Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A little less talk and a lot more action

As a kid, I got in a few fights. Not many, and the ones I did get in were more wrestling matches (“wrasslin’’’) than punches thrown.

In high school, I had a brief three-bout run in the Boys’ Club Golden Gloves Program. After college, I stumbled into the early world of PKA Karate and for a couple of years competed routinely in tournaments around the Southeast.

Playing sports, I understood what it meant to get physically whipped. I can remember playing against guys that I knew were just better than I was; guys who I knew could hurt me – and probably wanted to.

There were fights in my high school. We called them “gang fights,’’ but we were pretty much suburban white kids, and the conflict was usually between the groups we referred to as the “socialites” and the “hoods.” Back in the day, we had shop classes in our high school, and I remember one episode where a fight was supposed to be staged in a lower parking lot, behind the building where the shop classes were held. That’s only important because in drafting class, we had something called “T-squares,’’ which came in handy in a fight involving multiple people because you could sometimes come up behind some unsuspecting combatant and hook them in various places, causing a lot of pain.

I’ve been hit with bare fists, padded fists, kicked, and even had a guy take a swing at me with a 2x4 one time (he missed, fortunately). I’ve swung from iron monkey bars and busted the back of my head; tried to climb a tree only to lose my grip and slide down, the bark pulling up my shirt and turning my stomach and chest into bloody rivulets; gone head-over-the handle bars of my bike when I was not wearing a helmet (I didn't own one or know anyone who did); ridden a skateboard downhill on asphalt with no knee pads or helmet (again, because we didn't have any) and, unable to stop, turned into the curb, throwing me head-first into prickly bushes; once went diving into a pile of leaves, unaware that the leaves were piled around a fire plug … in other words, done a lot of stupid stuff that kids of my generation did. We played “Army,’’ and one day decided since we couldn’t figure out how to determine who had actually been shot used B-B guns, because that would leave a mark (boy, did it; fortunately, that was a one-time thing and no one lost an eye).

All of that is not to suggest that I’m a fighter (I’m definitely not), or I’m tough (again, I’m not), and surely it won’t be read as if I’m bragging (there was nothing worth bragging about).

The point is that, like a lot of people of my generation and certainly those generations older than me, we grew up understanding the threat of physical violence, of getting hurt. Not to the level of some places and some people. The point is, I knew I could get hit, it would hurt, but I’d be OK; I learned it was better to not get hit if possible; I figured out that verbal insults were much preferred over having a guy swing a 2x4 at your head with the intent to do bodily harm; and whenever a buddy had what seemed like a ‘great idea,’ let him try it first (Famous last words: “Hey ya’ll, watch this!”).

Apparently, understanding both the threat of physical violence, and the knowledge of how to engage in physical confrontation, is being lost.

This is what social scientists are calling the “iGen,’’ meaning this generation that has grown up in an era of small families, protective parents, padded playgrounds, knee pads and helmets, “nerf” balls and bats, and, of course, computer simulated games rather than getting out and actually driving a go-kart over a homemade course laid out through streets and woods, complete with ramps and jumps and hair-pin turns and wipe-outs.

According to an article I was reading, these kids grew up being told safety was a priority. A study done by Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, reports fewer kids today (as compared to those from the early 2000s) liked to take risks or got a thrill out of doing something dangerous. The number was something close to double that of the previous survey/study that say they don't get a thrill out of taking a chance.

The good news, according to Dr. Twenge, is that fewer kids today get into automobile accidents, fistfights, engage in binge-drinking, or “sneak out” to do things they know their parents (or authority figure) would not approve.

So with physical safety apparently taken care of, what’s left?

Emotional safety. Words that hurt. Verbal altercations that cause one to become anxious or feeling unsettled.

As a 19-year-old told Dr. Twenge (who wrote a book called “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood”), “I believe nobody can guarantee emotional safety. You can always take precautions for someone hurting you physically, but you cannot really help but listen when someone is talking to you.”

When I was in college, we loved hearing “radical” speakers, who we disagreed with, that we could argue with and test our fledgling ability to make an argument and prove a point.

Today, if you read the headlines, you see where college kids want nothing to do with hearing from people who might upset them. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, campus “disinvites” have risen steadily, “reaching an all-time high of 42 in 2016, up from just six in 2000.” In a survey of freshmen college students in 2015, 43 percent agreed that campuses should be able to ban speakers who might have “extreme or unsettling ideas."

And when controversy does come up, students want a ‘safe space’ where they can go if they feel upset, to calm down with coloring books or some similar "comfort" activity from their childhood. This is a generation that grew up with the "reset" button - that button on the side of the game console where, if you found yourself behind by too much, you could hit 'reset' and the game started over. You didn't lose. You just got to start again.

