Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eugene Peterson: I'm not saying he's right, but I am saying I understand

Here's another one of those topics that I'm hesitant to tackle.

Which may be all the more reason to try.

If you travel even around the edges of Evangelical circles, you may have heard the flap over pastor/author/teacher Eugene Peterson saying he'd changed views to endorse same-sex marriage, although the next day he came out and said his comments were incorrect and that he did in fact still hold to Biblical definitions of marriage.

This caused quite an uproar, as Peterson is a well-known, well-read, and well-respected voice in Christian circles. I have read several of his books and found him engaging and thought-provoking, and I use his translation or paraphrase (kind of a mix) of the Bible, "The Message," in my own reading and study. I find "The Message" to be written in a very straightforward, leave-no-doubt language. It also often loses some of the subtlety of translations, those verses where the language can at times seem to have no end of interpretation and revelation. "The Message" reads, to me, like a swinging 2x4 - it leaves little room for doubt about what Peterson believes the impact should be.

Because I have recommended "the Message" to friends who say they have trouble reading regular translations of the Bible, and because I have used it on those rare occasions when some class desperate for a teacher has asked me to take a Sunday or two to lead a discussion on some passage of Scripture, I was asked what I thought about the "Peterson incident."

I hold to the traditional belief of marriage. God created man and woman, and all of biology screams that the union of man with woman is the way mankind was created to be. Let's be honest: if you put two men or two women on a deserted island and came back in 50 years, you'd either have two men (or women), one man (or woman), or nobody. But if you put a man and a woman on a deserted island and come back in 50 years, there is at least a fighting chance that you could find the beginnings of a population, meaning procreation took place and there are children present.

I also think God put man and woman together because they temper each other. God's characteristics are revealed in the personalities of both men and woman as a compliment to each, and when God created Eve it was because he recognized that Adam needed someone like himself, yet different, to hang around with - meaning it wasn't enough for Adam to just walk with God and name the animals. So this partnership was designed where the two could work together to, at the very least, populate the earth and hopefully develop some companionship along the way.

And for centuries, government and societies have accepted that marriage is between a man and a woman. I recognize that homosexuality and homosexual practices have been around since the beginning (Genesis and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). But the concept of "marriage" is that a man and woman come together with the idea of creating a family. It wasn't always limited to one man and (more often not just) one woman - although I think that's the model God intended - and I do know of at least one African tribe that I read about that conducts a sort of male-to-male marriage, which was really based more on a bonding of assets between two men than any concept of "love" or "family."

My concern with Government defining marriage is that it essentially rejects the idea that some concepts pre-exist Government, and gives Government power that it shouldn't have. If Government can define marriage, regardless of thousands of years of tradition, then why shouldn't government redefine parenting and decide what the 'right' way to raise children is? Or determine when biological parents no longer have the rights to make decisions about their children? (For example, a couple has a child by artificial insemination. The one that carried the baby dies. Does the biological father have any rights or responsibility? If not, then we're saying law supersedes biology). Is it that far of a step for the government to determine who is best to raise a child, any child?

And I completely understand that, in today's American culture, there is this feeling of "who does it hurt" if government allows same-sex marriage. I think that may be what Eugene Peterson got caught up in - at times, it's just easier to say it's not worth it, that the battle is lost so let's just go on to more critical issues - like salvation, which is the core of all Christian belief. Poll after poll suggests that Americans are becoming increasingly accepting of same-sex marriage because they know someone who is gay, knows they are nice people, caring people, and we don't see any benefit in offending these people that we know and work with and truly like.

In essence, we're saying "I know what the Bible says, but when I look at my gay friends and see all the good qualities they have, the kindness and gentleness and even spirituality they possess, how can I get caught up in theology? Aren't people more important? Doesn't Jesus say to love every one and not judge?"

Side note: I also realize there are many that are now re-interpreting the Bible to say it doesn't really say anything negative about same-sex relationships. But it's kind of hard to say Paul isn't pretty clear in Romans 1 when he says, "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error...." And that's just for starters.

It's almost as if we're saying it's not nearly as important to determine whether a particular doctrine is true or false as it is to say, ''can I live comfortably out there, in the real world, with what this doctrine says?"

I "get" what might have happened to Eugene Peterson (or, as comedian Chris Rock used to say, "I'm not saying it's right, but I am saying I understand!"). Sometimes everything seems to have gotten so far down a certain path, so widely accepted and, even in the church, to disagree is to be "out of touch;'' that it's just easier to get along and go along than challenge what is popularly accepted. I get that. I really do. I don't like confrontation. I don't know many people that do. I can't count the times I have kept quiet rather than go against the popular opinion because I didn't want to appear out of touch or stuck in the past or uncaring.

It's so easy to shrug our shoulders and ask "who does it hurt?" and come to the conclusion that maybe it's just not worth stirring up the nest, let sleeping dogs lie, and all those other clich├ęs about not rocking the boat.

But isn't the point of the Gospel to stir up the nest, to wake up the dogs, to rock the boat? To scream that what the world thinks of as "real life" is really just a shadow, a poor reflection of the way God intended our lives to be? That we've strayed so far from what we were created to be that, as C. S. Lewis said (more or less), we've come to delight in playing in mud puddles when there is a beautiful sandy beach with clear, warm ocean water just a few miles down the road waiting for us?

In fact, the Gospel should cause friction with "real life." You can't pick and choose the parts of what God says and just not speak of parts you may be ashamed of simply because your friend who is gay (or who cheats on his wife or abuses his body with drugs or engages in any number of other activities we know to be contrary to the Bible) is so kind and caring and so wants to be loved and supported and you don't want to risk offending anyone. I'm not saying we don't love and support gay people - we do, just as I need to be loved and supported as I deal with issues in my own life that separate me from a right relationship with God. But in our rush to love and offer support, we have to be clear about what the Bible says and what is true and not fall back on emotion or rationalization ("your own understanding" as the Bible might say).

