The Prodigal

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are broken to one degree or another. Life does that in prodigal fashion. Yet, those who are most broken tend to not realize it. Like someone with an undiagnosed chronic illness, he may go through life thinking he is fully healthy. This becomes his normal. These people are to be pitied most of all; living life in a prison of self-imposed boundaries.

Almost everyone in western culture knows the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was one of Jesus’ greatest hits, along with The Good Samaritan, and Thirty Tips for Arizona Gardening. (Oops. Wrong Jesus. That last one is my landscaper. You don’t know him.)

For those of you unfamiliar with this story, there were two brothers. The older brother was dutiful and obedient. He worked for his old man; a fellow of some wealth and property. Probably a Republican. The older bro tended the flocks and supervised work in the fields.

The younger brother was a wild child. He had no interest in the agrarian lifestyle of hard work. In fact he wanted out so much that he went to his father and asked for his inheritance… while he was still alive. What’s more, the father gave it to him.

In those days the first born male child got a double portion of the inheritance, so in this case big brother was to get 2/3 and little bro 1/3. Little brother took his 1/3, presumably mostly property and animals, and sold them. We can also assume he wasn’t the sharpest business man and probably didn’t hold out for top shekel, either. Like today, these younger fellers weren’t exactly financial planning types, if you catch my drift.

As you might expect, younger brother took off for Vegas and spent his fortune on sex, drugs and rock and roll. To keep up his lifestyle, he even pawned his first century Roman denarius on Pawn Stars. (Rick had to call in his expert from the Clark County Museum, the guy with the Amish hat, aka “The Beard of Knowledge” to verify its authenticity. How younger bro lived 2000 years is just one of the many amazing things about this parable.)

As you might expect, the money ran out. Like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, he was busted. He had no skills. He got a job busing tables at the all you can eat buffet in Circus Circus and even ate the scraps off the plates to survive. He was so broke the hookers didn’t even bother him.

Eventually he came to his senses. “I’m going back home”, he said. “Even my dad’s servants have enough to eat. Maybe he will hire me”. So, he headed home.

During the time his younger son was gone, the father daily looked for him. From his front patio he scanned the horizon. He hoped. He prayed.  He wondered. Day. After. Day.

Then. In the distance, he could see a lone traveler on foot. This one he could barely make out but something looked familiar. Even in poor torn clothes this lone male figure seemed to be someone he knew.

Then he realized it! It was his son. Here’s where the story gets really freaky. “While he was far off”, Jesus said, the father ran to him. This old man, lifted up his outer robe and ran as fast as he could to meet his lost son.

The son began his prepared speech. “Father, I have sinned against God and you…”

The father would have none of it. “My son who was dead is now alive! We must celebrate!”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I’ve always wanted to write that. This seems like a fitting place), the older brother could sense excitement. What was going on? The servants were all in a tither. He asked them. “Your brother has returned! your father has ordered a big BBQ and party in his honor!”

Older brother, however, refused to acknowledge his sibling. His father even reminded him of his love and that all he had was his. But love, to the older brother was a zero sum game. There was only a finite supply. He couldn’t forgive.

That story tends to focus on the younger brother. In reality, he only did what young people have done for millennia. Be young and stupid. Only they didn’t have cell phones memorializing their foolishness for posterity. The focus however should be on the father and that’s really upon whom Jesus was focusing. He was embarrassed and disrespected by his younger son. Yet he welcomed him back. What’s more, he welcomed him back as his beloved son.

The older brother is oft overlooked but we need to be mindful of him as well. Too many of us are older brothers. Dutiful. Religious. But unloving. We can’t fathom a Father we claim to serve would welcome sinners and prostitutes to Him. In fact, elsewhere, Jesus says that hookers are closer to God than many religious people. I don’t claim expertise in hookers, but I have met a few strippers. I would agree with Jesus.

Both brothers were broken. Only the older brother remained so at the end of the story. I’m glad to cast my lot with the younger brother. I run away. God lets me go and then runs to meet me when I realize I have run too far. God’s like a good dad. Sometimes we dads know we must let our kids make their own eff ups. God is the same way only his forgiveness is perfect.

It’s time we stop using the rest of scripture to explain away the hard sayings of Jesus. This parable is one of the hardest. It reminds us to love unconditionally like he does. To not only wait for the broken but run to them. To not only accept them back but restore them fully.

If someone asks me why I follow Jesus. That’s my answer. I was welcomed by the God who ran to meet me.

For more on this parable, I highly recommend The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen and The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. Both are available wherever fine books are sold. Or Amazon.