While older generations of college students thought college administrators were out of touch and clueless, and the less we had to do with them the better, today’s students want – no, expect – the college administration to settle disputes, create a “safe” environment because, as one student said, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It is about creating a home here!”

Get that? They expect adults to take care of them.

They are in college to be prepared to make money (and avoid being on the wrong-end of that dreaded “income inequality”), and don’t want to be disturbed with challenging thoughts and new ideas.

And so we find this generation heading straight into George Orwell’s “1984,” where they actually want “Big Brother” watching over them, monitoring their words (social media?), conforming everyone to the same “group-think,” not trusting their peers to govern them and certainly not believing that the great masses are capable of appropriate government.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness,’’ Orwell wrote. “And for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

Is “1984” even required reading anymore? Or “Animal Farm?”

When I first read those books, I understood Animal Farm to be an indictment of Communism, or the Soviet Union’s version of Communism, anyway. But as for 1984 – I couldn’t imagine a time like that described by Orwell (writing back in the late 1940s).

Who would want to be watched that closely? Well, that was before YouTube and twitter.

Who would want to have their words not only parsed but then broadcast world wide for everyone - including strangers - to read? That was before facebook.

So now I fear I'm seeing 1984 come true, not by force of some totalitarian government but by the willingness of the people (the 'proles'?), from kids who want protection over taking risks, emotional security over maturity, and who are more comfortable dealing with the programmed artificial intelligence on a hand-held device than the unpredictable, often irrational, frequently upsetting views of their fellow human beings.

Maybe what they all need is just an old-fashioned fist-fight, to understand you can hurt people physically and be hurt, and survive. And learn that hearing unpleasant words hurts a lot less than getting whacked in the gut with a stick.

Heck, they might even get up from the grappling with a new appreciation for the other person; maybe even become "friends." (Even, as I heard one young athlete once say about another athlete from a different team, "We're friends that don't like each other very much.")

I'm not advocating that we all go start a brawl, like a bunch of Irishmen in a pub (think the ending of "The Quiet Man'). But I am saying maybe we need to put the coloring books aside and have a little old fashioned, unpredictable, unsafe, even dangerous human interaction.

Heck, some of us think that's kind of what makes life fun.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Sept 11: where does your hope lie?

It's September 11.

For years, September 11 had only one meaning for me: it was my father's birthday. He was a member of that "Greatest Generation,'' that grew up through the Great Depression and went off to free the world from Fascists and Nazis in that little event called "World War II."

Like you, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news about the planes flying into the Twin Towers in New York.

I was dropping my kids off at school. We were probably listening to music on the way to school, because the first I heard about the attack was after I let them out. I immediately turned the radio to WJOX, our local sports talk station where I co-hosted an afternoon drive-time show. I remember that Matt Coulter and Scott Griffin where hosting the morning show, and the first thing I heard was Scott Griffin say something like, "The only thing I can compare this to is the Oklahoma City bombing." And I remember thinking, "Scott, you've gone way too far. I have no idea what the issue is, but there is nothing in sports that you can compare to Oklahoma City." I remember thinking, Scott is going to get hammered for that comparison.

It was several moments before I understood something very much like Oklahoma City had happened - even worse - and Scott was absolutely correct.

I got home to find my father standing, watching the television in our living room. My Dad lived with me from the time my mother passed away until he joined her. I went and stood next to him as we watched the live shots of the towers that, I don't believe, had collapsed yet. And we stood there, mesmerized and horrified. I remember thinking, "This must be what the country felt like hearing the news of Pearl Harbor."

Both of my parents were World War II veterans. My father was in the Coast Guard, which was drawn into the Navy when the war broke out. My mom was disowned by her father for joining the "WAVES" - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which was the World War II women's branch of the United States Naval Reserve. My mom grew up on a farm in rural Georgia, and her father didn't think it was appropriate for a woman to be in the military. He was already unhappy that she'd left the farm to go work in the "big city" of Atlanta, and in his eyes this was apparently one more act of rebellion.

They met while both were stationed in Charleston, S.C. The way I remember the story, they met and married within two weeks (one of my siblings said they didn't think that was true, but it's the way I remember the story), and stayed married for the rest of their lives. My mother got pregnant in the first year of their marriage and had to leave the Navy. Sometime later she got a letter from her father, telling her how proud he was of her for going off to serve her country. You can imagine what that letter did for my mom.

It's been 16 years since that event we call "9-11." Who would have known that, 16 years later, we'd still be fighting that war on terror? Who would have known that our enemies would have changed into this group of radical Islamic terrorists, representing no traditional country or government, but rather existing through the support of a network that has kept them going through different organizational names? It was so much easier to fight a "country" with traditional territorial boundaries and a defined Army. The world has changed; this country has changed. America is now the target of choice for those who hold to grievances and hate what they define as the "American way of life."