And one thing we do know: there is no place where the road the world wants to follow and the road God tells us to follow end at the same place.

If we really believe what the Bible says, then we do people no favor by allowing them (or ourselves) to become comfortable with sin.

Eugene Peterson is in his 80s. He's spent a lifetime teaching, preaching, writing and studying. You'd think a man with that experience would know what he believes and is at a point in his life where he doesn't care if it's popular or what young people want to hear. But then, maybe that's the warning for all of us. The desire to be liked never ends, no matter our age. And the temptation to make those "little" compromises are just as strong in our later years as in our early ones.

We pray "lead us not into temptation." Eugene Peterson shows us why we need to pray that prayer every minute of every day.

Because the next temptation may be as simple as an uncomfortable question that we really don't want to answer.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Babeling" away, and missing God

There are certain stories in the Old Testament that have always fascinated me.

Like Job. My family says I’m obsessed with the book of Job, and I guess I am. The first chapter is one of the most incredible in all of Scripture, with Satan his own self showing up in Heaven to have a conversation with God.

But the part that really bothers me is the incredible amount of collateral damage done in Satan’s attempt to get Job to turn on God. Sometimes we’re so focused on the story of the wager, that we don’t stop and think about the carnage that occurs – the deaths of family, servants, livestock. We don’t know the names of the servants of Jobs’ first set of children, their spouses, their kids (if they had any). It’s like “these innocent people died but that’s beside the point” kind of thing. (Although I do believe there is a point, but I’m not going into that at this particular time).

Another is what we refer to as “the Fall,’’ the temptation of Eve and so forth. But what gets me are two verses. The first is the last verse of chapter 2, which says “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Then, seven verses in chapter 3, we read “… and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Of all the things that happen in those eight verses (the last one of chapter 2, the first seven of chapter 3), we often miss the origination of clothes. I find that a fascinating leap, from “felt no shame’’ to “realized they were naked.” I think there is a lot about the human condition in those eight verses, which I may attempt to break down later.

But then there is another story in Genesis, Chapter 11, where the people of the earth come together to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens.”

When I was a kid in Sunday School, we were taught that these silly people thought they could build a tower that would reach the domicile of God the Almighty, which – we were told – was blasphemy. And in fact the Lord stops them, giving them languages and causing the people to band together in smaller groups of people they were able to communicate with (and isn’t that still the case today, that we’re always looking for a place where we can be understood?).

Back then I always wondered why God didn’t just let them build the tower. Now that we’ve put men in space, put a man on the moon, sent landing craft to Mars, we know these people had no chance of building a tower high enough to “reach the heavens” – besides which, even if they could have, as the first man in space, a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin, was reported to have said, “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” (A quote that has been much disputed, particularly since Gagarin was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church; it’s said the quote came from then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev while making an anti-religion speech). We have been to outer space, and we know that’s not where we’ll find Heaven or God.

So why not just let the people stay busy, building their tower (after all, idle hands are the devils’ work shop, or something like that)? Let them build, knowing if the point was to reach “heaven” and become like God, man would fail. (Although trying to be like God is the original temptation, the serpent telling Eve “You will be like God;” or, as French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre said, “Man’s fundamental desire is to be God.”)

Even the Scripture says in the story that “the Lord came down to see the city.” All of Scripture is full of “God coming down…” to do whatever, culminating in Jesus coming down to be crucified and to return one day as King. No matter how high man builds, getting to God is not a matter of height. No matter how high he goes, in reality he’s no closer to God from the top of Everest or the Moon than he is standing on the plain of Shinar where they gathered to build Babel.

So clearly the issue can’t be that God was somehow concerned that the people would actually succeed in building a tower that reached heaven, enabling them to move into His celestial neighborhood and become “like Him.”

Just reading the story straightforward, I think there are two things going on.

One is practical. God has continually told mankind to “fill the earth.” The descendants of Adam and Eve start, but mankind goes from “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26) to “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness had become” (6:5). The multiplication of man stops with the events of the flood and Noah, after which God says in chapter 9 for Noah to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”

Only what people do is stick together. Rather than fill the earth, they all crowd into the plain of Shinar and appear ready to settle in. This isn’t what God commanded, so He gives the gift of tongues: one minute everyone understands each other and the next “it’s all Greek to me” (although no one had come up with the label “Greek” yet). People find the people they can understand, band together, and begin to wander off to – finally – fill the earth, as God intended.

In sticking together, apparently people once again decided they had each other and didn’t need God, which I get. It’s mans’ nature (as we see in the story of “the Fall”) to focus on himself in relation to others, rather than by God’s standard. I mean, really, God didn’t expect much back then other than man to focus on Him and not be so self-centered, which was fine until other people were introduced into the equation and the distractions began. Tall ones, short ones, big ones, small ones, strong ones, smart ones … man’s sense of self-worth came through how he compared himself to the others.

And so they banded together and said “let us” make bricks and “let us” build a city and “let us” make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.

Why? What harm was there in the Lord allowing mankind to huddle together in one giant city and ‘make a name’?

It had already happened once before, back in chapter 6. The progeny of Adam and Eve had multiplied and it wasn’t long before they went from “calling on the name of the Lord” to “how great man’s wickedness had become,’’ leading to the destruction of the mankind in the flood.

So God’s “gift of tongues’’ accomplished two things: one, it caused man to split up and fill the earth after all; and, two, in doing so, man found himself re-focusing on God again. Instead of hanging around each other and telling each other how great they were, mankind hit the trail, spread out, and would find out just how great God is - again.

Until one day described in the book of Acts, the spirit of God came on a small band of men and they started speaking and all these people from all these different nations were given the “gift of ears” – each one heard in his own language! And what these men gathered to build was built on the Rock, on the solid foundation, and what they built Hell itself would not prevail against it.

