom: i) we detest, ii) is not a liberal, and iii) condones the use of extra-constitutional military violence against foreign peoples, assassination of domestic miscreants, deportation of ethnic types, and establishment of massive surveillance states. (Any resemblance to our current president should be cross-referenced with condition ii above.)

c Similar to a fascist insofar as governmental control of industrial/financial assets is concerned, but far more focused on maintaining the wealth and prestige of a cabal of inbred elites than on establishing a Manifest Destiny, retaking the Sudetenland, rotating the Wheel of History, etc.

5 Referring here to the vicinity of Scylla and Charybdis, though I totally understand if “Your Mama Don’t Dance” is playing in your head right now.

6 Tbh I didn’t know what this is but my 16 year-old told me to look it up and it really is pretty gross. See for yourself.

7 Yes yes yes, I know, a more artful conclusion to the whole confab would have been for me to direct them to the original by Rudyard Kipling, and draw from this a parallel to the governmental architecture bequeathed to us by our Constitution’s authors and subsequently shat upon, but as a wise speaker once said: the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure, and this whole raising-children-to-be-strangers-in-a-strange-land thing is a slow and methodical process, and besides there was popcorn to be made, and as another wise and equally anonymous quipper once quipped: philosophies only endure where bellies are full.

A note about the end

September 29th, 2016 Posted in Faith and Life | 8 Comments »

I used to write much more about my children, but they’re growing despite my best efforts to conserve groceries, and they’re online in their various ways, and so it makes sense to let them tell their own stories, in their own time, in their own ways. I mean I know there are writers who tell you everything there is to reveal about their families, stuff their priests and psychologists don’t even know until it comes out in hardcover, and there was a time when I was one of these. I even wrote a book which some of you read, and we all know how that turned out.1

The point is, my children are still really interesting and wonderful even though I don’t write much about them any more, and I still love them every bit as much and fall in love with them all over again every day, though I should admit there are times when I want to strangle them, and I wonder whether I’m their real father every time they show any athletic prowess or talk during a movie.2


And because tomorrow is the anniversary of my mother’s death I find myself thinking about her foibles and the many ways I tried to distance myself from her3 and how at the same time I miss her quirks that made me grind my teeth, and I sort of transpose all that onto my relationship with my own children, and wonder what mixture of relief and grieving will attend in their hearts my passing, and what they will come to miss even though in this present day it incites eye-rolling. I’m not talking here about the major heavy things, the clouds over your life’s landscape which shade everything but rarely in themselves become the subject of conversation;4 I’m thinking instead of the idiosyncrasies, the little oddities that make me Dad to them.5

The thing is at some point you stop being this omniscient omnipotent benevolent life-bestower to your kids and you become a person, you know? And it’s a frightening, wizard-of-Oz-having-the-curtain-yanked-away kind of feeling, but also enriching, I guess is the best word for it, because instead of carrying them now you walk alongside them, and sure they still lean on you and they look to you to make decisions about the route even if they think you’re an idiot and if they have every intention of going left as soon as you say right, but even now you can feel their muscles growing, and hear their thoughts quickening and becoming their own thoughts, not just extensions of yours, and you know they’re preparing to strike out on their own paths, and you’re excited for them and terrified, and you lie awake more nights than you probably want to admit because Jesus is this sleeplessness even normal and what if there’s something wrong with you, and the truth of it is you just don’t have time for anything to be wrong with you, so you quietly lie awake more nights than you’ll tell your priest or your shrink and you grapple in your remembrances and in your heart with the haunting question every parent faces: Have I prepared them for the way they should go?

And I know my historical modus operandi here is to tell you yes, of course you have, because it’s really the striving, you see, that is the magic ingredient, and because you love your children you have striven, but the truth is I don’t know. I don’t know. People go wrong all the time, and sometimes you can trace that wrongness all the way back to their parents’ wrongness, and we’re all of us knee-capped in some ways by our own parents, and so it’s just plain logic to deduce that we’re knee-capping our own kids despite ourselves and some of them may never recover.

So I’ve been watching my own limping, because of course I never miss an opportunity to make it all about me. The point is, I’m realizing that when I don’t let it take over,6 it kind of angles me toward the path I should be on. You wounded people, you know what I mean.

And wouldn’t that be a miracle, and wouldn’t it be exactly like the God some of us know,7 for even the wounds to have a purpose? For even our mistakes which spill over into our children’s lives to be redeemed?


  1. So perhaps you haven’t followed my entire life story up to this point, which is admittedly far more interesting to me than to you, and so you don’t at all know what I’m talking about. Suffice to say that I regret writing every word in that book, though the advance I got from my publisher helped defray some expenses during the divorce proceedings.
  2. I mean, seriously, a lot of time and thought went into the dialogue unless it’s a John Woo flick, which means you’re interrupting an artist mid-performance, and what kind of person does that unless he’s brain-damaged or has some sort of genetic malady?
  3. In the end there was no way we could have remained U.S. citizens and lived further apart unless one of us was in Alaska and the other in Florida, or perhaps one in Hawaii and the other in Maine, but we both hate Florida and neither of us could afford Hawaii and our only working knowledge of Maine comes from Stephen King which means to us it was always a land of vampires and telekinetic freaks and ax-wielding hoteliers.
  4. One thing you don’t anticipate as a parent is that there will be people who are happy to share with your children, in moments of kindness or cruelty, the best and worst things about you, and so my children have been informed that I’m a lying family-abandoning hound dog who cheated on their mother, and also that I worked my way through college.
  5. A selective listing: I don’t like to be touched when I’m eating; I think I’m good at covering up when I’m pouting but it’s really embarrassingly obvious; I demand that everyone stay put at the dinner table until I’m done and I eat like a third as fast as my youngest who can be slow as molasses in winter when there’s vegetables involved; if I care about you it’s emotionally very important to me to share movies and books I really love with you; I get ridiculously animated and marginally verbally abusive when we’re playing Risk®; I don’t like to have physical contact with strangers but everyone in my family gets bear-hugged probably more than they’d like except our 16 year-old because the kid is always eating and see above about not being touched when eating which he totally gets from me; I attempt a variety of vocal impressions but they all pretty much sound like I’m a Czechoslovakian immigrant who was raised in Harlem; I am a worst-case scenario thinker which means I expect everyone to check in on a regular basis and the youngest can’t get out of my sight when we’re hiking and I’m always watching for snakes and runaway cars and psychopathic clowns and I have absolutely no problem using violence against any of the above and a secret part of me actually hopes for the opportunity.
  6. Meaning I don’t let it turn me in lonely self-pitying crazy-making self-destructive circles.
  7. I was going to qualify this in some way to differentiate the God I’m talking about from the industrialized Americanized hand-tailored personally-curated god we all like to carry around in our back pockets but no matter how I try to word it that just sounds petty and judgmental and basically kind of jerky when my point is that sometimes in spite of our small mean-spirited hardhearted myopic selves we get a glimpse of God this incomprehensible merciful ridiculously loving frankly puzzling being.

That malt shop in the sky

September 13th, 2016 Posted in Faith and Life | 11 Comments »

Of all the reasons to cry, the “Beauty School Dropout” number from Grease probably shouldn’t make my list. Yet here I sit, surreptitiously mashing tears from the corners of my eyes just like Danny Zuko would have done, in his leather-jacket days, before Sandy convinced him real men cry.

It’s not that I’m unused to crying. I cry every time a baby is received into our church. During the Nicene Creed I often can’t get past “I look for the resurrection of the dead” without a hitch in my throat. I am incapable of seeing General Waverly appear at the top of the stairs toward the end of White Christmas without blubbering.

Real men cry, and so do I, but crying at Frankie Valli in a heavenly hair salon stretches the boundaries of acceptable man behavior.

CorsoFribourg interieurpano

I was a boy when my mother took us to see Grease. It had been a sweltering summer, humid and sticky, and we were living in a tent in Tennessee. There was a lake nearby and there were ducks who would bite if you got too close and there were snakes and Lord Jesus were there mosquitos. It was the summer I learned to do without underwear which meant it was also the summer I learned that a zipper is to be handled with care.