Particularly now, in this divided country that we're uncomfortable living in but can't seem to figure out how to unite. Oh, we were united for a time after Sept. 11. We were proud to fly the flag, wave the colors, greet each other like long-lost cousins, applaud members of military, law enforcement, first responders. However, as that initial wave of unity crested and began to roll back out, we seem to drift apart faster than ever. Every issue is turned into a politically divisive issue by media on both sides (and there are sides to the media), and when a politician tries to "reach out" in a spirit of cooperation and perhaps even compromise, he often finds his attempts rejected and his motives villainized by the Left and the Right. The presence of such radical disunity after recognition of the increased terror threat in this country is disturbing, to say the least.

I think we'll all know if we lose this war. The problem is, I don't think we have any real idea of how to determine victory.

But here was one lesson, perhaps the greatest lesson, I learned from Sept. 11, 2001.

As I stood there, next to my father, watching what was going on in New York City and, later, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and that horrific but heroic action resulting in the crash of United Flight 93 in that field in Pennsylvania, I remember thinking, "I'm glad I live in Birmingham, Al. That would never happen here."

I'm not a believer in voices, but I would almost swear I heard a voice in my head say to me, "So! Your faith is in where you live, not in God!"

That was a sobering moment for me. Maybe it seems silly to you. But it's amazing how often little things, "silly" things, seemingly inconsequential things have had the greatest impact in my life.

But that moment it hit me what it means to trust God.

Was I trusting God AND my geographic location? Was I trusting God AND my nationality? Was I trusting God AND my occupation/income (such as it was)? Was I trusting God AND ... anything?

If there was an "AND" after my trusting God, then I wasn't really trusting God Alone, was I?

And that was wrong.

My brother the theologian tells the story of being in seminary, playing basketball late one night in the school gym. An old janitor came in to close up the gym, but decided to let the students finish the game. While they played, he sat in the stands, reading his Bible.

After they finished, the seminary students came over to thank the man for allowing them to finish, and asked what he was reading.

"The Book of Revelation," the man said.

"Revelation?" one of the students responded. "Do you understand it, with all the symbolism and dragons and strange creatures and illusions?"

"Yes,'' the old man said.

"Well, then, tell us what it means."

The old man said simply, "It means that in the end, Jesus wins."

That, I have to constantly remind myself, is where my nope lies. Not in where I live, where I work, my family, my nationality, my race.

My hope is built on "nothing less, than Jesus' blood and righteousness."





Thursday, September 7, 2017

Free will, predestination, and the biology of sin

Some time ago, I ordered a book that my oldest brother told me about.

Called “The Biology of Sin,” it is a book written by Dr. Mathew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. In it, Dr. Stanford discusses sinful behaviors – adultery, rage, addiction, and homosexuality – asking, What does science say, and what does the Bible say about this behavior? He then goes on in an attempt to reconcile the fact that biological predispositions play a role in behavior which the Bible calls sinful.

It is an interesting discussion, whether there might be biological predisposition for sinful behavior. I’m always reminded of the story of former Ohio State and NFL quarterback Art Schlichter, who literally gambled away his football career because of his compulsive gambling streak, a problem that led to his being sentenced to federal prison for stealing thousands of dollars to keep gambling.

At some point in his story, Schlichter was diagnosed as having an addiction, and gave a tearful interview in which he said something to the effect of, “I’m so thankful to learn it’s a sickness. I thought I was just a loser!”

In our efforts to study human behavior, we have come across all kinds of biological and genetic predisposition that helps us understand our behavior. Alcoholism, gambling, sex, lying, stealing … recently, I met with someone involved in genetic research going on at the UAB Medical Center in Birmingham who told me they think that many people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be genetically predisposed to PTSD.

In that meeting, I jokingly said, “maybe we’re about to determine the answer to the theological question of free will vs. predestination.”

And then a few days later, I picked up a weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and found a column titled, “Does Belief in Free Will Make Us More Ethical? A new paper on the surprising effect of social and political context” https://www.wsj.com/articles/does-belief-in-free-will-make-us-more-ethical-1504192905

The piece refers to a study from 2016, in which participants were given readings informing them that recent advances in neuroscience “cast doubt on the concept of free will.” Upon reading this information, these people tended to become more dishonest in certain situations.

Even more, it was determined that “how much we believe in free will also influences our judgments about how others behave: The more that people believe humans can choose what they do, the more they advocate harsh punishment for criminals.”

It’s a fascinating study that seems to bear out the idea that we will hold ourselves and others to higher standards of behavior if we honestly believe we have a choice, but if we believe we’re “wired” a certain way, we’re more likely to accept our own behavior that we might formerly have called “bad” as inevitable. As the old 1960s comedian Flip Wilson famously said, “The devil made me do it.” Only in this case, the ‘devil’ is our genetic code.