Ironically – if that’s the right word – it was through this building that man did indeed gain access to heaven.

As is so often the case, the New Testament really sums up the story of “The Tower of Babel.’’ In Romans 9, Paul isn’t talking specifically about the events of Babel, but about the children of Israel “missing” what God was doing. And why? Eugene Peterson’s “the Message” says is so plainly: “…instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling…”

The account in Genesis says, “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building …” Curious language, as if God needed to come down to see what was going on. But then, early Genesis is full of God “coming down” to walk and talk and hang out with Adam and, eventually Eve. Maybe what God really wanted was the companionship of people of some level of free will, who would choose to associate with him freely, of their own will.

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole story of Babel? That God came down to see what the people were doing – maybe even walked among them – and no one noticed. They were so absorbed in “let us” that they didn’t notice when God “came down” to see them.

Pray that we never get so caught up in “us” and what we are doing that we fail to recognize God right in front of us!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Your bias is showing

Once, years ago when I worked for a daily newspaper, my wife had her own business. Part of her work included ‘encouragements’ from some of her bigger customers to contribute to political campaigns, which she occasionally did because it was a matter of business. But then the paper I worked for got a list of contributors to a certain candidate, and there was my name listed (it was a joint checking account, and by law a business couldn't contribute to a campaign).

What happened? I was called into the editor’s office. My editor knew what my wife did, and he knew that I – particularly as a sportswriter – wouldn’t be working on anything having to do with coverage of a campaign or a particular politician.

However, the fact that my name showed up on a donor list reflected on the newspaper I worked for. People could say “Well, that paper supports so-and-so, because one of their employees contributed to this campaign.”

As a result, I told my wife it was not a good idea for her to make these kinds of donations (which she didn’t typically make anyway). I told her it was a matter of me keeping my job.

And avoiding the appearance of bias.

It’s not that reporters don’t have bias. Reporters are human, and all humans have biases. And, truthfully, most reporters I have known over the years lean more liberal. Heck, I did too, when I was younger. I think it comes from being lied to or intentionally misled by those in power which makes reporters naturally suspicious.

But most of us worked hard to try to compensate for that bias. We valued a reputation for being fair. Sometimes I would almost go overboard in writing against my own bias in an effort to battle that perception, and I know many other reporters who did the same.

Still, as a sportswriter in the state of Alabama, I was accused of favoring Alabama or Auburn on a regular basis. UAB fans thought I hated UAB regardless (which wasn’t true; I had and have many friends who coached or played at UAB). I was pretty successful in hiding the fact that I am a University of Georgia graduate. And to those who knew and accused me of being a Georgia fan (one sports fan constantly referred to me as a “Georgia leg-humper”), I would say, “I paid for the degree that I received from the University of Georgia. When I left, neither one of us owed the other anything.”

Unfortunately, it seems that appearance of being fair and checking your biases at the door doesn’t seem important to journalists today. I have seen reporters at local media outlets who will post their political views in no uncertain terms on facebook pages or other social media outlets.

Are reporters entitled to their opinions? Certainly.

Are they entitled to share them in a public forum? Unless they are opinion writers or columnists, I don’t believe so.

Because once they do, then readers will look at every story they write with proof of what that reporters’ personal bias is. It also reflects on the news organization they work for.

What got me thinking about this was something called the “Center for Public Integrity,” which last year released a report in which showed that more than 96 percent of donations by members of the media to presidential candidates went to Hillary Clinton.

Now there were some criticisms of the methodology, and probably warranted. But I tend to agree with former executive editor of the Washington Post, Len Downie, who told NPR, “No journalist should contribute, as far as I’m concerned, to political campaigns” because it creates a “conflict of interest” for both reporters and the media they work for.

My former colleague John Archibald of the Birmingham News/, in a story that happened to be about me after I left the newspaper, said something to the effect that “journalism is not a job, it’s a calling.” I couldn’t agree more. When I’d talk to students about going into journalism, I always said “If you can imagine yourself doing something other than journalism, do it. If you can’t – and I never could – God help you.“ I always figured I’d die an “ink-stained wretch,’’ working for a newspaper. But then the business started changing and I realized I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

The point of it being a “calling’’ however, is that – like the priesthood or the military – with any ‘calling’ comes a responsibility. You give up some of your rights and freedom as an individual to answer that call. In sports, I could no longer allow myself to be identified as a fan of any team. As a reporter, you shouldn't allow yourself to be identified as a liberal or conservative or Republican or Democrat or animal rights activist or even environmentalist. Your responsibility is to try to present information in a balanced way, and that means sometimes presenting “the other side” of your own personal views with as much professionalism as you do the side you may agree with.

Again, that didn’t apply once I became a columnist, just as it doesn’t to people like John Archibald. At that point, your job is to express opinion, to take sides and make stands.

Unfortunately, with the changing media the line between "reporting" and "opinion" has become blurred. Social media has done that, as well as the fact that everyone wants to share their opinion these days and very few people want to try to present both sides of a story in a clear, balanced, well-researched fashion so the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

Or the job is to explain what happened in a way that is researched and backed up with information from both sides, information that the reader does not have access to on their own.

We used to say the best news stories were the ones where you didn’t even remember who the reporter was that wrote it, or that you didn’t recognize the name because that person did not insert themselves in the story through an opinion or personal observation.

Now, for the sake of transparency, let me say there are times when reporters do indeed become fans. Usually it’s because they have a vested interest in the outcome. For example, during NCAA tournament time everyone became a fan of the team they covered because you wanted that team to win so your trip through the tournament continued. If you covered a football team with a shot at going to a bowl game, you wanted it to be at the best location possible.

I’d say if you are a reporter covering a political candidate, you can’t help but find yourself knowing that if that candidate wins, you benefit from having established a good relationship with that person prior to them going into office. If you are a business reporter, the truth is its more fun to cover either a thriving new businesses or a business caught up in scandal than it is to have to report on ordinary, everyday activity.