We were hot and we were sticky and money was tight. You can gauge how broke you are by how often your mother has to take items from that little grocery store conveyer belt and hand them to the cashier. But there was food enough—jelly sandwiches are what I remember—and we had the lake for a tub and a cinder-block bathroom with showers nearby when we were rank, though my mother was loathe to send us because we would aim all the showerheads high, run a soap bar along the cement floor, and take turns running at breakneck speed to hurl ourselves buck-naked across it. The trick was to keep your sack from snagging on the big metal drain cover in the center, and to stop yourself with your feet so you didn’t crack your skull on the far wall. It’s a wonder we all reached adulthood two-testicled and with no bacterial infections of the flesh-eating variety.

There was bread and jelly and now I remember canned meat as well. There were acres of woods. We swam and we roamed forest and we built forts and had rock fights; we killed snakes and we ran from the big ones and we got stung by yellowjackets; we fed the nice ducks and hit the mean ones with sticks; we lay awake in our tent late into those nights, staring at the darkened tarp above and praying for a little gust of wind to climb the tent wall and pour through the little mesh window there. Some people think you can tell angels by their singing but I am here to tell you that you know them by their breeze.

I was a worrier. I knew my mother was worried; I saw her give back groceries to balance the tab and drive with the gas gauge on empty and so I worried too.

It had been so hot that week. Stifling hot and no breeze, water from the jug tepid and stale, even the lake a swamp unless you swam deep. It was hot and one night my mother loaded us in the car and she drove us to town. We pestered her about where we were going and she didn’t say a word that I remember, she just drove. We parked in the movie theater lot, but we were at the ticket counter before it sank in that she was actually taking us to see an honest-to-God movie.

“Where did you get the money?” I practically shouted it, right there in the lobby. God, I must have been an embarrassment to that woman. She ignored the stares of the other adults in their unsticky clothes, some of them with children who were generally clean and whom I could not smell, and she bought four tickets and we went into that blessed air conditioning and we pressed our salty wet bodies into those soft cool seats and not a one of us gave a damn what it was; we would gladly have watched Gerald Ford rehearse walking down stairs.

I sat in the cool air beside my mother and I fell hard for Olivia Newton-John and for one hour and fifty minutes plus trailers I didn’t worry about a thing. I don’t think my mother did either.

So I sit here pressing tears from my eyes at nearly every number, and later I tell my boys a briefer version of the story I’ve just told you, at least until my voice gets husky, and later when they are playing I quietly weep because my mother is gone. She is gone and would you believe I never once thanked her for taking us to that movie theater on that sticky-hot Tennessee night when the gas gauge was low?

I always thought she was weak. Sometimes I despised her for it. But now, with children of my own, I suspect I have it easier because I’m not as strong as she. I think I’ll tell her this when we’re sitting together in that malt shop in the sky. If only I had known, I’ll say. If only I had seen more clearly, I might have been a better son.

And her likely reply, loving Eric Clapton as she did, will be: Hush, child. Don’t you know there are no tears in heaven?

The dividing line

September 2nd, 2016 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 13 Comments »

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Look, maybe it’s time we cash in our chips. Blow this popsicle stand and buy that cabin in the hills we’ve always talked about. Sink a well, set out the rabbit traps, and settle in for a long-ass winter.

Don’t get me wrong—our republic has had a fine run. Not so long as some of the greats, but with far less tyranny, no matter what they teach in American history classrooms these days.

Oh God please not another conservative white man eulogizing the death of republicanism.

I’m with you, dear reader; you’ll have none of that fusty talk here. Republic is such a crusty word; you can almost see it perched in its leather chair, stroking the lapels of its smoking jacket, reminiscing on the days when the common man knew his place. It’s antiquated, and the things we resent more than just about any other infringement on our aspirations are old things that won’t just lie down and die.

We’ve traded in restraint for representation, and this is good, for what is man if not a self-expressive being? Only something has gone awry. Though he is tastefully dead and mostly forgotten, it’s almost as if that godless glowering cynic Mencken still mocks our ambitions. “Democracy,” he wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

That about sums things up in this Land of the Free, in the Year of our Lord 2016, wouldn’t you say?

I understand this only sounds right to the handful of you who agree our choice for president lies between a crypto-fascist harpy and a psychotic, overgrown Oompa-Loompa. Many imagine one or the other of them is not a dishonest, self-seeking, vindictive megalomaniac who will use the Constitution as a doormat. Many more see them each for what they are, but are sufficiently repulsed by one to cast their lots with the other. Lesser of two evils and all that. As a man who’s chosen all manner of evils lesser, greater, and mostly just plain mundane, I get it.

And I understand that we remain a lot better off than most places. The empire upon which the sun once never set now advises its soldiers not to wear their uniforms in public for fear of having their heads sawed off. The future of Europe is no longer envisioned in the chambers of the EU, but in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Russia is under the thumb of a dictator, the Middle East and Asia live at the edge of military and biological nightmares that are the fodder for video games, and South America remains a petri dish for ideas that only have credibility in the UMass economics department.

So we’ve still got it pretty darn good here. We’re not in a world war, there is no Spanish flu sweeping millions into the grave. Our statisticians tell us our GDP continues its upward creep, and with it our happiness drifts upward, upward. There is a troubling echo of drug addiction and suicide, but our pharmaceutical giants churn out promising solutions to these annoyances. Things are looking up.

And yet here we are, wondering how in the hell we came to this, and wondering further: if this is what we’re capable of, how much worse could it get, and how fast?

And friends, there is no solution to be fitted to a presidential platform. No national plan. No Great Leader in suit pants and focus group-tested haircut. There is only you and me and our little platoons of family and church and neighborhood and school. You know it was only ever that, right? You think my grandfather and maybe yours picked up a gun and fought tyrants out of love for a piece of paper, or a pledge of Allegiance?

Of course not. They did it out of love for their own platoons. Their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. Their children, and their women, and that tree at the edge of the field where once they ate an apple and watched the sun set fire to the sky and to their own hearts as well, in a way they could never put in words but which they wanted their own children to know, and their children’s children.

The ugly thing in all of it is that we have indeed gotten what we asked for. We want it cheaper and simpler and most of all we want not to be bored, and Jesus Christ if that doesn’t describe these two moral cripples campaigning to rule this tattered free world, and not just them but far too much of our own lives, then I don’t know what does.

Our dreams have come true, friends. We live in the best of times. Now where in hell is the brake?

I don’t know. I don’t know. But I suspect we won’t find it on a digital screen. We won’t hear it on a cable program or talk radio. We sure won’t hear it in a politician’s speech. The problem is in us, do you see? In these hearts through which runs the line dividing good and evil.

So maybe that’s where we begin to find the answer. Whether it’s in our house or our high-rise or in our cabin in the hills, nothing will change unless we each of us grapples with that oldest and most unsteady of instruments, the human heart. Not someone else’s, but our own. A country is only as good as its people, and a person is only as good as his heart. And God help us but we have some work to do.

Backwards in a sideways world

April 13th, 2016 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 20 Comments »

Bathroom Man

When I was twelve, we were evicted from our house in Florida, a consequence either of Reaganomics or our failure to pay rent for three months, depending on whose story you wanted to believe. We faced a long, hungry drive back to North Carolina. A neighbor, also from our home state, called me over and shoved a hundred-dollar bill into my hand. She told me not to tell anyone until we were too far down the highway to turn around. “People from North Carolina have to stick together,” she said.

I’m tempted to say I have a complicated relationship with my Southern heritage, but in truth I suppose it’s fairly straightforward. The South and I claim each other as kin because we have no choice in the matter. This in turn makes me kin, of sorts, to people I’ve never met. I don’t suppose that’s a particularly Southern mentality, but I don’t think it’s a universal quality either. I’m sure Texans have helped Texans, for example, the way my neighbor lady helped us. Perhaps people from New Jersey have been known to do the same, though I haven’t heard about it.