There are heated discussions every day about the conflict between science and faith, and the core is over what causes our sinful behavior, and what does “sin” look like if there are biological predispositions that “explain” our sin.

On the one hand, it is fascinating. Like Art Schlichter, who wouldn’t want to feel that I’m not blame for my bad habits that I can’t seem to break, because I’m “born this way” (to quote that noted thinker Lady Gaga)! You can’t really hold me accountable for my genetic code since I had nothing to do with it. If I lie, steal, cheat, engage in culturally unacceptable sexual behavior (if there is such a thing anymore), and it turns out my biology says I’m predisposed to such behavior, am I really to blame?

On the other hand, I believe sin nature is real. From the beginning – from the Garden of Eden, if you will – man’s genetic code and DNA has been gradually devolving, as disruptions and imperfect genes are introduced, mixed, broken down, etc., like royal families who constantly inbred.

But my predisposition to sin, particularly my predisposition to a particular sin, is not an excuse to continue in that sin. If anything, it’s just that much of a greater challenge to me to be aware of that predisposition, stay on guard, and avoid the temptation.

Is it fair? By that I mean, how can it be fair that my wife, for example, seems to be incapable of telling a lie – in fact, would never think of telling a lie even when perhaps a “little white lie” might seem preferable – while it seems my first reaction to any uncomfortable situation seems to be figuring out a way to say something to avoid the unpleasantness (in other words, lying)? She doesn’t understand my struggle, and in fact may look down on those of us who struggle with the truth because to her it doesn’t make any sense not to tell the truth, knowing life is much simpler and less complicated if we just tell the truth and address uncomfortable situations head-on. But if I’m predisposed to avoiding the truth, then what right does she have to be judgmental since she can’t possibly understand the internal struggle that may be part of my genetic and biological make-up?

No, it’s not fair. But as Scar, the brother who wanted to be king in the movie “The Lion King,’’ so eloquently said, “Life’s not fair. If it were, I would be king!”

If you believe in biology and genetics, then perhaps we shouldn’t judge Scar too harshly for arranging the death of his brother and the exile of his nephew in order for Scar to becoming king.

I’m serious, sort of.

I still believe in free will. I still believe that we have the ability, despite our genetic or biological or scientific predispositions, to just say “no.” It’s tougher for some of us in certain situations, and we need to understand that and be sympathetic about that. I honestly don’t know what you struggle with, any more than you understand my struggles. But I do know we both have struggles. We are, after all, human. And when sin entered the world, so did our struggle to do the “right” thing.

If anything, perhaps this science of predisposition simply reinforces our basic Christian tenant of looking at the log in our own eye before we start on the speck in the eye of our brother (Matthew 7:3-5). That doesn’t mean we ignore the speck in our brothers’ eye – that verse does end with the instructions to “First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Emphasis added).

We still have to deal with each other’s problems. But first, let’s be honest about our own and seek whatever help we need to deal with those as well.

There is a difference between ignoring something and compassion. It’s not compassion to ignore behavior in someone else that may lead to their injury or destruction.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Oswald Chambers and the "Nashville Statement"

If you are not aware of the controversy surrounding the “Nashville Statement,’’ don’t worry. It’s really a theological statement meant to “clarify Christian convictions in a world of changing sexual ethics.” It really wasn't meant for mass consumption.

But if you were raised in a traditional Christian church, there is nothing surprising in the document. It affirms that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman; sex and sexual immorality outside of marriage – whether hetero or homosexual – are not justified; same-sex attraction is not part of God’s original creation; and, in what may be a shocker to those folks who feel Christians are science-deniers, it says you can’t nullify science - your biology - for psychological reasons or desires.

One of the signers, preacher and teacher John Piper, said in an article about it that “In recent years, the celebration of attempts to transform oneself from male to female, or female to male, and the normalization of same-sex attraction, including so-called “same-sex marriage,” have reconfigured the global landscape of sexual ethics. ...

"It is built on the persuasion that the Christian Scriptures speak with clarity and authority for the good of humankind. It is permeated by the awareness that we are all sinners in need of divine grace through Jesus Christ. It affirms with joy that no form of sexual sin is beyond forgiveness and healing. It touches the most fundamental and urgent questions of the hour, without presuming to be a blueprint for political action. And it will prove to be, I believe, enormously helpful for thousands of pastors and leaders hoping to give wise, biblical, and gracious guidance to their people. ...”

