Monday, December 15, 2014

Longing for Yesteryear

When was your yesteryear?

Was it several years ago, when your children were younger?  Was it a couple of decades ago, when you graduated college, or got married?  Was it half a century ago, when the world seemed to be a far simpler place?

My yesteryear was two months ago, back when my father's dementia was merely stressful.  My yesteryear is the beginning of November, when Dad could still recognize me as his eldest son.

Before he began accusing me of being evil.  Of being Satan.

My yesteryear is even before he began to believe I was going to kill him.

Starting on Thursday evening, and every night since then, Dad has prayed out loud to God for peace as he prepared for me to murder him.  Every evening, in what is called "sundowning" (the process in which dementia patients react in disturbing ways to nightfall), Dad now lives in profound fear.  Fear of Mom, fear of me, and fear of what he thinks we're going to do to him.

He shakes in agony, his voice cracks, he sobs without tears.  He whispers disbelief at how his life is about to be stolen from him.  He prays to God defiantly so I can hear that however I kill him, as he truly expects, I'll know I can't kill his spirit.

You don't see any of this on the Alzheimer websites.  You see lots of information about walking with Alzheimer patients through their earliest memories, but there's nothing about how to handle a loved one who believes you're about to murder them in cold blood.

My yesteryear is the time - about three weeks ago - before Mom began getting so afraid of Dad, and what he might do to himself and us, that she began calling 911.  She's called them three times now, and each time, the police come out and quietly try to diffuse our situation.  The first two times, it worked:  Dad calmed down and his fears subsided.  Saturday night, however, he began arguing with the cops, and I finally encouraged them to leave, since no progress was being made.

Yesterday afternoon, we experienced the earliest onset of Dad's sundowning, with the questions and fear beginning at about 5:00.  He'd scowl at Mom, asking for her identity.  He'd glare at me, disbelieving anything I told him.  I found one of his CDs of hymn music and played it, watching his face sink into his hands, as if in prayer.  Mom and I looked at each other, smiling to see him asking God for peace in the midst of his confusion.

Then he raised his head and looked defiantly at both of us.  He declared that he was ready for whatever harm we were about to inflict upon him.  We then realized he'd been praying for the faith and courage to face his imminent death.

Mom choked back tears.

I silently chided myself for being so gullible as to hope a simple thing like playing soothing music could intercept his worsening dementia.

My yesteryear was when Dad merely forgot that his sister no longer lives in Brooklyn, where they had grown up.  Every time they spoke on the phone, Dad would ask her three or four times where she lived, since the experiences she told him about her day had nothing to do with the old neighborhood.  Last night, for the first time, he angrily told her she was lying to him, and tried to hang up the phone.  Mom grabbed the receiver from him and commiserated with my aunt over what had just happened.  Dad had turned on his own sister, the last person alive who can relate to their family's childhood experiences.

My yesteryear was an almost unbelievable one or two inches ago, back around the beginning of November, when I couldn't wear several old, old pairs of denim jeans.  I fit comfortably into them now, thanks to all the weight I've suddenly lost.  Because of my constant anxiety, my appetite has shriveled up, and so has my waistline.  I'm still hungry, but I can barely brace myself for whatever new hell we're going to face each evening with Dad's condition.

My yesteryear was when Dad refused to go to church because he didn't want anybody to see that he needed to use a cane.  On Sunday mornings, after breakfast and before the time he and Mom usually left for their church, he'd feign an illness, such as being too tired or dizzy.  But then, as soon as I announced that Mom had left for church alone, suddenly he was chipper and professing that he felt fine.

My yesteryear was when Dad fought with Mom and me for trying to help him take a shower safely.  It could take half an hour to coax him into the bathroom to take a 5-minute shower.  And those strategically-placed handrails Mom paid some contractor a ridiculous amount of money to install in their bathroom?  He would disdainfully use them only after I'd repeatedly remind him of their obvious presence.

My yesteryear was back when Dad didn't fear me as his potential killer; he merely considered me the bad guy in our household; the person upon whom most of his anger was directed.  Mom and I had learned that because of the confusion and anxiety dementia patients experience, they tend to direct their resulting anger towards one of their caregivers.  Usually, that unfortunate target of their anger is their spouse.  Yet in our case, since I'm living at home with them, as the overweight, underemployed son, I caught most of Dad's vitriol.  And that was okay, since it usually spared Mom from even higher levels of stress.