So the relationship, you see, isn’t altogether complicated, and probably not all that unique, but I don’t expect anyone not from here would be able to articulate its contours all that well, any more than a stranger could navigate your grandmother’s parlor in the dark without barking his shin on the coffee table. I have an acute sensitivity to infringements on my honor, for example, even though a half-bottle of bourbon will induce me to defile that very honor in every way you can imagine, along with a couple you haven’t thought of. I like grits, but I don’t like sweet tea. I believe the South’s loss in the Civil War was the just outpouring of God’s wrath on slaveowners and their moral accomplices, but I also believe the greatest honor Ulysses S. Grant ever achieved in his mediocre career was shaking Bobby Lee’s hand.

Robert E. Lee, troubled by the ease with which his kinsmen seceded, but siding with them because they were kin. There’s something noble about loyalty to blood, even—or perhaps especially—when that blood is tainted. It’s a backwards notion these days, when most people see past and present with such exquisite moral clarity, leaving those few of us whose vision isn’t so acute to judge the world as having gone sideways, or at the very least, in need of a few shims.

And maybe that quality is uniquely Southern: the inherited predisposition to be backwards in a sideways world.

Don’t misunderstand—in an age of professional schooling and instant communication, we have no excuse for moral blindness. Take the recent law passed here in North Carolina, for example, mandating that every user of a public restroom attend only those assigned to people bearing the equipment matching what he (or she, or s(he), or some entirely new and enlightened signifier even now being conjured in a Brown University anthropology classroom) received at birth.

Now, educated people know this is an evil law. We know this because of the outcry from people who know a thing or two about repression and homophobia, many of them having spent hours cozying with dictators in Cuba, Egypt, Venezuela, and the like. Our moral betters know evil because they have looked evil in the eye. They’ve sipped espresso with evil. They’ve played private concerts for evil.

But we Southerners are a contrarian lot. It runs in our tainted blood. While straight-sighted moral people rightly cower at reproaches from New York politicians, Hollywood mavens, and pornography conglomerates, we perversely internalize them as badges of honor. In fact, the best way to unify we feuding, vengeful, petty, grudge-holding, backwards-ass rednecks is to tell us the Yankees are displeased.

Blood runs hot where morality is concerned, and viewed from that perspective, my state is doing a great service to our sideways neighbors. With so little evil and suffering left in the modern world, good people need a beacon of evil against which to calibrate. Some Southerners are content to play that part, for a time at least, until we can scramble the rest of the way up the moral ladder, which may take another generation or so, by which time the pervasive and homogenized digital mindwash which scours us all every waking hour will have reached its fruition even in this backwards territory, such that our grandchildren have no certainty whatsoever about God or virtue or the purpose of a penis, and better still, no curiosity on these matters, because curiosity breeds questions, and questions beget challenges, and the very last thing our cultural monolith can tolerate is a challenge to its precepts, because if one person holds his head upright then another may follow suit, and another still, until you’ve got yourself a whole mess of curious people asking why everyone else is leaning sideways and calling it straight, and can’t they feel their feet skidding along the concrete, and don’t they hear the change tinkling from their pockets, and aren’t they weary from gripping so tightly just to stay in place, and isn’t it just a little odd that the handful who’ve set themselves up as moral paragons are so desperate to proclaim everything straight, almost as if they believe the moment they halt their carnival barking we’ll take a moment to look around, and to hear the sliding of feet on crooked ground, and to ask: Who put these people in charge?

That sounds almost like rebellion, which I suppose is to be expected from my people, bearing as we do the genes of raging Scots, bull-headed English, enduring Yoruba, proud Cherokee. Tell us what to do, and our instinct is to tell you to go to hell. It’s not an endearing quality, I’ll admit, but maybe it serves a small purpose, because maybe the world isn’t so right-side up after all, and maybe one day we’ll get around to realizing that, and maybe then we’ll need a few people whose feet are preternaturally inclined to lean against the weight of things, people who can lead us backwards out of a world tilted wrongwise.

A Word for Those Who Would Draw Near to Grief

February 17th, 2016 Posted in The Sermons | 15 Comments »

An electric wire runs through her, scalp to sole, and this grief has stripped it bare. His despair inhabits him, and inside he is falling down a dark shaft, falling into himself, into the shadows there.

And here you stand, and you would offer words. Why?

Because this is what decent people do.

Because I don’t want to be thought callous.

Because people are most susceptible to my god when they are broken.

Because I feed on emotion.

Because maybe I can conjure a word to dispel the anguish for a time.

The truth is this: Your words will change nothing. They will evaporate like spit on a hearthstone, or worse: they will be inept, inadequate, an offense. “Think of all the good her sickness did for others,” someone said to me the day I tucked what remained of my daughter into the dirt.
059.Israelite Women Mourn with Jephthah's Daughter

Your words will change nothing, even with the best intentions, because they cannot descend into the grave, cannot breathe life into death. There is one Word that has, that does, that will. Would you quote him, then, in this moment when even he has the decency to practice silence? “All things work together for good, to those who love Christ.” Someone reassured me, in the first year after she was gone, that this is so. Go rejoice at the grave of your own child, then.

It is unfair, I know, that your words will change nothing, and yet you have to say something. How can you not? What then can you say, knowing how inadequate are the words of the whole in the ears of the obliterated?

I am sorry. I am so very sorry.

Yes, but what if that isn’t enough? It isn’t. But if they want to hear more, they will tell you. They control so little else right now, for God’s sake, let them control that. Because chances are they’d rather you listen than speak, for what collects in them is a poison, and somehow it must come out. The grieving, you see, need your ears more than your tongue.

Intolerant mercy

November 19th, 2015 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 14 Comments »

Most of us have never endured war amidst our homes and so we can only imagine, if we care to, the terror that drives people to take their children and elderly parents and spouses and flee all they have known. Now they gather on the shores of the West, but they look like the lunatics who yearn to bathe themselves in our blood, so many of us, our own children and parents and spouses in mind, insist there is no room at the inn.

Yes, we’ve seen that baby Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, his little shoes knocking together in the merciless wake, but we’ve also seen the shootings in Paris, a soldier hacked to pieces on a London sidewalk, a filmmaker butchered on his morning commute in Amsterdam, and we say: Not here. Not us.

Fear makes us ugly. Is that what makes the butchers so cruel? Fear of us, or the light of truth, or maybe just their own bloodthirsty little god?

So here we stand, on one side of the gates, and on the other wait women and children and yes, men. Perhaps every mother’s son of them is a shoemaker or a goatherd, but to us they are glowering, heathenish, each possessing the wicked skill to fashion a bomb or separate a head from its neck. We fear them because we don’t know them, and what’s more, we fear them because we are governed by a president willing to trade Taliban prisoners for a U.S. Army deserter even as he allowed an American Marine to languish in a Mexican prison, because our federal bureaucracy acts as if Amish raw-milk farmers are a graver threat to America than combatants in Guantanamo, because TSA agents excel at confiscating make-up while missing explosives.A_line_of_Syrian_refugees_crossing_the_border_of_Hungary_and_Austria_on_their_way_to_Germany._Hungary,_Central_Europe,_6_September_2015 (2)

Whatever irrational fears animate us to resist Syrian immigrants, to these must be added a reasonable distrust of our own government. Yet even the most competent of administrations would be unable to guarantee every war refugee crossing our border didn’t harbor an intention to slaughter us in our beds.

The shame of it is that many of us could police our communities well enough, if left to our own devices and traditions. I’ve lived in two small towns over the past ten years, neither, fortunately, beset by the combination of joblessness, welfare dependency, and drug addiction sweeping rural America. People here assume you have a job, that you go to church, that you have kids and you know where they are at night. We’re hopelessly backward and many of us aren’t all that well-read and some of us are probably even a little proud of that. We’re shockingly — in many cases quite illegally — armed. Our children grow up to be the youngsters politicians send to war. We know our neighbors. We notice strangers. Being in the country, we know what bullshit smells like, and, not living in the city, we have little taste for it.

Many of us know what it’s like to be dead-broke, and probably every blessed one of us has sat through — if not participated in — a Christmas play in a little brick church, so we all know the story of Mary and Joseph and the manger. What I mean is that many of us have a heart for the poor, and for the people who don’t fit into polite society. We give our neighbors jobs when they’re out of work. We invite our country-ass redneck relatives to the Fourth of July picnic even though we know they’ll embarrass us.