There is, as you can imagine, quite a bit of backlash against the Nashville Statement. One article I read called it “deadly theology.” Many said things like, “This doesn’t reflect the Jesus I know.” The mayor of the city of Nashville said “so-called "Nashville Statement" is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city & people of Nashville.” (The document is called the “Nashville Statement” because that is the city where the final version was agreed upon; Nashville has long been the unofficial center of Southern Baptist theology, as the home to the Southern Baptist Convention)

There really isn’t anything new in the statement. It is simply the restating of what has been the traditional view of the Christian faith for roughly 2,000 years. My favorite response, however, was from a Jewish writer named Ben Shapiro, who said, “Did I miss the part of the Nashville Statement where any serious Christian doctrine changed in the slightest?"

Because my family tends to discuss these kind of theological issues, it was an interesting topic of conversation for us, particularly with my youngest son.

The day he and I were engaging in this back-and-forth was September 1. That will be significant in a minute.

I keep a copy of a devotional called “My Utmost For His Highest” by Oswald Chambers. It’s a phenominal devotional that I first discovered while still in high school. It has a devotion for every day of the year, the collected thoughts from a series of talks given by Mr. Chambers in the early 1900s, something like 1911 through 1915 (he died in 1917, I believe).

I have read through this book several times in my life, but it had not been on my reading list recently. However, I came across it while looking for something to read, and I picked it up and turned to that day's date: Sept. 1.

In this particular devotional, Chambers writes “… if through your preaching you convince me I am unholy, I then resent your preaching. The preaching of the gospel awakens an intense resentment because it is designed to reveal my unholiness …”

God’s purpose for man is not our happiness, but our holiness; to make us resemble more closely the character of God through his Son, Jesus. So when we hear things that make us unhappy, or uncomfortable with the way we’re living, it can make us angry or even resentful. I don’t want to stop doing the things I like to do, but because of the “fall” I find that I like doing things that God did not design me to do.

And I think that’s what the Nashville Statement did for some people. In a culture where we’re desperate to convince ourselves and others that God approves of our lives no matter how we’re living, to have someone remind us that the way we’re living may not be in line with God’s will is disturbing. I don’t like to be corrected. I don’t like the suggestion that I may be wrong. I certainly don’t like being told I need to change.

But that is the heart of the Gospel: to “repent” (which means “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one's wrongdoing or sin”), and to seek to live a life that reflects the way God intended for us to live.

I realize that those who object could say, “You’re angry because we’re telling you you’re wrong, that you have a misunderstanding of what God wants.” I get that. But I have also asked people to show me, in Scripture, where the error is in the Nashville Statement. The most I have seen so far is the milquetoast, “Jesus is love” or “Jesus said to love your neighbor” or “Jesus says not to judge.”

To finish with a quote from Chambers that I think sums this up for Christians:

“Never tolerate, because of sympathy for yourself or for others, any practice that is not in keeping with a holy God.”


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

An Unlikely (and Unwilling) Exorcist



It's hard to imagine just what an impact the movie "The Exorcist" had on us in the dark ages of the 1970s.

For those of you too young to remember, "The Exorcist" was a movie about a 12-year old girl who is possessed by demons, and a young priest who takes it upon himself to selflessly save her. It was pretty terrifying stuff, with what were considered pretty complicated special effects for that time period. According to Wikipedia, "The Exorcist" was voted scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly in 1999,by Movies.com in 2010,by viewers of AMC in 2006, and by the editors of Time Out in 2014. In addition, a scene from the film was ranked #3 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." "

I was in college when it came out. I wouldn't go see it, because quite frankly the whole idea scared the bejeebers out of me. As a kid, my family regularly hosted missionaries from around the world, and I remember hearing these stories of demons and demonic events in far-off lands.

However, almost everyone in my dorm did go see it. And they came back looking as if they'd seen a ... well, a demon. One guy was so shook up I remember he told me he didn't go to sleep at all that night, but lay in bed reading a Bible.

Many of them actually went back a second time, and like most things, the more they saw it the less scary it became, and soon it became a running gag in the dorm, complete with attempts to re-enact many of the grosser (more gross? grossiest?) scenes.

And then I was asked to participate in an exorcism.

This was later, one summer while I was working a summer job for a billboard company outside of Athens, Ga. It was a summer filled with crazy stories, working with some really good guys who were just hard-working country boys who took pride in what they did, groused about the boss (that they called "Grump"), and slowly included me in whatever they were doing, which in once case included attending a true Southern country Pentacostal church.

They guys knew I was a church-going guy, that I'd gotten the job because the owner of the company was on the board of a Christian campus organization of which I had someone gotten elected president. They were also smart enough to know that just because I said I was a church-going guy, that didn't necessarily mean I measured up to Pentacostal standards of what it means to be a Christian. Fortunately, at the company picnic, I inadvertently "proved" my faith.