But those days appear to be over, and long gone.  When sundowning begins, both Mom and I are equal-opportunity targets for his scorn, vitriol, and outright ugliness.  Some experts say we should nurture Dad's childhood memories and walk through his version of reality with him, validating his humanity despite his confusion.  Unfortunately for us, however, Dad's childhood was irreparably scarred by an alcoholic father.  There is little in his earliest memories that is good.  Years ago, during one of his extremely infrequent mentions of his father, Dad told us that the day he came home from work to find his father dead in their apartment's foyer, there was such profound relief in his family, it took a while before anybody figured they should call somebody to remove the body.

Fortunately for us, there's an elder at Mom and Dad's church who has willingly come over on each of these past few nights and helped to calm Dad down.  This elder, Ron, has a remarkable knack for chatting through topics to find nuggets of relevance that can engage the person with whom he's talking.  With Dad, his only really good childhood memories involve watching Dodgers baseball games at Ebbets Field, and Ron, having grown up as an improbable Dodgers fan himself, despite being raised in rural Texas, can talk to him about the old players.

In my yesteryear, Mom once had me research and print off some information on the old Dodgers and their legendary players, but Dad read just a couple of sentences of it and then filed it someplace.  We haven't seen it since.

Ron is an engineer.  He was also military pilot, and has worked in several different industries, so he's accrued a broad and diverse history from which he can draw stories and anecdotes that touch on Dad's history in the military and employment in the concrete construction business.  Meanwhile, the life histories Mom and I each have are inextricably tied into Dad's.  And since he doesn't know who we are, he doesn't trust us when we talk - especially about experiences it's apparent he should remember along with us.  Mom and I try to talk with Dad like Ron does, but invariably, Dad becomes suspicious, and before long, he's denying what we're saying, and getting agitated.  I suspect that Mom and I are too close to him, even though he can't remember why we're close.  People like Ron are removed from his life just far enough so that there's a certain casualness to their relationship.

Chalk it up to one of the difficult ironies of dementia.  Dad would cheerfully chat away with telemarketers and willingly offer up his credit card information if we let him.  Yet he's fearful of us.  He convinces himself I'm going to murder him, yet he'd shuffle out the front door, off to who knows where in the black of night, if we'd let him.  He enthusiastically welcomes Ron into his reality, but he bitterly accuses Mom and me of holding him hostage.

In my yesteryear, I wasn't a hostage-holder.  I wasn't Satan.  I wasn't about to murder my precious Dad.

I want my yesteryear back, and everything it stood for.

In God's holy providence, however, even today's misery will soon become a yesteryear for which I'll likely pine as we descend ever lower into this netherworld called Alzheimer's.

Update - Sure enough; it's 4:09pm on Monday, and Mom and are getting ready to take Dad to the hospital, where his neurologist has arranged for him to be admitted before his inevitable placement into a nursing home.  As you might imagine, this is very hard.  Very.  Hard.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

NYC, San Francisco... and Arlington, TX?

How legitimate is this list?

It puts Arlington, Texas, between New York City and San Francisco as the top three cities for today's millennials to live.

Arlington... Texas?

It reminds me of the little ditty, "one of these things is not like the others."

Hey - I live here, and I'm single, although I'm no longer in my 20's, like millennials are.  My Dallas friends consider Arlington a cultural wasteland, however, and most people across the rest of the country only know of Arlington as the place where the Dallas Cowboys play.

Arlington, Virginia, is far better known, and even here in Texas, is probably considered far hipper and attractive to twentysomethings than Arlington, Texas.

Yet the self-absorbed webzine Vocativ says they've crunched the numbers, and in their second survey of America's 35 most populous cities for millennials, it's New York City in the top spot, with Arlington in the second spot, and the city by the bay in the third spot.  At least as far as being attractive places for today's twentysomethings to live, work, and play. 

For its part, Vocativ is a relatively new media concern that has yet to impress the digital community, and it's struggling to establish itself within its target demographic:  millennials.  Will this survey help make the website appear relevant to such people?

To be fair, this survey of theirs isn't so much about where millennials are currently living, as it is where they should be living, at least according to the perceived metrics millennials embrace in their lifestyles.  As interpreted, at least, by Vocativ.

So, OK:  Having New York and San Francisco anchoring two of the top three spots isn't hard to understand.  These two perennial urban hot spots have been magnets for young people for generations.  In fact, what's surprising is that Portland, Oregon, commanded the top spot in Vocativ's first such listing.  Sure, I hear Portland is a hip and trendy place, but in terms of raw appeal, especially to impressionable and highly idealistic young adults, there's no comparison between the Big Apple, San Francisco, and any other city on this list.