But that’s why it becomes important to maintain a reputation of neutrality, or evenhandedness, and not give anyone the opportunity to correctly point out that you, as a reporter, have a proven bias on a certain issue or position.

It's not that way anymore. And truthfully, if you really know the history of media in this or any other country with a free media, there have been times when media outlets took a definite position on an issue. Heck, wars have been started, presidents and governors elected, mythical college football championships won by media.

I had a conversation with an old-school editor about young reporters who think nothing of posting their political opinions on social media. I asked why that was allowed to happen, since those reporters might be expected to report as fairly as possible on those candidates or issues, and sharing their view immediately made them less trust-worthy as a source of balanced news.

"That's new journalism,'' I was told. "I don't know why we don't stop young reporters from doing that, but we don't. It's a different world."

Indeed it is. I much preferred suspecting I knew the bias of certain reporters but not being able to go to their facebook page or twitter account and knowing for sure.

Just as, now in retirement from the business, I enjoy being able to be a fan again, of letting my support for a particular team show.

Even if it is a team that just suffered the biggest fourth-quarter collapse in the history of the Super Bowl.

Oh, and "how 'bout them Dawgs!"

Friday, July 7, 2017

Tit for tat

In several decades of being a sportswriter - particularly a sportswriter in this sports-crazy state - I offended a few people.

Rarely, if ever, was it intentional. But inevitably if you do your job right, you write some things that make a coach or administrator or player mad, or that a fan just didn't think was fair. Sometimes, it wasn't justified (like the nice lady who thought I was being sacrilegious for, in a story about Notre Dame football, referring to "Touchdown Jesus"). Sometimes it was fair. Sometimes it was just a matter of interpretation.

Was I offended by criticism of what I wrote? Absolutely.

Did I want to respond? You better believe it.

Did I respond? Well, I would have, except for a wise man in the business who told me, "Ray, you took your shot at them. Now, they get a free shot back at you." And I learned that when I was criticized, to let it go. Don't respond. Move on to the next thing.

What I didn't find out until much later was that getting into a verbal war of insults with prominent people was great for readership and ratings. TV and radio people understood that.

Which brings me to the current president, Donald J. Trump, and media like CNN and the hosts of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC.

Nobody is right in this on-going war of words. I wish the media was a little more careful with its words. I wish the president wasn't so reactionary that he couldn't let some of this stuff go. And I wish the media who become the target of the president's attack would simply say, "We took our shot, he's taking his, now let's move on."

My guess is that such a reaction would cause the whole story to go away pretty quickly.

But then, that's not really what either side wants. I know media loves the victim, either it's reporting on one or being one itself. Maybe it's just a part of society today that we all seek victim status.

Years ago, I remember an occasion where a sportswriter I worked with got into a verbal altercation with an administrator of a team we were covering. We all on an elevator together when, in the heat of the moment, the front-office guy let my friend know he didn't like what was said, even going so far as to say, "You better watch yourself. You might find yourself getting your a** kicked." It really wasn't much of a threat. Personally, I'd been threatened much more seriously. But when we got off the elevator, my friend said to me, "Did you hear that? He threatened me!" I said I didn't really think it was much of a threat, more of just an angry exchange of words. "No,'' my friend said. "That was a threat. They can't get away with that."

I didn't think anything of it until later, back in the newspaper office. The editor called me in and asked me what happened on the elevator, that this other guy had reported he'd had his life threatened by this guy from the team. I laughed and told the editor, "Do you know how many times people in the news room have said they were going to kick your butt? It was about the same thing; just a guy blowing off steam."

I thought it was over, but my buddy turned it into a big deal. He got a lot of mileage out of being "threatened." And he used things like that to go on to the big-time.

In today's media, ratings - and readers, if there are any still left - are everything. And nothing gets a media person noticed more than supposedly being "threatened" for "just doing his job." We're the fourth estate, you know; protected by the First Amendment, the watchdogs of government and a check on those in power.

All of which is true. I absolutely believe that a free press, or free media, is essential to a free society and to keeping tyrants in check.

But I also know sometimes folks in the media (and I used to be one) can let their ego get as big as the people they are taking on, whether they are presidents or coaches or preachers or CEOs. What the media does is important, but sometimes we in the media know that we're reporting on the really important things that other people are doing, and if we're honest with ourselves we can feel a little inferior (which is why sportswriters get accused of having never played the game, or political reporters are derided with being called "professional second-guessers."). So maybe we feel a little 'tougher' when we're drawn into the fray.

My own approach was always to hear people out when they didn't like what I'd said or written, tell them I appreciated their opinion, but that I had another story to work on so thanks for their time. As a result, I didn't get involved in too many high-profile spats with authority figures.

Now, I'm not saying the conflict between a college football coach in Alabama and a sportswriter are as big as between the President of the United States and a TV anchor couple. (In Alabama, it's bigger!).

But I am saying that sometimes you just move on. If you're convinced you are right, then let that stand for itself.

As I always tell my children, "living well is the best revenge."

However, I have learned that things like "revenge" and an extended "war of words" are very good for ratings.

The media is right in that the President is acting rather childishly and churlishly. Trump is right that the media coverage seems more focused on hysteria and fear-mongering. Again, saying 'X' can kill you gets a lot more attention that saying 'X' is probably safe. It means the same thing, but one gets your attention a lot more than the other. And, once again, attention translates into ratings and/or votes (or all-important contributions).