The point is, many of us would be willing to accept some refugees into our communities. We’d give you work if we had it, we’d bring your children into our schools, we’d feed you at our Wednesday-night church chicken suppers.

Just remember that we’re backward and simple-minded and violent. If we see a cluster of you meeting in a basement night after night, expect the local cops and a few deputized citizens to drop in unannounced. Looking to buy ammonium nitrate? If no farmer around here will vouch for you, you’re in for some unpleasant questioning.

Constitutional rights? Those are for citizens. You’re still a guest, and we’ll evict you when we like, on terms as rough as you want to make them.

And just so you’re prepared, don’t expect to catch any of us bobbing our heads when John Kerry says Islam is a religion of peace. That doesn’t mean we’ll stop you from building a little mosque, but if you’re not stringing up a black shroud and an American flag every time some nut murders innocents with your god’s name on his lips, you’d best have fire insurance. And if we catch you passing out al-Qaeda tracts, expect an ax handle to the head. Try to indoctrinate any of our kids, and you’ll likely go missing for good. There are a lot of fields and hollows out here.

It’s cruel-minded and unenlighted, but probably a far better deal than refugees can expect elsewhere. And I suspect a good many of them would urge us to take our intolerance a step further. They know, after all, what real barbarity is, and the price of being soft in the face of it. They’re exactly the kind of neighbors, by the way, we’d like to have. Who in a generation or two could be more solidly American, in our eyes, than anyone raised in Manhattan or San Francisco.

But none of this is acceptable in the modern, civilized, rights-strewn, sensitive American landscape. We prefer the devil’s choice: either admit refugees under the administration of our vast, unwieldy, unaccountable federal bureaucracy, or leave them to the wolves. There’s no room, in other words, for common sense, for country wisdom, for community control and its accompanying compassion, which runs deeper than you might expect, were you to confine your understanding of average Americans to what you read in Salon. And this explains more problems than just the current refugee crisis — a crisis, like so many others, that our own short-sighted, inept interventions fostered, and which, like the others which bedevil us, we’ll forget as soon as we can.

In my dying time

September 21st, 2015 Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So I’ll just begin with an admission that I know it’s crazy and macabre and most certainly narcissistic. What I’ve been doing in my essays lately, however, is forgetting, for just a little while, that someone might read them. Just to see what happens. To push the boundaries and whatnot. And when I set aside the fear that someone may disapprove, I come up with admissions like this: I have very definite thoughts about how I want to die, and none of them are pretty.

Perhaps it’s a latent desire for purgation. I don’t know. But the point is, I wrote this, and some of you will like it, and others of you will not, and you will worry over my soul or my theology or my mental health and that’s all very kindhearted of you. Please rest assured that now, more than any other time in my life, it is well with my soul. I hope you understand I wrote this, as I’m endeavoring to write everything, just in an effort to be true. To say a true thing in a raw enough way that a person can hear it, in this world stuffed to the brim with cliché and falsity.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

They say it’s easier to conjure faith in desperation, but I suspect the opposite is true, that all we hold in our trembling hands, when the earth charges up to embrace us for the last time, is what’s really there, what we really believe, what we really love, be it God or ourselves or our children or our comforts, or likely some combination of these, with salvation turning perhaps not on a choice so much as on the algorithm, on our hammered-out parameters of love.

You can read the rest of it here.

I know some of you wonder why I don’t write more. I swear that I do, only it’s not essays. There’s a novel afoot. Maybe one day you’ll read it. Until then, thanks for reading the sentence or two I hurl into this meager space.


July 22nd, 2015 Posted in The Sermons | 1 Comment »

Maybe you’ll like my latest Image essay, about the struggle for single-mindedness among we sophisticated, double-minded types. Here’s an excerpt:

“The soul will follow the body,” is how Fr. Stephen Freeman summarizes a point made by the Christian monk Evagrius in the fourth century A.D. Do what is right, and your resistant soul will learn. This formulation turns the tables on what I’ve practiced most of my life, which is doing right when I feel like being a good person, or because I’ll get in trouble if I don’t, or because I’ll feel bad if I don’t, or because I like stepping outside myself to survey the good works of Saint Tony.

None of which is a recipe for single-mindedness. For creating in obscurity. For sticking to the nest. Carrots and sticks and self-image will drive you only so far.

You can read the rest here, on Image Journal’s fancy new website.

Dance For Your Life

July 3rd, 2015 Posted in Snapshots of Life | 1 Comment »

The thing is, I lied about being able to dance when I was courting my wife. How often do people dance any more? Sure, people put on some kind of godawful thumping tribal ritual-sacrifice music and grind up against each other, but that’s not dancing. Nobody dances any more, right?

Until there’s a dance, to which you are invited, and where you are expected to, well, dance. So I wrote a couple of essays about learning to dance. Here’s an excerpt from the first:

“We are learning a country-western waltz. This is distinctly different from a Viennese waltz. I didn’t grow up in the West, I’ve never been to Vienna, and my only dance lessons were when my grandmother would toss back an extra snort of Blue Nun, stoop to clasp me cheek-to-cheek, and dance a tango in the living room.”

And here’s an excerpt from the follow-up essay, about our big night:

“We fly across the country and drive hours to a community where people leave the keys in their pickup trucks. I throw my scarce talents into helping prep the barn, and Maggie disappears with the rest of the bridesmaids. We see each other just a little over the next day and a half, and then the wedding is upon us. The groomsmen are all lean cowboys in black hats. They are ranchers and rodeo riders.

A lesser man might feel insecure.”

You can read them both starting here.

Death in Charleston

June 18th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life | 18 Comments »

Tonight I made my way home through rain driven from a shrouded sky. It struck the scorched asphalt, and everywhere was steam. I remembered the verse, how rain falls on the just and the unjust, and as I squinted against the blanketed white and shifting curtains of rain I considered how the reverse is true: sometimes the righteous are struck down alongside the unrighteous.
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Right now, those who intend aid and those who aim to exploit are descending on Charleston, and I have no counsel to add to theirs, at least none that most people want to hear. I do have four sons, however, who want to know why a boy would sit for an hour in a prayer service, and then murder all those praying people, those people who welcomed him though he looked nothing like them.

So what do you say to your children, who know of boys murdering worshippers in their church, of boys beheading saints on a Libyan beach, of boys shooting schoolchildren? Do you tell them that they are likely safe, as if all is well so long as horrors befall other people? Do you tell them it will get better? Do you tell them the television chatterers have the answers?

What can we tell our children about this world we have made for them?

I tell them what little I know to do, in the face of evil. It’s simpler and harder than sophisticated adults want to hear. It has no grand quality. It’s not ambitious, it’s not “scalable,” you can’t get a grant for it, you can’t run it out of a federal agency.

All I know to do, children, is what we’ve been told since grace rained down on hard-hearted man: love your neighbor as yourself. Love him until he sees the light, or until he cannot stand the sight of you. Love him with no purpose beyond loving him. Love him where he is, love him in spite of him, love him unto death, as you have been loved.

The poor fisherman

June 11th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life | Comments Off on The poor fisherman

From my latest essay at the Image Good Letters site:

I am a tense and irritable man with occasional bouts of cheerfulness tempered by fatalism. I am a hard man with whom to live. I spent yesterday griping at my kids not to drown in the river, not to pick up snakes, not to fall into the fire pit. I pray and pray this morning.

Help me not to be a boulder hung from the necks of my children.

Let them not be lost. Come to them where they are.

Make them better than me.

My seven year-old strolls down the riverbank in his brother’s overlarge Crocs. He is clutching his little blue and red fishing pole. He steps gingerly into the river up to his knees. He wobbles. He faces downriver like me and flicks his lure into a swirl of water.

Not like me, I want to tell him, but what other way can he know? How does the son of a poor fisherman learn to catch fish? We two of us stand in shoes too big to fill and we catch nothing.

There’s more, including a 1970’s evangelical meme, a hospital bed, shouted Bible verses, and seven hot dog meals in a row. You can read the rest here.