Which brings us again to Arlington's curious association with such appealingly cosmopolitan, world-class, popular, and expensive cities.

There's nothing glamorous about this city I'm living in.  Sure, we have an impressive stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, and an attractive baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers, but they're surrounded by acres of parking lots, not trendy neighborhoods full of quirky restaurants, gastropubs, and coffee shops.

We do have something approximating a downtown area, but it's hardly what anybody would call bustling.  Most of the buildings downtown are occupied by government agencies and non-profits, like the miniature empire of Mission Arlington, a Baptist social services center.  We have a large university district, but it's for the University of Texas at Arlington, whose aesthetically bland campus and academically average pedigree prevent it from exploiting a prominent collegiate profile.

We have an outdoor concert venue downtown that is pleasant enough, but its schedule is limited to 50 nights out of the year when the evening temperature is bearable.  However, Arlington does boast the original Six Flags amusement park, as well as a convenient 15-minute drive to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.  We have some charming older residential neighborhoods, along with a lot of aging cookie-cutter-type subdivisions and sprawling apartment complexes, in which housing is abundant and affordable.  Just about every chain restaurant known to man has at least one outlet in town, shopping in plentiful and all parking is free, we've got three major freeways to get you anywhere you want to go in the wider north Texas region, and we're geographically located smack in the middle between Fort Worth to the west, and Dallas to the east. 

In other words, Arlington is the affordable, pleasant, convenient, family-friendly, conventional American city that those of us who live here know it to be.

It's not flashy, or trendy, or sophisticated, or artsy, although we do have a respectable amateur theater scene.  Most residents have to commute outside of Arlington to their jobs, but that's the story in many of the suburban communities clustered around Fort Worth and Dallas.  We have a world-class cancer center here in town, but hopefully that's not something millennials have to worry about in their young lives.

Vocativ admits that Arlington's relative affordability represents the single biggest reason we're number two on their list.  They try to paint our humble town as an up-and-coming hipster enclave, but if that's the case, it's news to all of us who live here.  Basically, if you're a level-headed twentysomething who takes responsibility for your own personal expenses, Vocativ's list gives you something to consider in Arlington.  Otherwise, Arlington seems to be more of an aberration within - rather than an affirmation of - Vocativ's statistical prowess.

And if you dig a little bit into Vocativ's other results, you'll see that Arlington's prominence isn't their only analytical oddity.

Cleveland, Ohio, for example, comes in at #10 in the entertainment category.  News to you, too, huh?

Then too, when they calculated housing costs, Vocativ threw in a consideration for how much a house cleaning service costs - which either says a lot of negative things about how pampered Vocativ's staffers are, or how spoiled millennials are in general.

And when calculating the costs of spending an evening on the town, Vocativ factored in the cost of marijuana in various cities across America.

Let's just say that marijuana is illegal in Arlington.  Weed is something in our lawns that we mow.

So if you're single, young, and looking for the most truly "livable" city in the United States, you'll find a lot of rational, boring reasons for taking a look at Arlington, Texas.  Sure, we're just about the antithesis of what New York and San Francisco offer you - or demand from you, but should life be all about big city excitement?

Hey - for that, what about Cleveland?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Churches Dreaming of a White Christmas

Adapted from an essay I wrote on November 2, 2012:

We're thick into the Christmas season now, and churches of all denominations and theological stripes are having their annual Christmas concerts.

These concerts, of course, range in style and focus from sentimental seasonal standards to contemporary Christian extravaganzas to high-brow classical.  We have a gargantuan megachurch here in suburban Dallas that puts on a show every year to rival the legendary spectacle at Radio City Music Hall, complete with camels and flying angels.  I've never attended myself, but I hear their production is astonishingly professional and immensely entertaining.

Besides, since Santa Claus himself bows before the manger prop containing the Baby Jesus, it's supposedly good evangelism to boot.

And we evangelicals wonder why the world around us increasingly views our faith as some sort of fuzzy fable.  We like to blame the world for corrupting Christmas, but aren't we doing our part within the church to mythologize what we say we believe, especially when it comes to the narrative surrounding the birth of our Savior?