The media is wrong, however, to act as if they are under some kind of uncharted new assault on their First Amendment territory. While Trump screams about "fake news,'' the Obama administration stonewalled Freedom of Information requests, retaliated against media by going after phone records of AP reporters, targeting James Rosen in particular. According to a report in Accuracy in Media, "Leonard Downie Jr., long time executive editor of The Washington Post, was the author of the Committee to Protect Journalists October 2013 report titled “The Obama Administration and the Press.” The report said that of the 11 total prosecutions of leakers by the U.S. government using the Espionage Act, eight have occurred during the Obama administration, including six government employees and two contractors, one of whom was Snowden. Downie said that “The [Obama] administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.” David Sanger of The New York Times said of the Obama administration, “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.” And just last week, New York Times reporter James Risen argued that the Obama administration has been “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

This isn't my own version of tit-for-tat by trying to say "Obama was worse!" Although I think the former presidents assault on media was more sinister because it was far more subtle than the current president. I'd rather have a guy come at me with a baseball bat where I can see him than one sneak up behind me when I'm not looking.

Trump is wrong in constantly playing to the public with cries of "fake news" and "fake media," at a time when trust in the media is about as low as trust in Government itself.

But Trump can't let any slight, real or perceived, pass; and the media loves using this for ratings, particularly on cable news channels where nothing sells like a crisis, so if there isn't one the smart thing to do is create one.

Truthfully? I think both the president and the media are addicted to each other in a "I just can't quit you" sort of way.

It's like we're a nation of first-graders, justifying our actions by yelling "He started it!"

Maybe it's time for a little first-grade discipline - put them all in 'time out.'

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

When do they find out just how sick I am?

I am a "bit" of a hypochondriac.

And I'm pretty impressed with myself that I spelled "hypochondriac" correctly on my first try.

But I am - a hypochondriac (and, I guess, impressed with myself, but that's not the point here).

I don't have headaches; I suffer from brain tumors, or minor strokes.

I don't have stomach aches; I have bleeding ulcers.

I don't have arthritis; my bones have somehow becomes so thin they're on the verge of breaking from the simplest of exertion.

At the same time, I know I'm ridiculously healthy, thanks to genetics more than anything. I don't really have arthritis, except in my left thumb and that only flares up now and then (again, however, that's self-diagnosis). I don't really get headaches that often or stomach aches. I don't take any prescription drugs. In fact, I don't take any drugs at all (because what's a Tylenol going to do for a brain tumor?) I think I've discussed that my preferred meal is almost anything that comes from a drive-thru. Yet at my last physical - and I only go to the doctor about once a decade, but I did go within the last year - my blood pressure is fine, my cholestoral is ridiculously low, my heart is good, my blood work was all good. I did finally have my first colonoscopy, only about a decade late, and they did find a 'mass' that caused me to be in the hospital for a week after they cut out a chunk of my colon, but that was the first time I'd spent a night n a hospital as a patient since I had my tonsils out when I was a kid, back when they kept you in overnight with promises of all the ice cream you could eat (never telling you that after having your tonsils taken out, you didn't really want ice cream).

But the worse thing I can do is start reading the symptoms of some disease. The other night, while looking up something about muscular dystrophy, I realized I have had many of the listed symptoms for something called MMD1 Adult Onset Muscular Dystrophy. The Trophy Wife normally doesn't let me read about diseases or listen to people talk about rare diseases because she knows I'll start thinking I have one (or more).

I come by this honestly, however.

My aunt - my mom's twin sister - was a wonderful woman but had a few 'quirks.' When my mom was sick and my aunt would come by to check on her and my mom would describe what she was taking various drugs for, my aunt would say "I've been noticing that in myself lately. Maybe I need to take some of that." And she'd help herself to a pill or two of whatever my mother was taking.

Crazy? Well, my aunt did outlive my mom by a couple decades. Who is to say that self-diagnosis followed by her self-medication didn't prolong her life?

I'd better stop here and say my aunt was not a drug addict. She came from the Southern Baptist side of my family that didn't "drink, smoke, chew, or run with those that do." She was a wonderful aunt, and a terrific sister to my mom.

But she was a Smith, from rural Georgia; about as Southern as you can get. And if you've ever read any William Faulkner or Roy Blount or Carson McCullers or Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote or Rick Bragg or ... well, the people in many of those stories felt like people I knew growing up, or at least people "my people" (as we used to refer to our families in the South) talked about.

My grandfather was John Felix Smith. John Smith. Only he went by "Fel" which was pronounced "feel" and many people thought his name was "Phil." My grandmother was Lassie Wheeler. She had a sister, I think it was, named "Rose."

I used to spend a lot of time at my Mamaw's house (that's my grandmother, for those who don't know what a Mamaw is). My mother worked, and I guess in the summer when I wasn't in school there were times she left me over there. I know I always dreaded it. I can remember sitting on this big back porch with my grandmother, snapping green beans, and listening to her talk. She assigned gender to everything in her house, so when it came to things like her toaster she'd say, "he's been a hard-working toaster all his life" or of her ironing board she might say something like, "she likes to hide here in the closet where she thinks I can't find her."

Do you remember the animated movie "Beauty and the Beast," where all the servants had been turned into household items? That might have been my grandmothers house. For all I know, late at night, they all came alive and danced and sang around on the old linoleum floor in the kitchen. Lord knows I was so bored at times, staying over there, I might have imagined it happening.

Papaw (the male opposite of Mamaw) had this old black car he kept parked in the basement garage. He decided one day he wanted a yellow car. Maybe the grandkids were talking about how "in" yellow cars where, I don't know. But I know he painted his car. With a brush. Yellow. You can imagine.

Riding in the car with them, you didn't know whether to laugh or scream or, most likely, both. My grandfather was nearly deaf ("deef" as he called it); my grandmother was blind. But that didn't stop her from telling him how to drive, and of course he couldn't hear her which only made her louder. The crazy thing was, sometimes she was right. I always wonder if God didn't give her some kind of "second sight" when it came to them riding in the car together.