May 22nd, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life, The Art of Parenting | Comments Off on Listing

Here’s an excerpt from my latest Image essay if you’re interested:

Isaiah returned to the scene of the crime to survey his work. It was a damned atrocity. Paint ran haphazardly against the grain, tacky pools of it collected on the surface, and thick rivulets had crawled down the sides and hardened.

“Look at it,” the boy said, his arms spread wide. “It’s beautiful!”

Two days later I sat in my car beside a lovely city park and vomited. I texted my wife: “I think I just had a panic attack.”

I don’t think I had a legitimate reason to panic. I wasn’t being attacked by a bear, after all. But there was the feeling of panic, and there was definitely the vomit, and so there I was.

You can read the rest here.

Letters to camp

May 18th, 2015 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 8 Comments »

My youngest boys, Isaac and Isaiah (10 and 7), depart today for a week-long summer camp, which is a cause for excitement on their part, and quiet trepidation on mine. “Keep your money in a stinky sock,” I advise them. “If somebody picks on you, that’s the opportunity to forgive and turn the other cheek.” I take 10 year-old Isaac aside to add, however, that he is to level any bigger kids who pick on his little brother. That’s what 13 year-old Eli did for Isaac last year, so it’s a family tradition, and tradition is important in these chaotic times.

When you send your children to this camp, you drop off with them a bundle of envelopes, one for each child, for each day. That way every child gets mail each day, with notes from family members, chewing gum, little flashlights, and whatever other trinkets you want to send along. I know I usually focus on grief, pain, and immanentizing the eschaton here, but I thought you might like to see the notes I wrote to each boy, just so you know that sometimes I am not, in fact, grim.


Dear Isaiah,

I hope that your first day at camp has been fun, and that you haven’t been eaten by bears. I also hope you haven’t eaten any bears because that will give you serious farts. I love you!


Dear Isaac,

I hope you’re having fun and haven’t become a wild jungle boy who runs around naked and sleeps in trees and grunts instead of using proper English. Don’t forget that you’re a civilized young man.

                                                                                                                Love, Dad



Dear Isaiah,

I’ve been thinking about what I wrote yesterday, about eating bears making you fart, and I believe I was wrong. So if you get a chance to eat a bear, go right ahead. I miss you lots and lots.

                                                                                                                Love, Dad

Dear Isaac,

I was thinking about what I wrote yesterday, about you becoming a wild jungle boy who sleeps in trees, and I guess sleeping in a tree is safer than the ground, so if you have become a wild jungle boy, keep safe from wolves by sleeping in that tree. I miss you!

                                                                                                                Love, Dad



Dear Isaiah,

I’ve been thinking some more about the bear thing, and while it’s okay to eat a bear, I don’t think I want you running around past bedtime hunting a bear. It’s probably not safe, plus you’ll get mosquito bites. I love you!


Dear Isaac (Jungle Boy),

I just read somewhere that mosquitos live in trees, so if you’re sleeping in trees, best wear some clothes so you don’t get bit you-know-where. Hopefully you won’t get kicked out of the jungle boy tribe just for wearing a little underwear.

                                                                                                                Love, Dad



Dear Isaiah,

One more thing about bears: while it’s okay to eat one, and maybe okay to hunt one if you don’t stay up late, it’s definitely not okay to bring one home as a pet. Bears eat too much and they poop all over the yard. I can’t wait until you get home!

                                                                                                                Love, Dad

Dear Jungle Boy (Isaac),

When you’re packing up to come home, don’t forget to look under there




Just made you say underwear!

Which you’d best be wearing when you get home, because your jungle days are over, and it’s time to start being my little boy again. I can’t wait to see you!

                                                                                                                Love, Dad

Legos in the Deep

May 1st, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life | 2 Comments »

Like many, I passed this spring through Lent. It felt longer than in past years, because there has been a kind of Lenten work being done within me, it seems, since last fall. Nothing terrible, nothing traumatic, just a gradual scraping away of the soul’s fat, like miserable Eustace when Aslan sinks his claws into that dragon skin he’s acquired. Sometimes in my scraping it feels like he hits a bone, and I think there’s nothing left to scrape, until I look down and see the scraping’s only just begun; there’s layers and layers of dark and bloody dragon fat still clinging to my shivering soul, and somewhere within that, presumably, a light that wants shining.

So I wrote something about some of that, kind of sideways because you know that’s my specialty. It ended up being two parts, for which I apologize or accept praise, depending on your inclination. Here’s a bit from the first:

“Christ is risen from the dead,” we sing, “trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

Over the centuries, this resurrection faith has been the defense offered to those—be they pagans, rationalists, theologians, or that hybrid of the three whose natural habitat is the school of divinity—who accuse us of idol worship and necromancy. We reverence icons and ask saints to pray for us because our faith—once shared by all of Christendom—is that they aren’t dead.

And here’s a snippet from the second:

I found myself in a monastery, where a priest said something in the course of a lecture that rattled me. I don’t recall his exact words; they amounted to what any Sunday schoolboy knows, which is that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

I sought him out later. I could scarcely contain my trembling. I explained to him that my daughter had died a few years prior. “What you said before,” I asked him, “does it mean that she’s seen all the things I’ve done?”

Imagine your worst sins. Imagine your three-year-old child watching you commit them. Do you understand my fear?

You can read the first here, and the second here.

A Darkness That May Be Felt

March 9th, 2015 Posted in The Sermons | Comments Off on A Darkness That May Be Felt

Some of you may like my latest essay at Image, about the 21 young men murdered by ISIS in Libya. Here’s an excerpt:

These stories are now fantasy to us, or nearly so. Abraham holds the knife to Isaac’s throat, Jacob wrestles a holy messenger, David fells Goliath—the action rises and falls in an old familiar tale of sin and blood and redemption, of endless genealogies, of a recalcitrant flock, of a bitter vine, and we grafted onto that vine thanks to Jesus, sweet Jesus, Jesus teaching, healing, then climbing his cross, and after that dread day, the empty tomb and the upper-room church, then the letters from Paul and a few others, then something about the end times, hallelujah, and now a Bible in every house and praise choruses on our tongues, and after these our Sunday dinners and perhaps the shake of our heads at the bad news coming from those ancient territories, those darkened world’s corners so very far from the God-blessed U.S.A.

God’s people traveled into Egypt for food, even as their remnant now travels from it seeking work, as thirteen young men traveled from their Nile village of El-Aour, along with eight from other locales, these twenty-one joining scores that departed villages and towns, hoping to feed their families just as Joseph’s brothers once did. They were sojourners there.

And we are here. Sometimes we forget here isn’t home, just as we forget the people sojourning there are our brothers and sisters. They shuffle the same windswept and sandy roads our adoptive forefathers traveled, darkening the sand with their blood, with their tears and with blood.

You can read the rest here.

The beast without

February 20th, 2015 Posted in The Art of Parenting | 14 Comments »

“Isaac’s being a jerk,” my seven year-old, Isaiah, says about his older brother. They have been sledding over new-fallen snow.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he keeps knocking me off my sled.”

“Why do you think he did that?” I ask. I’ve been trying to help my children consider how sometimes they incite one another.

“Because he’s evil.”

Well, then.

“My sisters pregnant I can’t wait to find out if im gonna be an aunt or uncle,” is what the girl tweeted. By the time I saw a screenshot of her words, they had traveled pretty widely. What an idiot, people said. Glad I’m not that stupid. I thought the same things.

Witch burning gummy bears

Some weren’t content just to mock her to one another, they went to her Twitter timeline and told her she was stupid. Because the mark of intelligence is marking stupidity of others, I guess.

I went too, because I had begun to wonder: is anyone that dumb? I scrolled through her tweets, and watched time reverse itself: from the latest, where she asked why this harassment was happening to her, and told these strangers to leave her alone, to hours earlier, before she was beaten down, when she gave back as good as she got, to days before that, before someone decided she made a nice target. She’s a girl who doesn’t always attend to her grammar and likes the things that girls like and has an okay sense of humor. She’s just a girl. She isn’t an idiot. The tweet about being an aunt or uncle was a joke.