Christmas is No Myth

Forget all of the commercialization, the partying, the excessive gift-giving, the decorations, and the other busyness of this season.  Plenty of critics have already pointed out how the theological implications of Christ's nativity get lost in the ways we Westerners overdose on what we call "holiday cheer."

Meanwhile, one of the subtlest ways people within the church tend to fritter away the Biblical legitimacy of Christmas involves our complicity in perpetuating its traditionalist fallacies.  We want the nativity to be nostalgic and pretty.  Yet aren't the facts of Christ's incarnation far less cosseted and pristine?  How white should Christmas be, anyway, both in terms of the European spin we give it, and the snowy dusting with which we Western Caucasian evangelicals fondly depict it?

If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, let me remind you of the real deal:  Mary was a pregnant teenager who'd just finished a grueling trek forced upon her and her fiancĂ© - who wasn't the father of her baby - by their imperious government.  They ended up in a stable, with smelly hay, smelly farm animals, smelly excrement from those smelly farm animals, and no obstetrician, neonatal nurse, or midwife in sight.  Their first visitors after Christ's birth weren't nobility, but a group of illiterate shepherds.

In addition, this all took place probably in March or April, not the dead of winter, and the magi were just starting out on their journey after seeing the star in the East.  It would take them a couple of years to make it to the place where the young Christ child was.  And by then, it wouldn't have been a stable.

And guess what - it hardly ever snows in temperate Bethlehem.

Actually, if we told the story authentically, wouldn't we see that the reality of Christ's birth is more profound than the frosted fantasy into which our culture has polished it?  Thankfully, some of our songwriters have gotten it right, and attempted to marvel at God's perfect way of introducing Christ to this planet.  But it's hard for merchants to sell Christmas as an arduous, unsanitary, disenfranchised, and bizarre event.  And unfortunately, the evangelical church has been mostly complicit with the Nativity's commercializers in making the Incarnation a sellable product for once-a-year churchgoers.

Christmas Music Needs Authenticity

Regular readers of my blog essays know that I'm an unabashed advocate for classical hymnody.  I actually believe that what we consider to be traditional corporate worship provides, on the whole, a focus on Christ and God's holiness that comes closer to what our Trinity expects when we gather together to honor Him.  I'm willing to contend that culturally, our genre of classical music has become less a Caucasian, European contrivance as much as it has become a universally-renowned, broadly-appreciated style of stately repertoire uniquely suited to the worship of God, no matter where we're born, or in what society we've been raised.

Yes, that means some expressions of culture are better than others.  It's a politically incorrect thing to say, and, some think, a woefully impertinent thing to believe.  But it's true.  No human culture is perfect, or even ideal.  And many are utterly unBiblical.  Doesn't this mean that, when it comes to how we express our adoration of God to Him, particularly in public, we can't rely on cultural norms to be adequate?  Just because we're under the misapprehension that God values all cultural norms equally?

Don't we need to discriminate between what's good, and what's adequate, or even downright inappropriate?

When it comes to such cultural institutions as Christmas, shouldn't we resist the urge to let culture dictate our worship?  Shouldn't communicating the glory of Christ's birth be done with as much theological and historical integrity as possible?

Poetic License to Mythologize?

Consider, then, one of most revered songs within the Christmas repertoire.  It's called "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the text is by noted poet Christina Rossetti, who lived from 1830 until 1894.  For the most part, these lyrics withstand basic theological scrutiny fairly well.  Yet Rossetti incorporates snowy winter themes and references the Wise Men in a way that bolsters the fictitious narrative of popular Christmas lore, which does a grave disservice to the historical accuracy of Christ's birth.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Thematically, the references to a "bleak midwinter" could be argued as being allegorical to the span of quiet time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, when it's widely thought that God's presence had been generally withheld from our planet.  Then too, since centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church had moved the observance of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which symbolizes a time of death between the seasons of decay and renewal, a "bleak midwinter" presents a poetic linkage between mortal sin and salvation.

For the artistic among us, appreciating these delicate abstractions may be a permissible way to forgive the historical inaccuracies that help to mythologize Christmas.  Scott Aniol, a professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that on its literary merits alone, the poetry of "In the Bleak Midwinter" makes it a bona-fide carol for evangelicals to use during Advent.