(Now, my other grandfather - we called him Poppy - was hard of hearing, too. He had a hearing aid, one of those old-fashion kind where you put the ear piece in your ear and the cord trailed down to a box that he kept in his front shirt pocket. When my grandma (we called her "Grandma") would get to ragging him about something, I'd see him look at me, smile, and reach in and unplug his hearing aid, then go back to reading or whatever he was doing.)

Papaw had his own way of doing things, and no patience with anyone trying to tell him to do it a different way. I'm afraid we may be alike in that way. And it had to be kind of wonderful to drive around, completely unaware of honking horns or screeching brakes or a siren behind him trying to get him to pull over. Blissfully unaware of the noise coming from both outside the car or from the passenger seat, Papaw enjoyed his drive. And, as far as I know, he always made it there and back - wherever there and back was - no worse for the wear.

Chicken gizzards and vanilla wafers. That's what I think about when I think about my grandparents. It seemed like they always had fried chicken gizzards - what is a gizzard, anyway? - and Papaw loved his vanilla wafers.

I'm getting old. That always reminds me of a Jimmy Buffet song that says, "Now that I'm old, I don't wear underwear. I don't go to church and I don't cut my hair."

But I'm getting old and, like both my grandfathers, I don't hear so well. I've tried to tell my doctor I have some kind of acoustic neuroma, paraganglioma, or maybe meningioma. I had an MRI or some kind of scan to see if there was some growth that was causing my loss of hearing, but they didn't find anything - "brain x-ray reveals nothing!" - but doctors make mistakes. Meanwhile, I've got hearing aids, although not the kind that sits in my shirt pocket that I can unplug when I don't want to hear what's being said to me.

Fortunately, my eye sight is still pretty good. And I can get around all right. I may not be as good of a driver as I used to be, but I still enjoy getting out on the interstate, popping in a CD or, just to show I'm not completely old, tuning my Sirius radio to the Garth Brooks Channel, or the Kenny Chesney channel, or the Jimmy Buffet channel, because there are only two jazz channels that I've found and I don't care much for either one of them (which is why I still like to play my CD's of, as my oldest son says, "80's jazz"). When I'm by myself, I can turn up the volume enough so I can still hear it pretty good. I've spent a lot of my life on the road, and still dream of one day taking off on a cross-county road trip (the Trophy's Wife's personal version of hell. I'm afraid).

I keep trying to develop some kind of eccentric habits. I wanted to learn to like whiskey or bourbon, so I could sit in my library, reading, and sipping on an amber-colored drink that wasn't iced tea. But truthfully, I just can't stand the taste of alcohol, so I sip my ice tea. I thought it would be kind of cool to have a 'walking stick,' and I saw this cane in a New Orleans antique store that had a sword inside, like out of an old movie. But then I saw the price tag, and decided I don't really want my eccentricities to cost that much; and if I can't keep track of an umbrella, what makes me think I would actually keep track of - much less use - a cane? And really, a cane with a sword inside? What, just in case I offended someone's honor and they challenged me to a dual underneath the big oak trees, out behind the old church? Yeah, like that's going to happen.

That's not to say I don't have my eccentricities. Heck, I already admitted my hypochondria. And probably a half-dozen other crazy things us Southerners do but don't seem to crazy to us because, well, we're "us." Crazy is what other people do.

Besides, as someone once said, when the whole world is crazy, what's the use in being sane?

I go back to get a physical soon. My doctor keeps saying I'm ridiculously healthy for someone in as bad a shape as I'm in. I tell him he's just not as good a doctor as he thinks he is, and if he can't find something wrong with me, he's not worth the money my insurance company and I pay him.

Where do you look when you've finally lost your mind?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Christmas tradition

It's the Christmas season.

My youngest son is supposed to be coming back from Tennessee, where he has gone to see a friend, with a Christmas Tree.

I'm not going to ask him where he got it.

Or how.

Getting Christmas trees is a family tradition. We have done it many different ways. Typically, especially when the kids were younger, we all went as a family to one of those Christmas Tree farms where you would drive up, they'd hand you a saw, you could walk around an look at some sad looking animals in pens - a couple cows, maybe a pig or two, and always a sad-looking deer that never had a red nose or answered to the name "Rudolph" despite what the sign might say - and then wander out in a field to find the 'perfect' tree.

Finding the perfect tree was always a challenge. I'm a terrible shopper. No matter what it is, I always feel there is a better option right around the corner. And no matter what I pay, I feel I'm getting ripped off. (Except shopping in Belk, where on certain days they practically give stuff away. You go in when they are having a sale and it's like Mrs. Russell's algebra class all over again - 60 percent off, plus another 10 percent, and if you have a coupon it's 30 more percent, and if you open a credit card you get another 25 percent off. Who can figure that out? And then you walk up to the register and somehow it comes out even cheaper then you figured. But that's another story).

Anyway, at the tree farm, I'd find a tree and everyone would agree it was fine - "fine," not perfect - and I'd say well, remember where this is and let's keep looking. Only how do you remember where a tree is in a field full of trees that are all roughly the same shape and size?

Yet once we got it home, whatever it was, it was always perfect.

Sometimes we'd go to the local tree lots, run by Boy Scouts or whomever. One year, back when the Trophy Wife and I were first married and poor, we got a tree at a local lot. Now understand, the Trophy Wife loves Christmas. Absolutely loves it. I swear there were years where she'd put a tree up on October 1st if I'd agree to it. So this year, we got this tree from a local Boy Scout lot on Thanksgiving weekend. Two weeks later, it was bare - every needle had fallen off. So she took it back and they gave her another one. two weeks later, it was bare. She took it back again. I think we got the last one on Christmas Eve.

And while that is a great story and the guys who ran that lot were extremely nice, you realize this means we had to decorate and undecorated three trees in the span of less than a month. That includes stringing and unstringing lights three times. There was a decided lack of Christmas Cheer in my heart that year - until Christmas morning when, once again, we agreed we had the 'perfect' Christmas tree.

But there are other ways to get Christmas trees.