And as it turns out, lots of people have said the same joke. Not everyone has had strangers pop out of the woodwork to belittle them for doing so, but some have. I suppose they got off easy—even this girl so widely mocked that she shut down her Twitter account­—in comparison to Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke about AIDS before boarding a flight to Africa in 2013, only to land and discover it had traveled the globe, and that she had been portrayed as a monster.

I saw there’s a movie coming out, a retelling of the mangled-beyond-recognition Dracula story, in which he is a hero who takes on vampiric powers to save his family. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a trend in movies, to rehabilitate monsters. It’s a curious thing that we are humanizing monsters, yet are so quick to beastialize humans.

Because he’s evil.

It was funny when my son said it, but a little chilling. You know how I worry. What if Isaiah is going to become one of those dreadful puritanical hate-preachers on low-budget cable TV? We should never have given him an Old Testament name. What if he sees with a child’s prescience that his brother really is evil? I’m failing as a parent. Failing failing failing.

So in the spirit of practicing what I preach about considering how our actions incite others, I think on the conversations they’ve overheard, in which I question someone’s motives, in which I denounce some political figure or corporate charlatan, in which I rail against the people tearing down Western civilization.

Yes, that happens a lot at our dinner table. I like to imagine one of them will write a colorful biography about their father one day.

There’s my muttering about this church or that company, about a neighbor who lets her kids run up and down the street all night. And let’s not even consider the things I say while driving.

I don’t know why we want to think the worst of people, except maybe because it allows us, in a false and perverse way, to think better of ourselves. “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector,” said the Pharisee on his holy road to hell. Isn’t that each of us, in our own hearts, every day? No matter what we’ve done, we can always find someone worse. Thank God.

We think the worst of people, and we say it, and it’s a cleverly disguised way of saying we are good people, or maybe just that if God is in the business of paying people back, there’s a long list of folks he should scorch before he turns his awful eyes to us. It’s a small and mean kind of prison-camp thinking when you ponder it, but here we are.

And here I am, and here are these children, doing as I do instead of as I say, yet again, and the hard truth is all my saying doesn’t matter one tiny damn unless I change my doing. I want them to be better than me. How I want them to be better than me. But the thing is: I can’t send them down that road alone, can I?

When He is Silent

January 30th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life | 27 Comments »

A reader whose younger sister recently died wrote me to ask how I endured, during the time of my daughter’s sickness and death, the silence of God. It’s something I’ve written about here and here, and in my book. I’ve talked about “saudade,” a Portuguese word meaning “the presence of absence,” which is how you feel, every day for the rest of your life, when you have lost someone you love. Their absence is a weight, it is a presence. You carry it with you everywhere. As I’ve written before, October—the month she died—still lays me low, so that I can barely function at times.

This weighty nothing is also what you feel when you cannot discern God’s response to your cries. It’s what you feel when you beg, when you bargain, and still death does not pass over your home, but comes inside, presses the breath from the lungs of the one you love, and then stays, a great shadow, a great nothing presence.

It feels like a betrayal, when God is silent. But what would I have him say? You are special, Tony. I’ll divert all the world’s suffering from your shoulders, because I love you more than the rest.

Yes, that’s exactly what I want him to say.

In truth it’s not the silence that crushed me, that enraged me, it was his refusal to give me what I wanted, which was to see my little girl grow up, to hear her voice like music in our house, to watch her married and to cradle her children, to go before her.


To go long before her.

He wouldn’t even give me what I begged for at the end, which was an easy death for her. Let the pain pass into me, sweet Christ, just ease her suffering.

Some of you know how I came unraveled in the years after, and what it cost the people around me. I told myself God was silent, and perhaps he was, though there were times, I realized later, when he spoke through small graces: a nap when she needed it most, the sweetness of an apple, her finger pointed to whatever she saw dancing about the ceiling, be it light or angels.

But maybe other times he really was silent, and maybe the reason is because I could not bear the answer.

Sometimes, after all, the answer is No. And when we ask why, the answer is little better: It is not for you to know. “May God give you grace…” said Israel to his sons as they took his youngest child into Egypt. “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” And Job, after hearing that all his children have died: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Holy men looking heavenward to declare: Whatever I have was not mine, and so who am I to charge God with wrongdoing when he allows it to be taken?

This is a hard thing to hear, especially as you watch your beloved suffer. As you hear her try to draw breath, for in this she too is asking God, only to receive silence, and to join that silence with her own. The Lord gave her, yes, but how could he take her away?

How could you? I wept this at him. I spat it at him. How could you?

It is not for you to know. This is the truth behind much suffering. Far better people than me have written about what to make of this, and how to bear up under the burdens of this broken world, and I have no wisdom to add to theirs. I can only tell you what I think I have learned about the silence of God, which is, first, that I have often mistaken what I did not want—small mercies when a miracle is in order—for silence, and second, that sometimes silence is all we receive because we cannot yet bear the truth, which is that none of us is any more special than the other. We all of us labor in a sundered world and in it we are allotted our joys and our sufferings. Our deliverance often comes not, as Oswald Chambers noted, from these sufferings, but within them.

If nothing else, suffering lifts our eyes from this shattered plane to the world that is coming, that already dwells within our hearts, at least sometimes, and which will be written out in new flesh, in a new heaven and a new earth. We are sojourners through suffering and through mercies, not always in equal measure. But we are sojourners, which means this is not our home, yes, but which means also that we have a home to which we are going. We are stumbling homeward and we are battered but he carries us, make no mistake, even when he is quiet. Perhaps especially then.

Temple of bones

January 19th, 2015 Posted in The Sermons | 10 Comments »

Every baptism in the Orthodox Church entails an exorcism, as I learned last Easter when I was baptized into the Church. It was nothing desperate and dramatic like some of us remember from The Exorcist; in truth the devil and his minions flee from Christ and the Cross, having been sundered by both.

There was no desperation in the exorcism, but there was within me. I renounced the evil one with quaking voice, and tried to conjure from dry throat the saliva to spit outward across the threshold where I stood, to spit on the devil and thereby all my past involvement with him and all future temptation to heed him again.

ErmitaRupestreSanVicente CerveraPisuerga 009

I could not read my part well for tears, then there was the tub of water and I beneath the water, crouched low and tight as a baby in the womb, lest some part of me remain dry and vulnerable like Achilles’ heel. Then there was air and light and the circled parishioners singing, and I delivered from the tomb.

Delivered, yet enframed by these diseased bones. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” urged the saint who surely knew that working grace into the bones means drawing out its opposite as one might a poison. This is a holy surgery, a divine displacement, and it is by no means easy.

My oldest tells me he is working on cultivating kindness within himself, and he is, we all see it. When he slips he’s discouraged, and so I tell him a hard thing about salvation: It is not only a working out of poison but a workout, which is why St. Paul likened it to a marathon.

I used to pray for humility, I tell my son, believing God would simply hand it over to me. But that’s not so, I explain. He gives me humility by humbling me. He teaches me gratitude by allowing loss. He teaches me to love by letting me be wounded.

So expect to stumble, I tell my son. It’s a sign you’re making progress up the hill. What I don’t tell him, because I think he has to learn this on his own, is how warranted is this fear and trembling. Be careful what you pray for, child. Have a care. There is no grace worth having that comes cheap. These bones are a temple being swept clean and some of them will be scourged.

Have a care for the salvation you seek, I might tell him, for to ask is to receive. It is an indwelling and so an exorcism; it is entering the tomb and springing from your grave and neither will be what you expect.

It is a kind of death, boy. It is dying that you may have life, but it is a dying, and dying is never easy.

I imagine he’ll learn this in his own time. For now his are the labors of a boy, struggling up the hill that is at once the Mount of Olives and Golgotha. There’s time enough, God willing, for him to witness for himself what waits atop each.


January 15th, 2015 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 17 Comments »

I’ve been working on contentment, which mostly means I’ve been praying for God to help me be content in whatever circumstances I find myself, then griping at him when I face trials that might help me learn contentment. But I’m trying, I swear. Those of you who know me know that my life thus far hasn’t been what I’d planned. Maybe no one’s is, and maybe that’s for the best, for most of us, given what a mess we tend to make of things.