While I'd like to say I "proved" my faith to them with my deep knowledge and understanding of Scripture, or incredible acts of self-sacrifice and kindness, or a piousness which reflected in my every word and deed, remember these were good ol' country Pentacostals. What happened was that, at the company picnic, after I went through the barbecue line and got loaded my plate with ribs, corn on the cob, bread, beans, potato salad, and banana pudding, I went to the drink cooler to get something to wash it all down with. I reached deep into the ice, and the first thing I pulled up with a beer (probably PBR, or Falstaff).

Now, anyone that knows me knows I don't drink alcohol (but I do have a serious sweet tea problem). It's nothing religious; I just have never liked the taste of alcohol. I've tried, but it's just not worth the effort. I've never had an alcoholic beverage that comes anywhere close to being as satisfying as sweet tea or a Coke (Diet Coke, these days). So when I pulled up the can of beer, I dropped it and went fishing until I pulled up an ice-cold can of Coke. (We didn't have Diet Coke back then, only something called "Tab," of which my then-college roommate declared "the only difference between Coke and Tab is that Tab tastes bad!").

Later that day, the old man of our crew - a man we called Phillipi - came up to me and said, "Ray, I know you're a Christian. I saw you pick up that beer, and the way you dropped it and went for a Coke told me everything I need to know."

If I had known what was coming, I might have gone back for the beer.

Phillipi was the sign painter. While billboards in those days were mostly paper, they did have some that were custom painted, and Phillipi would free-hand the most amazing signs. He was the only one who didn't leave the shop during the day. While the rest of us were out on trucks, going from billboard to billboard to change signs or cut grass or do repairs, he had a stool in front of a billboard on which he'd paint whatever the customer wanted. He had a radio that played Gospel, and sang along in this high, nasally tenor voice that rang out like one of the Happy Goodmans (google it; but in their day the Happy Goodmans were Southern Gospel music).

One day, for some reason, I was in the shop when Phillipi told me to get in the truck with him. This was unusual because, as I said, Phillipi didn't leave the shop. I could tell this was important to him, so I climbed with him and off we went, heading out across hill and dale, river and woods, to a place I had no idea about.

I said, "Philippi, where are we going?"

He said, "To cast out a demon, son."

Hmmmm, I thought. Is he serious? And if he is, do I really want to be part of this?

He said, "I want you with me, because I know you're a Christian and a God-fearing man. I want someone who can pray with me when we confront this demon."

I said, "Wait a minute. How do you know about this demon we're going to confront?"

He said, "I got a call. Bobby Tom's wife called and said Bobby Tom was sweating and screaming and cursing and thrashing around and she needs help. He's possessed by a demon."

I don't know that "Bobby Tom" was the real name, by the way. I wasn't really paying that much attention.

We got to Bobby Tom's house. His wife had left and taken the kids. Bobby Tom was indeed lying in his sweat-soaked bed, thrashing and moaning and letting out these crazy yelps and calling for Phillipi (once he realized Phillipi was there) to help him. He'd been throwing up, and the room indeed looked like something out of The Exorcist.

Phillipi - who was a Deacon or Elder or something big in the local Pentacostal church - walked over and sat Bobby Tom up on the side of the bed, laid his hands on his head, and said, "Ray, get in the corner and start praying."

He didn't need to say it twice. As for praying - I'd been doing that ever since he said the words, "We're going to cast out a demon."

"DEMON!" yelled Phillipi, bouncing Bobby Tom up and down on the bed. "COME OUT! I ORDER YOU IN THE NAME OF JESUS! COME OUT! SPEAK TO ME, DEMON, I AIN'T AFRAID OF YOU! SPEAK TO ME, AND PREPARE TO LEAVE THIS GOOD MAN!"

Meanwhile, I was in the corner, petrified, but I was praying. However, while Phillipi was praying for the Demon to speak and be recognized, I was praying, "Oh, please, Demon, if you're really in there, don't say anything! Just leave! Please don't do anything or say anything!"

I might have been working at cross-purposes with Phillipi.

Anyway, Phillipi went on like this for awhile, calling out to the Demon, ordering him, demanding, bouncing poor Bobby Tom up and down on the side of the bed, slapping his hands on Bobby Tom's forehead and temple, while Bobby Tom groaned and moaned and sweated and started shivering violently, which only encouraged Phillipi even more.

"I SEE YOU SHIVERING, DEMON!" he yelled. "YOU CAN'T RESIST THE NAME OF JESUS! COME OUT! COME OUT!"

And I was in the corner silently praying, "Resist, Demon! Don't say a word! Just go away!"

This went on for what felt like a half hour but was probably ... well, maybe a half hour. Finally, Bobby Tom let out this loud groan and collapsed back on his bed. Phillipi mopped his brow and stood back, looking at him.

"Get me some water," Phillipi said.