 

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President, Who?

What a week! I’m sitting in doctor’s office with my youngest daughter. She’s 15 and has the respiratory crud that goes around every year about this time. I was a good doobie and didn’t rush her right in, but it’s been 5 days and now her cough is productive and yielding a pretty yellow/green material. Almost Christmas-like. Time for antibiotics.

I have three daughters. I am 53. With age sometimes comes perspective. (Not maturity, mind you, as I plan on being immature as long as possible). I remember the Vietnam protests, the Watergate hearings, Nixon’s resignation… and on and on. There is nothing new under the sun. The rain falls on the just and unjust and sometimes people with whom we disagree, even vehemently, are elected president.

I have to laugh at myself. Almost everyone for whom I voted… lost. The Arizona marijuana initiative lost. My support for you or your cause is the kiss of death. It’s like at the grocery store: you don’t want to be behind me in line. I guarantee you the person in front of me will have two price checks and try to pay with a declined credit card.

I also admit to a certain level of bemusement at some of the over the top reactions to the election. Amazing how people who claim to be open minded and enlightened can say such offensive and hateful things about those with whom they disagree. Maybe it comes from too many participation trophies. In real-life there are winners and losers. One Sunday you’re riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. By Thursday you’re under arrest. By Friday you’re crucified.

For the record, I am not enamored with the election results either. I didn’t vote for Trump. But, I do think I understand why people did. America did not suddenly become racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or misogynistic. At least no more than before. Those elements have always been with us and always will. If you disagree, remember this: millions of Americans who voted twice for Barack Obama voted for Trump this time around. They were perfectly happy to vote for the Black guy for the same reason they voted for Trump. They believed both actions were in their own self-interest. Only arrogance and willful ignorance would lead one to paternalistically believe they were somehow duped. People aren’t as stupid as we self-righteously like to characterize them.

Well then, what the hell happened?

This election will be dissected for a generation, but I suspect the following factors were at work.

  1. Blue collar jobs. One thing that is indisputable is that manufacturing jobs have continued to flee much of the nation. Whether and how they will come back is a subject of debate, but only two candidates really hit that issue this cycle; Trump and Sanders. In response to Bernie, Clinton tried to move left on the issue but she’s tacked more than an America’s Cup sailor. No one believed her.

Blue collar Democrats in so called rust belt states ultimately put Trump over the top. CNN had outstanding coverage on Tuesday. In county after county in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin Trump out performed Romney (or if you will, Hillary underperformed Obama). That’s the election right there.

While the rest of us (you know the ones with good jobs) were concerned about a host of other issues (some large, some small) these voters were worried about their paychecks. These voters don’t care much about which bathroom you use. They don’t care much about gay rights. They don’t hate gay people, they just don’t know any (they probably do, but don’t realize it). They served in the military and worked the now closed coal mines with Black men.  They get on fine with them, just as much as anyone else. They’re just people. Why all the hubbub? Their family needs a job just like his does.

And therein lies the rub. Working class Dems felt excluded by the collection of coalitions that form today’s Democratic Party. They were Trump’s low hanging fruit and no one but Trump really saw them as winnable.

  1. An historically unpopular democratic nominee. For all the novelty of a female nominee, Hillary is yesterday’s news. In the 24 years since her husband ran as an outsider representing a new kind of Democrat, Hillary has been pretty much continually in the public eye. Fairly or unfairly, much of that public scrutiny has been unfavorable. In my view, most of it is of her own making. She’s the mistress of self-inflicted wounds. This time around, the Democrats fell in line, led by a dubious party leadership, but behind the wrong candidate, long past her sell by date.
  1. Class and race: As a middle aged white guy, I believe president Obama squandered an opportunity as president to further bridge the racial divide. Hillary lost in part because of this. Too many working-class Whites, those whom the President derisively said in 2008 clung to “their guns and religion”, abandoned the Democratic Party because they felt he no longer represented them. They may well be back, but for now I would submit they look at the last eight years and see themselves left out. Chicago seems to be awash in murder and all the president talks about (so they believe) is gun control for people who are already law abiding.
  1. Trump did better with Hispanics and women than anyone expected. This one will take a while for me to get my hands around. No female Trump voters I know approve of his behavior. They just don’t consider it decisive in the larger context. I’ve had the discussion with several women on the matter. I don’t know any Latino Trump supporters so I can’t speak to that.