The point is, I’ve been sick for a couple of weeks now, flu followed by “walking pneumonia,” which is a funny saying because I haven’t really felt like walking anywhere. Some of you who know me well know that I am a worst-case scenario thinker, which will work out swimmingly in the event of apocalypse, but otherwise leads to gloomy thinking. So as I was mired in this illness that has been reluctant to leave my bones, I imagined dying.
St Roch Cemetery Merci
I mean, it’s going to happen, you know. To most of you as well. So I ponder it. In lingering illnesses past, my death thoughts have been to hope it’s not upon me yet, because I have important things to do. There’s an underlying sense that I have within me some greatness yet to be manifested. God would be cheating me and the world, in other words, if he were to yank me from this mortal coil too soon.

But as I lay not dying but contemplating dying, I took stock with perhaps a more measured eye. My children need me, this woman who married me despite all my failings and brokenness needs me, but am I indispensable? There’s nothing I will give them that God can’t give them a thousandfold. I have no great wisdom, no holy practices, certainly no worldly wealth to offer. But I love them. How I love them. Yet God can replace even that, because he, of course, loves them more, and he governs all things, whereas I’ve been doing well these past couple of years just to govern myself.

What of my work? Does my company need me? I like to think I’m valuable, but certainly I’m replaceable. With some difficulty, mind you, especially if the you reading this happens to be my boss. But still.

Yes, but my art. Surely there is some great book I will write? I have written a couple that I hope have some beauty in them, but greatness? I don’t even know what that means any more. Whatever greatness is, I doubt it resides in my head or heart.

But here’s the thing: This is good. It’s better than good. See, because God doesn’t need me for anything he wants to get done in this world, not even the things most important to me, like taking care of my babies and my wife, like penning a sentence that makes someone sigh, like speaking a little of the kind of truth that makes people hiss. I am essential to none of this. I am unnecessary to creation.

Better still, I deserve nothing. Lying, cheating, grumbling lump of self-obsessed narcissistic preening egotistical futility that I have been, I dare not claim one more second of breath, one more dollar of income, one more child’s hug.

And yet, here I am. It’s all a gift, do you see? Every hour from this one forward is an absolute mercy. And if that doesn’t bring a man to believe in the unquenchable love of God, well, I don’t know what will.

In his novel, Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s narrator, Reuben Land, reflects on what he’s wanted, what he’s lost, what might yet be coming in his life. “Fair is,” he concludes, “whatever God wants to do.”

I didn’t always think so, but now I say: Amen.

Light in Darkness

December 27th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life, Theology | Comments Off on Light in Darkness

It feels almost unseemly, hurling another post at you so soon after the last, given my long absence before. Think of me as the gregarious but wayward uncle, come to inhabit your kitchen for the Christmas season. He’ll likely take up his bag and be gone one morning without so much as a goodbye, but then again you never know—maybe this will be the year he finally accepts your invitation to live over your garage.

And then he’ll be at your table every morning, telling you stories that are different than the ones he’s told before, yet the same, and you’ll be stuck with him because, well, you did ask.

So, another Christmas meditation of sorts. Here’s an excerpt:

The world soon obscures that childlike vision. Many of us learned to see Christmas as a time of plunder. For some, it became a season of annoyance, even bitterness. For nearly all it became a gaudy carousel operated by madmen, and we all grabbing hold and clinging, because how can you let go? How can you disappoint those who await presents? How can you not hang the decorations you’ve accumulated in the attic?

How can you avoid the parties, the gatherings of fractured and factious family, the recitals and plays, the renderings of Tchaikovsky or Handel (because this year our kids are going to get some culture if it kills us!), the homeless-shelter outing (see, kids, howgood you’ve got it!), the never ending trips to the grocery store?

You can read the rest here. Enjoy your Christmas, and remember, no matter what the stores and radio stations and neo-Puritanical anti-liturgical sourpuss culture mavens may claim: IT LASTS TWELVE DAYS.

Madonna and Child

December 24th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life | Comments Off on Madonna and Child

This past year, most of my scarce scraps of writing time have gone into revising a novel, which is currently in the hands of a small number of potential agents and even a potential publisher, though I’m sure I’ve jinxed myself by saying so. I have been writing a few other things, which I usually try to update here and on my Facebook page, and I’ve largely abandoned my guilt about not writing more here, because that guilt is a self-generated thing, insofar as you’re probably getting along fine without so many original missives in this space, and my blog doesn’t really care, so long as I keep feeding coins into the hosting-fee meter so it doesn’t disappear into nothingness. Which means the only one who feels bad about not being that once-or-twice-a-week-essayist we all used to know and love is me, and it’s not guilt so much as the ongoing consternation about what my brand should be and my platform and other words that suck the soul from a writer as soon as he casts his thoughts in their direction.

The point is, I’ve written something perhaps you might like, and though it begins with the escapades of a particularly famous mononymous star, it wanders its way toward, in that fashion of mine that some of you like and all of you not reading perhaps don’t like, this season in which we find ourselves. Here’s an excerpt:

If hell is absence of the heavenly then we’re wallowing in it. Percy labeled it a disease that “eats to the marrow,” and surely that is us: marrow-rotted and common as dirt, leaning Godward when it suits us or when we have no practical alternative, but always with the intention of making him relevant, as if what pleases us is what’s divine, as if we got here first and he is the one who ought accommodate himself to us, as if we are owed.

You can read the rest here, if you like. And even if you don’t like, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, or a passable Christmas, or if nothing else, an abatement to whatever burdens happen to be weighing you down these days.

Politics, porn, and football

October 14th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | Comments Off on Politics, porn, and football

Some of you may like my attempt, though it probably deserves more thought, to articulate why we pay little attention to big-money sports in my home. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, let’s not quibble over semantics; I know the Canadians spent millions on a national curling center, that parents of gymnasts fork over thousands for training, and so on. By “big-money,” I mean the sports swamped by wealth, and by its concomitant power over our hearts.

A power that induces fans to overlook thuggery, that induces college officials to cover up child molestation rather than jeopardize their football franchise, that encourages millions of boys to waste years perfecting the throwing and bouncing of balls at the expense of basic math and grammar skills.

I wrote much of it while listening to men down the street bark at their children during a Pee Wee football game. Not that I hold an unbending principle against barking at children, but what struck me was how that hour, other than perhaps (perhaps!) whatever time they spend in church, might be for many boys the most emotionally intense in their week. The time they feel most attuned to the true hearts of their fathers. And there’s something wrong with that, a kind of metastasis of the trivial. It’s not the inherent fault of the sport, of course, but ours for letting it get that way, or maybe for letting everything else become so drab in comparison.

If all that isn’t enough to provoke you to read it, consider how I equate big-money sports to pornography and politics. And as a side-thought, imagine a community invaded by none of those. Oh, and here’s the link.

The turned back

August 27th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry, The Sermons | 79 Comments »

I will tell you something about courage and cowardice. I will speak primarily about men, because I am a man, and because the evil that grieves me was glimpsed by men, and these men turned away their eyes.

News accounts from England reveal that over 1,400 children in the borough of Rotherham were systematically brutalized over the past decade. The authors of this damning report indicate that the actual number is likely much higher. The report also details gang rapes of 11 year-olds. Children doused in gasoline and threatened with matches. A “grooming” process that entails addicting children to drugs. Children murdered, others missing.

Lidice Memorial - Memorial to Child Victims of War - By Marie Uchytilova - Near Prague - Czech Republic - 03

Local police have known about this for over ten years. So have all manner of child welfare authorities and local government officials. They convened conferences to discuss it. They combatted it with guidelines and policies. They bravely met for many hours, and boldly authored internal memos.

Perhaps we should expect no more when community preservation is outsourced to bureaucracies, but the unavoidable reality is that on many occasions, Rotherham police came upon children being sexually exploited—in some cases, in the very instance of being raped—and arrested no one. The perpetrators are Pakistani; they might call us racists. The children seemed to consent. These gangs are violent.