I went to the kitchen where, in the trash can, I noticed a bag full of crushed beer cans. Dozens of them. On the corner was a case of beer, half gone. I got the water and went back to Phillipi.

"Phillipi?" I said, quietly. "You need to come see this. I think I know the Demon's name - Falstaff."

I took Phillipi into the kitchen, where he looked around. "Demon Alcohol!" he roared, nonplussed.

We went through all the cabinets looking for alcohol, and loaded up everything we could find in the back of the truck. Bobby Tom was passed out on his bed, and we left him there.

"You know, Phillipi," I said. "I don't think it was a demon. I think it was the DT's (Delirium tremens)."

Phillipi pulled over on a bridge that ran over the Ocoee River and got out of the truck.

"You call it what you want," he said, as he proceeded to dump all the alcohol into the river. "It's a demon either way."

We got back to the shop and the other guys had come back. I told them about what we'd been doing, including dumping the beer over the bridge into the Ocoee.

"Which bridge?" was the question.

There was a second run that afternoon. I didn't go on this one. But I think it had something to do with a truck parked on the side of the road, and a bunch of good ol' boys clambering down the hillside into a local river.

Sometimes, one man's demon is another man's blessing.

Or something like that.






Friday, August 18, 2017

Sticks and stones

I grew up memorizing a saying that perhaps you remember as well:

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

We know, of course, that it isn't true; that words can and do indeed hurt. I've been hurt by words, just as I know that I've used words against other people that have hurt. Sometimes I've said things on purpose, with the intent to hurt; sometimes I've said things inadvertently that I didn't know would hurt. But it hurt just the same.

That's one of the reasons the Bible says a lot about our words.

Proverbs says, "Death and life [are] in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof." In Peter writes (in 1 Peter), "For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no lies."

James writes one of the most profound lessons on the human tongue (and words), "Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison...."

That's pretty strong language in itself, and does a great job of letting us know the power of our words. As Uncle Ben is given credit for saying in "The Amazing Spider Man," "With great power comes great responsibility." Our tongue and our words are a great power; we need to understand and respect the responsibility that comes with language and communication.

That being said ...

While I now understand that the childhood proverb about "words" is not necessarily true, more and more I realize the point of the proverb was valuable.

One, it says words won't hurt me. It implies that I can make a choice on being insulted. If I tell myself that the words won't hurt, maybe I can limit (if not in some cases eliminate) the hurt they cause. We can choose to not be insulted - or, more realistically, we can chose after we've been insulted to not let the insult fester or to respond in kind. It's not easy, but the proverb was one that drilled into my head when I was a kid that because words couldn't physically hurt me, I didn't have to fear what people said.

The second point is the better one; usually we said that phrase in response to something someone said to us that we found hurtful, or was meant to hurt. Maybe the words being said did, indeed, hurt, but by saying "your words will never hurt me" we turned it back on our attacker. There is nothing worse than knowing you don't matter to someone, and to say "your words don't bother me" is to essentially say to them, "you have no control over me, my life, my feelings." When someone offends me, the "sticks and stones" phrase taught me to throw it back at them by not repaying evil with evil but by ignoring it. Refuse to acknowledge it. You know, if you like me or you hate me, at least I know that you know I exist and have some power in your life. But to be not just ignored by you but to be told you don't even think about me? That what I say or do never enters into your thoughts? - that's really powerful. To realize you don't even acknowledge my existence is as if I don't exist, that I don't have any meaning or purpose, that - to you, anyway - I may as well never have been born.

(The better response really is another Proverb: "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head ..." That's the old idea of killing them with kindness, a much better response, to be truthful.)

I think we should go back to teaching our kids that while someone can take sticks and stones and physically hurt us, we have some power over whether their words affect us.

There was another saying I remember from my youth. When someone said something particularly vile, you'd hear someone say, "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"

That's pretty good, too. It's the idea that we use the same mouth to say hateful things as we do to say (or do) loving things. Or, as James says further along the passage above, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. ..."

No, it shouldn't. We do need to be aware to be responsible with our words and how we use them, what we say and who we say things too.

I have always tried to be a strong enough individual not let your words hurt me.

But more importantly, I pray that I become wise enough not to let my words hurt you.

*It occurs to me that sometimes we have to say things that will offend people. That's part of caring for them; "speaking the truth in love." Sometimes really caring for someone is to tell them something they need to hear, for their protection or correction or edification. That's a whole 'nother post, of ocurse, of how we do that.
But when it comes to words, as George Orwell once wrote, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear."



Wednesday, August 9, 2017

United by the Friendly Skies

Remember how much fun it was to come off an airplane, make that walk up the “jet way”, and find some smiling face waiting for you at the top?

I think about that every time I come off an airplane these days. It used to be that when someone went to the airport to pick you up, they parked the car, came inside, and went down to the terminal gate to wait for you to come off the plane.