Time will tell what happens next. Ronald Reagan made a career of allowing people to underestimate him. Memoirs and other contemporary writing confirm he was fully in  charge of his own policy up until very late in his presidency when the early states of Alzheimer’s began to show. There is no questioning everyone underestimated Donald Trump. He may end up using that to his advantage. Or he may screw it up. No way to know, but to date he has not shown any inclination to discipline himself sufficiently to do what he will need to do. Maybe he can. My guess is he doesn’t think he needs to, but we have all been wrong before.

Trump must forge coalitions across party lines. There will be times when he won’t have a majority of Republicans on board. That’s not without precedent. Clinton often needed republican votes. Clinton had the experience to pull it off, but only after initially going it alone and getting his ass kicked in the first mid-term election. No way of knowing whether Trump possesses the skill or inclination to follow the same course.

It’s almost certain that Trump will be frustrated from day one by constraints he didn’t face in business. Congress. The constitution. Media scrutiny. Cabinet members and government bureaucrats. The Law! These will be a huge check to him and his greatest risk is that he will return to what he knows from business, bulling his way through, consequences be damned. Those consequences will doom his presidency if he doesn’t watch his step.

I agree with Hillary. We need an open mind. This is completely virgin territory, but Trump likes virgins so, who knows?

The nation has been divided before and the protests and the odd riot pale in comparison to Vietnam or any number of other troubled periods in America’s history. Whether time heals the wounds or they merely fester, remains to be determined. Most depends upon the new president. Either way, I ultimately believe in the goodness of the American people. We aren’t perfect but we are decent. We were faced with two indecent candidates and forced to choose. A Faustian bargain if there ever was one.

 

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Friends and memes

meme

I stole this meme (what the hell is a meme anyway? Is it even a real word?) from a Facebook friend of mine. Indecision can indeed be deadly. On the other hand, if you’re going in the wrong decision then speed is not an asset. The trick is to know when to wait and when to run.

That’s not what I wanted to write about, however. Seeing this got me thinking about my friend. We met while I was  in the process of getting drunk in a Las Vegas bar. Those can be the best kind of friends. No airs. No pretending to be someone you’re not. Just trading stories and laughter. Makes the time go by and the loneliness fade. 

 This friend and I have kept loosely in touch the past couple years since we met, but mostly we went our own ways. Life is like that. People come and go… and often too soon. Turn the page. 

 The best friends are those who are there when you are down. Who let you be you, but aren’t afraid to challenge your thinking, either. Who can tell you you’re full of shit and you take it. Even if you think they are wrong, they’re right often enough to cause you to keep listening. That and they buy the drinks as often as not. Those friends are most rare of all.

 Maybe that’s what’s wrong with America today. We don’t have enough friends that pay for their own drinks or who disagree with us. We each live in our own echo chambers; only friends with whom we agree. We live in our “womb to tomb” religious and political ghettos. Progressives watch MSNBC and Comedy Central. Alt-Conservatives watch Fox News and pretty much nothing else.  Maybe NCIS. We are afraid to speak of matters of substance because discourse descends into debate. Anger animates our speech instead of love leavening it. 

 My Las Vegas bar friend was no echo of my own views. We agreed on very little. But our discussions were informed and thoughtful, fueled by alcohol though they were, and maybe we gained a new appreciation for the other. 

 So tonight I lift a drink to my friend. Don’t know when I’ll see you again but when I do maybe we can laugh some more. I’d like that. I’ve got the first round or three. Same place at Mandalay Bay? 

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9/11 +15

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Every generation has its seminal moments; times when you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing when the event occurred. My parents could tell you where they were when Kennedy was shot. I was alive at the time, but I was only 6 weeks old and was likely beginning my life long obsession with boobs.

This generation’s seminal moment was 9/11. I venture a guess you know exactly where you were when the first plane hit the towers. I was in Kinkos in Manchester, NH when someone came in and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York, although the initial report was it was a small plane. I finished my copying and went out to my car to listen to the coverage on my way home. It was quickly determined to be a commercial jet and I was home in time to see the second plane hit on live television. I knew then we were at war. With someone.

The rest of the day is a blur in my memory. A third plane hit the pentagon. Another crashed in a Pennsylvania field. At some point all air traffic was halted nationwide. At least I was home. I had colleagues stranded all over the country.

Our family, like so many, went to church that night, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In the coming days we reeled as more information came out. I remember Courtney had a doctor appointment at Dartmouth a few days afterward and we saw people standing in line to give blood. We knew the world had changed in ways large and small, but we didn’t yet understand exactly how much.