All of which amount to an admission by those police officers that they are cowards, and something less than men. I’m reminded of the janitors who discovered Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape of children, and who said nothing, for fear of losing their jobs. They were cowards too, and deserve to be remembered as such.

We have lost the willingness to call evil by its rightful name, and the courage to stand in the face of it and say: “No. Not here. Not on my street. Not in my city.” There is no limit to the hells men devise when no one opposes them. “What’s the point?” a Rotherham victim asked investigators. “I might as well be dead.”

The men and women who failed her might ask themselves the same question. We might all ask it. What is the point, really, in preserving our comforts—our lives, even—if to do so we must become so small, so dark-hearted, that we turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us?

I suppose none of us knows whether he will be a coward until the moment demands courage. “Be prepared in season and out of season,” the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. As far as we are concerned, perhaps this entails recognizing that the season is upon us—an evil season, a season when children worldwide are treated like so much trash, when questions once governed by common sense are now fodder for intellectual word-play, when an army gathering under a black flag is both a reality and a metaphor, for war rages in the hearts of men, and it is coming, is here already, in our neighborhoods and our homes and our own hearts, we good and decent people who are perhaps only better than these cowards because the hour has not yet come when evil stands on our doorstep and demands entrance.

And what then will we say? Will we tell ourselves it’s not as bad as it seems? Will we pretend steadfastness is someone else’s job? Will we promise that this is only a small compromise, that when the situation really demands it, we’ll be brave?

Cowardice has a thousand justifications. But to the wounded, it always looks the same: averted eyes, a turned back, something resembling a man or a woman walking away.

On just saying no

July 18th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 1 Comment »

Related to my previous post, I have an essay at Good Letters digging into the hypocrisy of evangelicals, as represented by the American Family Association, who simultaneously support the Drug War while demanding that we reject child refugees from that war. Here’s an excerpt:

We sponsor both sides of this war; we constitute the primary North American demand for illegal narcotics, and we supply the gunships, automatic weapons (sometimes to drug dealers themselves, lest anyone forget Obama’s Fast and Furious scandal), and tactical support. We arm both sides, and we turn our backs on the carnage.

Only now the carnage is at our doorstep. They come shell-shocked, disease-ridden, hungry. And sadly, self-professing Christians are some of their loudest detractors. Never mind that Americans have five churches for every immigrant child. Never mind that these same churches spend millions sending their privileged children on brief junkets we call “mission trips,” presumably to reach the very kinds of people who now huddle at our border, begging for help.

The essay ends with some Biblical exegesis to complement that offered by an American Family Association official in support of keeping the refugees out. Seems he didn’t read far enough in the Bible story on which he hangs his hat. Shocking.

Thy kingdom come

July 3rd, 2014 Posted in The Sermons | 50 Comments »

I don’t think they love their children any less than I love my own, which tells me something about what their lives must be like, to send their babies away. Their children stream northward in droves—as many as 60,000 this year—and we don’t want them. We don’t want their skin lesions and their hungry bellies, we don’t want their parents and aunts and uncles likely to follow, we don’t want them taking our jobs and clogging our classrooms and driving without insurance on our roads. We have no place for them in our country and certainly not in our hearts.

I understand there are political and economic realities that don’t go away just because I feel pity. One political party sees in immigrants a chance to build its permanent dominance; the other fears destruction. The accountants, meanwhile, see fiscal disaster. We’re already trillions in debt, with unfunded liabilities that will bankrupt many unsuspecting communities in the coming decade. Worse still, a lower portion of Americans have jobs than at any time in recent memory. People are scared, and they are angry.

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So some of them do all they know to do, when they see busloads of hungry immigrant children barreling into their communities. They form barricades, and they tell them to go home. They’re shouting at the accompanying phalanx of federal bureaucrats as well, but I don’t suppose that nuance is understood by the children looking fearfully at them through the bus windows. “We don’t want you here!” a man shouts. I suppose he speaks for a good many of us.

The U.S. government estimates 60,000 immigrant children this year. There are over 300,000 churches in America, most of them hewing to a mission of spreading some kind of good news. What good news? Salvation. The coming kingdom. A God whose will, we pray, be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And what is his will? That’s not for me to say, but it is for me to ask, and for you to ask. It’s for us to ask, and then to listen. Are we listening, we who spend millions to travel overseas carrying the Gospel to the lost, now that God is sending tens of thousands of them our way?

I know there are geopolitical practicalities that transcend the priorities of my stupid bleeding heart, but 300,000 churches and 60,000 children.

What if, instead of greeting the federal agents with protest signs, we greeted them with petitions? Give us these children. We will feed them, we will clothe them, we will give them shelter. We will teach them and we will pray over them. Their parents, God help them, sent them away, and now here we stand to make good on the faith or hope or desperation in which those mothers and fathers sent them forth. Give us these children, and we will find a way. We will show mercy, because while we can scarcely agree between ourselves on anything else, we agree that the kingdom of heaven includes a hand stretched out in love.

It’s utterly impractical, I know. But how have we done so far, Christians, with practicality? For Christ’s sake, let’s not be known for our practicality.

Cantering to the gas chamber

June 18th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry | 11 Comments »

A society doesn’t capsize all at once; it leans by degrees. It tilts, and the opinion mavens who are its deckhands rush about reassuring everyone that it’s the horizon that is at fault. We are finally leveling things, they say, now clip your belt to the rail so you don’t go overboard. The enlightened canter society, they level it to their horizon-scorning vision, and then, once a sufficient pitch is reached, gravity takes care of the rest.

I can’t calculate the current slope of the Great American Degradation, but when I read about doctors shamelessly subjecting infants to experimental risks while concealing those risks from the parents, I feel my ankles pop. Researchers at the University of Alabama-Birmingham medical center experimented with oxygen given to dramatically underweight infants, in an effort to fine-tune common treatment practices. The result was greater incidence of blindness for one group of babies, and more deaths among another group. Here’s an excerpt from my recent essay at Good Letters:

A review by the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes that risk-disclosures to parents were inadequate, because they listed potential benefits, but mentioned no dangers beyond possible skin irritation from the oxygen monitors. The researchers defend themselves by noting that none of the babies received oxygen outside the range deemed acceptable in standard medical practice. Therefore, they explain, they told the truth when they told parents that “there is no predictable increase in risk for your baby.”

But of course they were predicting risks, at least amongst themselves and their funders. This suspicion was the entire purpose, after all, of the study—to test whether premature infants are subjected to unnecessarily high risks of blindness by current practices. But because no such study has conclusively shown this, there is no scientific proof of the danger. Thus the researchers felt justified in not disclosing their hypotheses to the parents. There was no math, after all.

Well, there is now.

This isn’t just a story about researchers making bad decisions. This is a direct consequence of our modern perversion of science, which leads us to assert that the only things which can be known are the things about which we have data.

That’s not an indictment of science, mind you—of experimentation and measurement and testing falsifiable hypotheses. It is an indictment of the materialism and utilitarianism that have crept into scientific fields as we’ve abandoned their philosophical underpinnings. If you reject the human elements of science—the intuition, the tacit knowing, the sense of beauty and truth and rightness that has always guided scientific inquiry—then you dehumanize scientific efforts. You divorce morality from expediency. You make weaker, voiceless human beings—in this case, 1300 mostly poor and minority babies and their families—means to the ends of the stronger.

And your denuded reasoning allows you to get away with it. “There was no predictable increase in risk,” the doctors say. They still believe it. Some of their comrades believe they shouldn’t have been required to get permission in the first place.

History tells us where this leads. I write that not with a fear of sounding alarmist, but with a desire to sound the alarm. This does not end, believe me, with scientists quietly obscuring risks to their poor black subjects in Alabama. It ends, as it always has, in fanaticism—fanaticism which pretends it is something else because it cloaks itself in the language of cool rationality, of scientific progress, of unblinking commitment to the greatest material good for the greatest fit number. It ends, for those deemed weak or useless or dangerous,  in the gulag and the gas chamber.

Do you feel the weight shifting? Best clip yourself to the rail.