Now, of course, when you go to pick someone up at the airport, it’s like going through a drive-thru at a fast food place – you drive slowly in a long line of cars, looking for the person you’re there to pick up, knowing you can’t stop unless you see them. If you don’t see them, you have to keep going, circle the airport, and come through the line again. If you do see them, you get to stop but you better be quick and get that door open for them while throwing their luggage into the trunk before airport security comes over to tell you to move along.

I used to fly a lot. Most of the time it was for work, so there was rarely anyone waiting for me at the top of the ramp at the jetway. I’d walk through the access door and see those hopeful, expectant faces look at me for the briefest of seconds, then quickly move on to see who came through the door next because I wasn’t the one they were looking for. But it was kind of fun to see all the smiling faces, hear the squeals of excitement from wives or husbands waiting to hug their loved one, the kids running to greet grandma or grandpa who were coming for a visit.

Now, of course, you just come off hoping to get the attention of an airline attendant who can tell you your connecting flight is not at the gate it says on your ticket but is now two terminals – a 10 minute train ride and 15 minute walk – away, but they’re already boarding that flight so you probably won’t make it.

Recently I came off a flight and suddenly thought, “What was the captain’s name?” Do airline pilots – captains – even introduce themselves anymore? I can remember a time when the flight always started with “this is your captain, Ted Stryker, welcoming you aboard …” or ending with “on behalf of Captain Ted Stryker and the entire Chicago-based flight crew, welcome to Orlando and thank you for flying Pan American…”

Maybe they still introduce themselves and I’ve gotten so used to it that I no longer listen.

Not that it really matters. In all the times I’ve begun to ascend into the friendly skies, I never had the speaker come on and hear “This is your captain, Ted Stryker …” and the guy next to me say, “Oh, he’s really good! I always try to fly with Captain Stryker!” It’s not like you go buy a ticket to fly and the reservation agent says, “Where are you going?” and you say, “Well, tell me what route Captain Ted Stryker is flying. I always fly with Captain Ted.”

My parents used to live across the street from a Delta airline pilot. He was a great guy, and a good neighbor. One time he asked me to deposit his paycheck because I was going to the bank. I’m not sure why he asked me to do that; I’d never ask someone to deposit my paycheck for me. Although, come to think of it, he certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. This was the 1970s, when being a pilot was still pretty glamorous, and I don’t know if he was paid weekly, twice a month, or monthly, but I do know that paycheck I deposited for him was about half to a third of what I was making in a year in my first newspaper job (of course, I started out at $150 a week).

But as a sportswriter, I flew quite a bit. And being in Atlanta at the time, I flew Delta a lot. Every time I flew, I listened for the pilot to make his introduction just in case it was my neighbor. It never was. I’m not sure what difference it would have made if it had been, although I guess I could turn to the person sitting next to me and say, “Oh, I know this guy. He’s really good. And you’ll never guess how much money he makes!”

I always thought of pilots as these real adventurous guys, the old “daring young men in their flying machines” kind of image. When you think about it, they are really just glorified cabbies. Their job is to pick you up at point A and get you to point B safely. Unlike cabbies however, you can’t say something like “there’s an extra 20 in it if you can get me there in 15 minutes!”

Pilots do what they are told. They fly at the elevation they are told to fly, and mindlessly follow the directions given them by “the tower.” You know, as in , “the tower tells us we’re No. 19 for takeoff, so settle back for a few minutes and we’ll get you airborne just as soon as it’s our turn on the run way.”

You know what I’d like? A pilot who had been a cabbie, who didn’t care about stop signs or speed limits and could dodge cars, bikes, pedestrians, garbage cans, baby carriages, and knew all the shortcuts to get you where you wanted to go.

Just once, I’d like a pilot say, “the tower tells us we’re No. 19 in line for takeoff, but you know what? To heck with them – we’re not waiting,’’ and the next thing you know he pulls out on the grass between runways and starts accelerating past all the other planes who are waiting in line, making a run for the open run way. We’d all be looking out the window, terrified at first, but then seeing all the other schmucks sitting in the long line of planes being forced to wait their turn. We’d all starting yelling, “Go, Captain Ted! Go!” And at the last minute he swerves back on the paved part of the runway at the front of the line and the next thing you know we’ve got lift off!

I mean, what are they going to do? We’re getting ready to take off into the wild blue yonder, and if he gets us to Point B on time or even early … well, that’s the kind of guy I’d want to book my next flight with, regardless of where he was going. It’s the kind of guy that when he came on and said, “This is Captain Ted Stryker…” you can bet I’d turn to the guy next to me and say, “Oh, this guy’s good. Fasten your seatbelt. You’re not going to believe what we’re about to do …”