Fifteen years seems like a lifetime ago and so many lives have been cut short in the wars since. I’m not sure we are any safer for all the blood spilled. We finally got bin Laden who, it turns out, had been hiding in a Pakistani compound spending most of his time playing solitaire on his Kindle and watching PornHub. Qaeda as a global network has been largely dismantled, only to be replaced by something much worse. Islamic State is now a shadow of its former self, thanks largely to the Russians who aren’t squeamish about killing innocents along with the enemy, but not before we got to watch IS burn alive a captured Jordanian pilot.

Even so, not much has improved in the region and if the Iraq and Afghan wars taught us anything it’s that modern and Western solutions like democracy can’t be imposed on medieval tribal cultures. You can beat them into submission no problem. It’s winning the peace that’s the hard part. We think in election cycles. They think in centuries and they’re STILL pissed about the Crusades, which like so many more recent foreign interventions, seemed like a good idea at the time.

I wish I knew the answer. I don’t think there is a single overarching strategy that can bring peace to the region and whoever wins in November will still be responding to events rather than shaping them. He or she will be the one living with whatever happens in Syria and Libya and whatever happens in Iran as a result of the nuclear deal. The Palestinians still don’t have a state. Neither do the Kurds, who desperately want to create one out of parts of Iraq and Turkey; neither of whom are particularly enamored with the idea. And should the House of Saud ever lose control of their eponymous nation , I’m not sure anyone could put the lid on THAT clusterfuck.

What is the lesson of 9/11? This is probably the one that I think resonates most for me: Americans remain a decent people. We love Lady Liberty enough to shed our own blood and spend our own treasure to help you gain yours. But keeping it is on you. We don’t have the heart to run an empire. Americans don’t view themselves that way. In fact, we invite you to leave us the hell alone, thank you. If you don’t, make no mistake. Americans will unite, at least long enough to punish whomever we think is responsible. After that…. Well, the next fifteen years will answer that question.

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Feces occurs

A woman I don’t even know and almost certainly will never meet, a veterinary colleague who is part of a Facebook group to which I belong, has had unspeakable tragedy. Six weeks ago she lost her mom. Four weeks ago, she had a miscarriage. As I write this, only hours ago her husband was killed in a bike accident.

What do you say to someone to whom this has happened? Maybe they should have just forwarded that damn meme and Jesus would have blessed them?

Why is life so un-fucking-fair? Visit any pediatric cancer center and you’ll ask yourself that question in your sleep. Times like this I am glad I am not a pastor. Not that I haven’t thought about it. I think I am empathetic enough and the world needs more non-judgmental spiritual leaders. On the other hand the world definitely does not need a foul mouthed, whiskey drinking cigar smoking preacher with a fondness for dirty jokes and Southern Rock.

Two works of ancient literature explore the theme of unfairness and meaning of life; the book of Job (pronounced “Jobe”) in great detail. We will get back to Job in a second but the other book is one of the most perplexing in the Bible: Ecclesiastes. Don’t read it if you’re depressed. It starts by saying “life is meaningless”. Put that on a bumper sticker and park it. The writer goes on to describe how he searched for meaning, spending much of his life in search of his next orgasm. Apparently it was good to be the king and he got laid more than Charlie Sheen. Ultimately, life left him empty and he concludes the matter with this: “Fear God and do what He tells you to do. And that’s it.” Wow.

Job is even darker. I mean it makes The World According to Garp look like Blazing Saddles. It starts with God placing a bet of sorts with Satan. Basically, Satan is taunting God about all the evil in the world. God doesn’t deny it, but instead points to Job who is a righteous and just man. Satan says “well no shit, Sherlock! You have given him everything he wants in life. He lives on easy street. I bet if he fell on hard times he would curse you to your face.” God then allows Satan to kill off Job’s livestock and family and eventually afflict him with boils. To satisfy a bet. Between God and Satan. So the winner can give the loser the cosmic finger.

Job is long and consists of a series of dialogs between Job and his friends. If you approach it right, it is a good read, but in a nutshell, Job’s friends mean well but attempt to convince Job that he must certainly have done SOMETHING to deserve all this calamity. Job protests he has not. Job is despondent (as we all would be) but doesn’t curse God nor accept blame for the circumstances.

The book concludes with Job and God having a talk. Job asks God basically “WTF?” Only it was in ancient Hebrew so it was more like “?FTW”.

God doesn’t answer Job directly, as such. Never reveals the bet. Never tells Job anything beyond “I’m God. You’re not. Feces occurs.” I am sure that wasn’t seen on too many chariots back in the day.