"What Rossetti is portraying in her poem," reasons Aniol, "is not a weather report on the day of Christ’s birth.  Rather, she is using quite conventional metaphorical imagery to paint a picture of the condition of the world when Jesus was born.  This was a harsh world, a world that was cold as ice, dark as midnight, and hard as iron... Sin had built up upon the world like snow piled upon snow upon snow upon snow.  This world was bleak.  And it is into this world that the God of Heaven descended.  Rossetti beautifully contrasts the bleakness of a cold dark world with the warmth and light of the stable.  You can almost see the light and feel the warmth through her words."

That may be, but is artistic license sufficient authorization for reinforcing inaccurate cultural baggage when it comes to the Gospel?  Literary nuance is one thing, but isn't basing it on pagan fables a bit counter-productive?  She may sure write pretty, but Rossetti's imagery does little to convey a universal application of the Christmas story to cultures where references to snow and its allegorical qualities risks tilting the Incarnation towards a Western - and therefore, foreign - aesthetic.

Granted, the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle we Christians can put in the way of Christ's redemptive work, but how loving is it for us to intentionally and unnecessarily complicate parts of the Gospel?

Let's Liberate Christmas from Ethnocentrism!

Maybe you don't mind singing songs that are exclusive to your culture and cohort.  And in terms of everyday socialization, doing so isn't wrong, in and of itself.  But when it comes to the Gospel, shouldn't we be seeking to free God's Good News from the shackles of our own cultural bondage?  The message of God becoming incarnate for us is a global message.  And it's not our message - it's God's!

For a full half of our planet, the midwinter is hardly bleak and snowy.  For them, it's like North America's and Europe's summertime!  If we sang Rossetti's song in Australia or Nigeria, we'd have to throw in the caveat, "well, this was written by a European white woman; you'll have to free it from its cultural baggage."

Maybe there are some Nigerian Christmas songs that talk about how hot and dusty it must have been during the winter when Christ was born.  See how awkward that would be for us?

Therefore, shouldn't Christ's Nativity be equally relevant to all of God's Elect, no matter where we live?  Or what our winters look like?

I'm not interested in preserving Western hymnody simply for nostalgia's sake.  I think the bulk of Western hymnody should be applicable to as many cultures as possible, because it has that much theological and artistic integrity.  It may have originated in Western cultures, but just like the message it declares, it can be universal in its applicability.

Why doesn't the church return those dreams of a white Christmas to Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby!  And why don't we instead sing:

In the bleak midwinter of mans' weary soul, 
    past the prophets' telling, silence from God's shoal;
Earth stood hard as iron, gloom as shrouds of snow, 
    in the bleak midwinter long ago.

- I edited the first verse of Rossetti's poem for a choral performance of this piece in 2007 at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Old News, Old Political Games in CIA Study

If waterboarding isn't torture, why did the CIA do it?

If stripping detainees naked and dragging them along the floor isn't torture, why bother?

Is the CIA run by a bunch of sadistic perverts who enjoy contriving agony from people simply because they can?  If that is the case, then we really have some deep problems in the United States of America.

If, on the other hand, our government was desperate to learn about other ways Muslim extremists intended to attack the "Free World" after 9-11, did former president Bush and his administration simply bend the rules a little too much?

Some pundits fear that the Senate Intelligence Committee's release today of its report on the CIA's use of torture could spark a new wave of extremist aggression against Americans and American interests abroad.  Yet the bar for terrorism was set mighty high on 9-11, without anybody knowing the depths to which Americans would go in torturing suspected Islamists.

Indeed, in the months and years immediately following that tragic day, the democratic world's combined intelligence community really didn't know what it was up against.  Their attack models, leads, informants, and operational knowledge of terrorist capabilities had been proven woefully inadequate by what the world witnessed in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania.  What else didn't we know?  When might something else as bad - or worse - take place?

For the record, and for a country as obsessed with laws, the courts, and due process as the United States, there's little wiggle room when it comes to condoning torture.  As her committee unfurled its voluminous report this morning, California senator Dianne Feinstein rhapsodized that our country is big enough and powerful enough to absorb whatever repercussions there might be in declassifying such sensitive information, and she rightly said that torture should be something our country opposes, both here at home, and abroad.

But is today's grand reveal really about torture?  Is the "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program" actually about the morality of what the Bush administration condoned in our name?  Or is all of the political and media fuss over today's release merely a re-hashing of aging partisan vendettas?

Read far enough into the study, and you'll realize there's little in it that you haven't heard before.  We've heard stories about how the CIA inflicted pain and humiliation on suspected terrorists.  We watched eight years ago as the CIA and the Bush administration squabbled between themselves - and amongst themselves - regarding who authorized what when it came to things like waterboarding.  Dick Cheney has been snarling for ages about how appropriate everything was.  Just about the only thing we didn't fully comprehend was how frustrated members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were with what they perceived to be a lack of inclusion in the CIA's agenda.