Sometimes, you just take one. Or two. Or ...

I think the statute of limitations has run out, because I haven't been part of a Christmas tree theft in a long, long time. A long time. I mean it - a really, really long time.

But there was a time ...

Now, we didn't take them from people's homes or houses. And, unlike some other friends of mine, we didn't go out to interstate right-of-ways and cut them down when nobody was looking.

It started when I was a freshman in college. And in a fraternity. The pledge class was told that we had to provide a Christmas tree for the fraternity house. Oh, and we should get enough for a few of the sororities, too.

Now, how were we going to do that? The "brothers" didn't say. They just said we had to come up with Christmas trees.

So some of the other guys - not me, of course, because I'd never do anything illegal like that - would head off in the dead of night to find a grocery store that, during regular business hours, sold Christmas trees. But of course, 1 a.m. was not regular business hours. Only a Kroger or Piggly Wiggly didn't have the space to be taking Christmas trees inside, off the sidewalk every night at closing time. So they'd leave them outside.

Now, there was a time I had this bad habit of hearing everyone talk about what they were going to do, this or that, and I'd finally just say, "let's quit talking and do it,'' and head off. It got me in trouble one time, in a rather big way. But I don't want to talk about that.

But here's the thing. The raid wasn't particularly well thought out. Nobody had a truck, and certainly not a station wagon. This was in the days before SUV's so nobody had a rack on top of their vehicle. So a bunch of the guys - remember, now, this is hearsay, because I'd certainly never take part in something like this - piled into whatever cars they had and headed for the alley that ran alongside this particular grocery store.

Right to the end, they thought that surely the trees would be tied up or chained or something, but when they got there - lo and behold - it was like a Christmas miracle! The trees were just piled up next to the alley, waiting to be put out on display again the next morning.

You ever try to stick a six-foot Christmas tree into the backseat of a car? And do it quickly and quietly, because you were right there on what was a fairly major four lane where, even at 1 in the morning, people were likely to drive by?

Then one guy got a bright idea. He had a convertible. And if you put the top down on the convertible, you could throw four or five Christmas trees into the back seat, stack them up as high as you could, and then get someone to ride on top of them, holding them down.

Did I mention this raid wasn't particularly well thought out?

Absolutely nothing unusual about seeing a caravan of cars skedaddling down a major four land road at 1 a.m., three or four college guys jammed in the front seat, all the windows down, with green tree-tops sticking out of backseat windows. And bringing up the rear, this one convertible with a driver, two guys riding shotgun, and one guy sitting up on top of a stack of Christmas trees in the back seat, hanging on for dear life, like Peter Sellers at the end of Dr. Strangelove straddling the bomb as it falls from the sky.

And then someone realized they were all riding down this major, well-lit, much-travelled four lane, so at the next light - hey, they might have been tree thieves, but they weren't going to run a red light! - somebody yelled, "We need to split up and meet back at the fraternity house,'' so everyone turned a different direction to try to get to the same place that, by this time, wasn't but a few blocks away, on the back side of a college campus.

And we - I mean "they" - made it back.

But that wasn't enough. Full of themselves, they decided to personally deliver trees to each of the sororities. In the middle of the night. The Sisters of Phi Mu and Alpha Delta Pi and Chi Omega were appalled. But they all accepted the trees, and nobody asked where they came from.

Years later, I ran into a family that had a similar tradition. It was a large family, and on Christmas Eve the oldest boys would go out to get a Christmas tree. The mom and dad never asked where they got it from, or how they got it. But I know those boys, and they didn't buy them. I don't know if they came from the right-of-way, or an alley next to a Piggly-Wiggly, or a Home Depot parking lot.

I look back on it kind of like hunting though: We never took more than we needed, and we used every thing that we took.

Now, of course, you have these pop-up tree lots where some poor sap has to live, sleeping in a trailer on site. When my kids were little, my son once asked, "Why do they sleep here, in a trailer?" I tried my best to look all serious and say, "I don't know son. I guess they are afraid people might steal the trees if they don't watch them all night."

To which my son would say, "Who would do a thing like that?"

And I'd shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't know son. But put the top down on your mom's convertible, and how'd you like to ride home, sitting on top of this fine Douglas fir? Just don't tell your momma ..."

Nah. I'm kidding, of course.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Your hymns and mine

We were talking about singing in church on Sunday.

OK, the pastor was talking about singing, and the rest of us were listening. It was a sermon on the importance of singing as part of worship. The point was made that very few other regular meetings start with singing; you don't go to a Rotary and someone leads the group in a few Broadway show tunes before the main speaker; neither does the local PTA begin with some favorite school songs.

Of course, any college football game does include playing (and often singing) various fight songs, which I guess adds to the commonly held belief that college football is religion!

There is no denying that music affects us. It's why we have soundtracks to movies and TV shows; it's the commercial jingle we can't get out of our head. How often does a song come on and you think "Ah, I remember that playing when I was ...." at a particular place in a particular time with a particular person or group of people.

And when it comes to church - there have been times I have been "surprised by joy" (in the sense that C.S. Lewis defines that phrase) during a song. There are verses of Scripture that I can't read without hearing in my head the tune that was written for them that enabled me to memorize that verse when I was a kid. Singing "A Mighty Fortress" makes me want to go start a reformation; hearing "Holy, Holy, Holy" can make me feel connected, somehow, with the vision of Heaven in Revelation; singing "Just As I Am" makes me hungry - it seemed to always have been the hymn sung during the invitation, which was the last thing keeping us from getting to Sunday dinner in the church where I grew up.

It is often surprising how my own thoughts and musings tend to show up in my pastors' sermons (without him knowing it). I had just been thinking about hymns recently, about growing up singing from the Baptist Hymnal and how now that I'm "older" (to put it nicely) I wonder if my children haven't missed out by not knowing the old songs like Blessed Assurance and Rock of Ages and I've Got A Mansion (Just Over The Hilltop) and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (I'll Be There).