I find both Job and Ecclesiastes comforting. Not because they offer easy answers, but precisely because they don’t. We make a grave error when we attempt to turn these books into history. These books are poetry and use ancient literary devices to make a point. The writer of Job seems to go out of his way to create a set of circumstances so unjust that no one could possible blame Job since we know the whole back story. And that is just the point. In our lives, just like Job, we don’t. Life is hard and we rarely know why. We at best see bits and pieces, never the whole thing. Ecclesiastes helps us see that in life it’s hard to find meaning in the meaningless. And can’t know it here on earth.

Bumper sticker Faith will let you down. It’s shallow, like the seed that fell amongst the rocks in Jesus’ parable. What we need to make it through the times when shit seems to be flying all around us is a faith rooted deep underground. Job’s faith. The “Teacher’s” faith (the writer of Ecclesiastes is only identified as “the teacher”). Faith that says, this world is effed up and it seems meaningless but whatever happens to me, no matter how crappy or unjust, I will persevere. I will seek God, knowing I don’t have the big picture. And I will cry out to God with “?FTW” when I don’t understand. He’s big enough to take it. And grants us the grace to ask the questions.

I can not even fathom my colleague’s pain. I have lost both my parents and a pre- term son who fit in an emesis basin as I held him for the only time. But I have not lost a spouse, much less losing members of THREE generations of my family in a six week period. All I can do is sit in silent contemplation and remind myself that life is both unjust and fleeting. At times it will be meaningless. Sometimes you have to embrace the suck. And cry with those for whom life has come crashing down. After all that’s what Jesus did. He simply wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Right before he raised him to life.

That’s what I must cling to. The sure hope that ultimately all will be restored to the way it is supposed to be.

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Embracing the absurd

My wife and I are at the hospital today with my father in law. He lives with us and it’s a very long story but he’s in the ICU as we speak. Anyway, we were coming out of the unit and I saw this machine called a “Vibramatic”. I couldn’t resist the following conversation with my wife:

Me: wow. Look at that. Imagine what our grandmothers had to go through back in the day. Wonder what it’s doing here.

Sandy: That’s not what that is!

Me: it’s not? It’s not a corded 1940’s era Soviet portable sex toy? (Keep in mind this conversation is occurring in a hospital hallway).

Sandy: No. It’s for physical therapy.

Me: I’ve been in lots of PT over the years and I have never seen anything like that. (Actually I have, but by this point I think I am the funniest person I know. She is trying to ignore me as I snap a cell phone picture.)

Sandy: please don’t post that on Facebook…

Life is full of the absurd  and having a well developed sense of comedy is critical for sanity. As a child I ran from it, because most of the things I thought were funny were off color. Now I embrace it. Life is much more interesting.

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Raised by Wolves

“Blood in the house, blood in the street
The worst things in the world are justified by belief.”
U2

A 13 year old boy blows his ass up in a street full of wedding partiers in Turkey and 50 people are killed. 5-0. What. The. Fuck. It’s no longer news within 24 hours.

A major party presidential candidate wants to deport 11,000,000 people. How exactly he doesn’t say, presumably because saying he will herd them into boxcars and dump them South of the Border wouldn’t make for good headlines. Like Germany in the 1930’s, we don’t care about the details. We just want a strong leader.

A self proclaimed Christian Leader calls the candidate “Churchillian”. What. The. Fuck.

We really have been raised by wolves.

If someone asked me why I am a Christian I would have to answer truthfully: because it’s the best bad option. I would have to agree with Ghandi. “I like your Christ, but I don’t think much of your Christians.” Some folks have said that Jesus of Nazareth was not the first Christian. Looking at much of what we do now in his name, I think to myself, “Lord Jesus, I hope they are right. ”

Now, you may say, not without justification, that many of His followers do any number of great things. I stipulate that is correct. Hospitals. Orphanages. Peacemaking. Leper colonies. Countless acts of selflessness and love that don’t make headlines. None of which justifies the bad things, the evil things, also done.

An old preacher of my youth said once – and I paraphrase a little – walking into a church don’t make you a follower of Jesus anymore than walking into a barn makes you a mule.”

Maybe it’s time we stop building religious businesses and start investing in lives. Maybe the lives of children already born are worth protecting as much as those yet to leave the womb.

I am struck and humbled by the fact that the only people Jesus fought with were the religious leaders of his day. They called him a drunkard and friend of sinners. He hung out with people the respectable folks wouldn’t be caught dead with. They tried to trap him with religious proof texts and laws. Jesus would have none of it.

If anyone is serious about following Jesus then maybe it’s time to stop using the rest of the bible to explain away the things he said. That would be truly revolutionary.

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