My buddy Mitchell and I worked in a fabric warehouse one summer when we were in high school. One of the guys who worked with us was not a Christian, and he would poke fun at us (but in a good-natured sort of way), and then one day he started throwing lines from hymns at us (evidence that he had grown up in the church) to see if we knew the hymn they came from. He stumped us on "Gathered by the Crystal Sea." I remember that, because it frustrated me that I knew the line but couldn't think of the song it came from (which turned out to be "I Will Sing The Wondrous Story" for you hymnal junkies, if there are such).

I learned to sing harmony in church. Somewhere along the way, I'd taken just enough piano to read music (not play it, unfortunately, but read it), and I could pick out the four-part harmony of the hymns. I always sang the bass line(it wasn't usually very complex) because I've always had a deep voice (even in the children's choir, I remember the nice lady leading the choir didn't know what to do with me because everyone else was singing like, well, children, and I was a full octave lower).

And of course there were all kind of games we used to play when we got bored in church - deciding on a phrase like "On a first date" and then turning randomly through the hymnal, finding a hymn title and adding the catch phrase to the end of it to see if it worked. (OK, those of you who know this game know the most popular phrase was not "on a first date" but I try to keep this a family-friendly blog).

Of course, as a kid, we didn't like church music so much, and couldn't wait to get back out to our cars and listen to The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Chicago or Rare Earth or Jimi Hendrix or any number of other bands that made up the soundtrack of riding in Keevil's Volkswagon or Mitch's New Yorker or Clay's 442 or Jimmy's Bonneville or my Mustang (I think I have all those right).

I kind of grew up with what I guess would now be called "Contemporary Christian Music" (or CCM), only we didn't call it that. The godfather was, I think, Andre Crouch. I can remember listening to his music in high school and singing some of his choruses; I even went to see him live one time, a really cool experience. If you don't know Andre Crouch, Google "Through It All'' and "Soon and Very Soon" and "I Don't Know Why Jesus Loved Me."

There was this whole "Jesus Movement" in the early '70s, part of what theologians sometimes refer to as the "Third Great Awakening." They had this Christian Woodstock music festival called "Explo 72" held in Dallas that featured a bunch of what was called "Jesus Music" back then. Larry Norman was one that I remember, and a group called "Second Chapter of Acts." But it was also a time when regular artists got in on the Jesus Movement, and AM radio had Jesus Music on the regular playlist - songs like "Day By Day" from the musical "Godspell," and because I was (and still am) a Kris Kristofferson fan, he had a couple songs like "Why Me" and "Jesus Was A Capricorn" (which, come to think of it, may not have really been a Christian song). The Doobie Brothers sang "Jesus is Just Alright" and George Harrison eventually added "My Sweet Lord" (although he was more into the Eastern mysticism and added the Hare Krishna line, so his "Lord" was probably not the Lord we took it to be). The Edwin Hawkins Singers had "Oh Happy Day" on regular radio rotation, as did a song called "Put Your Hand in the Hand" by a group by Ocean (I remembered the song, but had to look up the band).

Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" was not really a Christian song, but dang if it didn't capture the essence of a tent revival perfectly.

Wow, did I ever get side tracked there.

Years ago, we moved from a church that was slowing dying to another church. When that church finally did close up and sell the building to another church, they had a reunion service of sorts and invited people to come back. One of the things they allowed us to do was take a Hymnal with us if we wanted, and I did. I have that Baptist Hymnal in my library, and occasionally I like to get it out, leaf through the songs, and find myself reading lyrics that suddenly mean so much more to me than they ever did when I was a kid.

But rather than lament my children missing out on the old hymns (although I do think they missed out), I started thinking about the songs that they grew up singing. I could argue they miss some of the theological depth, but what would be the point? My guess is, one day they'll hear songs by people like Michael W. Smith with the same sense of loss as I do when I hear the songs of Fanny Crosby or Isaac Watts or the Wesleys or William Cowper or Big Daddy Weave (I threw that in there to see if you were paying attention).

I was never a fan of Michael W. Smith as a solo artist (I remember when they tried to make him out to be like a Christian George Michael, and he seemed very uncomfortable with the idea of it and I could see why). However, you look at the chorus work he produced: Awesome God, Mighty To Save, You Are Holy, Here I Am To Worship ... those are songs (among many others by other "contemporary" Christian artists) that my kids will probably look back on as adults and wish their kids had grown up singing. I bought a CD called "Michael W. Smith, Decades of Worship" just because as I thought about those songs, it hit me that those are the hymns of my kids' youthful worship. (Yes, I still buy music CDs; what can I say? I'm a walking anachronism).

Not that my kids didn't grow up hearing the "old" hymns. We still laugh about a rather morbid scene from my daughter's childhood. She grew up watching something called "the Donut Man,'' a Christian TV/video show for children, and the kids on that show used to sit together on the edge of the stage and rock back and forth while singing "Oh the Blood of Jesus," and my little girl would sit and sway and sing "Oh, the blood of Jesus" over and over and over, too. Only she'd do it after the TV was turned off, when she was just off by herself. I don't mean the song is morbid; just the idea of this little girl solemnly singing this line over and over and over about "Oh the blood of Jesus ... Oh the blood of Jesus ... Oh the blood of Jesus ... "

Anyway, the preacher was going through all these verses on singing in the Bible, particularly in Psalms.

But as he went through verse after verse at various places in the Bible, one song popped in my head and I couldn't shake it.

The lyrics go:

"Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away"

If you're not old enough to remember, it's by that great hymnist Steven Tyler.

Of Aerosmith.

From 1973.

Or just about the time I'd have been sitting in church, listening to the 14th verse of "Just As I Am,'' dreaming of getting back into the car and popping in an 8-track tape of ...

Well, Dream On.