Which is really what this study is about, isn't it?  In a way, it's the Senate's opportunity to whine in public about feeling like they were only bit players in what America's secret intelligence operatives were doing - at the behest of a Republican presidential administration.

What makes things juicy is that they can wallow in the details of torture to titillate an audience who'd likely otherwise fall asleep while reading it.  And they don't have to take any responsibility for having possibly turned a blind eye at the time to interrogation methods that politicians of all political stripes may have condoned in the frantic season after 9-11.

Regular readers of my blog know that I'm no flag-waving fan of the Bush administration.  And that I'm even less enamored by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other right-wing hawks who kept their White House careening wildly along a narrow ledge of accountability over the threatening canyon of Muslim terrorism for two white-knuckle terms.

But what is there in this report that we didn't already know?  Other than the fact that "the CIA has actively avoided or impeded" the oversight that the Senate, the media, the White House, and other agencies and departments believed were rightfully theirs to assert?

For that, we need a 500-page "executive summary" for a 6,000-page report?

Here's a news flash for you, senators:  now you know how the American electorate feels about how Washington has been treating us for lo, these many years.

You want torture?  Try voting and paying taxes, election cycle after election cycle, only to see your dysfunction corrupt our political discourse.

Not to trivialize the inhumane degradation and physical harm that the CIA inflicted upon its dozens of prisoners, as recounted in this exhaustive Senate report.

But neither should we trivialize with petulant partisan gamesmanship the torture most of us should be able to recognize in the pages of this report.

Do you want this to instead be about America's turning away from torture?  That's fine.  Yet, from an altruistic human rights perspective, shouldn't we be able to discuss methods of acquiring sensitive information from enemy combatants without re-branding old news in new ways to buy face time on national television?

It's awfully hard to see the CIA as being the problem with so many senators ogling for the media spotlight.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bruised Reeds and Weak Wicks

Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen, in whom My soul delights:
I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up His voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed He will not break,
and a faintly burning wick He will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
  - Isaiah 41:1-3 ESV

As God speaks through His prophet, Isaiah, regarding the promise and purposes of Christ, it's easier to focus on the grander things, and overlook the smaller.

At least, it's easier for me to focus on Christ's grand purposes, like bringing justice to the nations.  Pretty impressive, huh?  Meanwhile, I overlook the fact that God pointedly assures me that His holy Son will not run roughshod over the weak as He accomplishes his momentous, eternal objectives on Earth.

Of course, God's justice is broad and deep.  It is the perfect accomplishment of His plans and designs for each one of us, where we live, and when we live.  It's as perfect and strategic for you - no matter the country in which you're accessing this article on the Internet - as it was for the Jews in Isaiah's day.

When we mortal humans accomplish big things, unfortunately, we usually tend to inflict a considerable amount of collateral damage along the way.  China, for example, has obliterated so many densely-populated neighborhoods in its desire to build some of the world's most ostentatious buildings, social scientists worry that indigenous cultural features from China's ancient traditions may be vanishing within a single generation.

As the pastor at my church who preached from this text above pointed out in his sermon yesterday, we Americans were pushed into World War Two's Pacific Theater with the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.  Yet our valiant fight for freedom was quietly compromised as over 100,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during the war.  Quite the irony, wouldn't you say?

God, however, will accomplish His epic, universal, and even intimate purposes without destroying His people.  How could he act otherwise?  Pure, complete justice such as the sort God represents doesn't inflict collateral damage of any sort amongst those who serve Him.  This means that in terms of our deficiencies or problems, He will not discard disciples who have suffered injury, nor will he snuff out weak-spirited followers.

Isn't His an amazing depiction of sovereign care and grace in the midst of Isaiah 42's sweeping pronouncements about all Christ will accomplish?  Even in the midst of such utterly profound feats as creating us, giving sight to the blind, freeing captives, and defending His glorious honor, God will preserve the lowly, and the damaged, and the weak.

God watches over bruised reeds and weak wicks.

Regular readers of my blog know those things that weaken me, and that have bruised me emotionally and mentally.  And even spiritually.  For years, I've felt like a faintly-burning wick, barely able to cast a glow, let alone a shadow.  My spirituality has been beset by doubts and fears, and it's easier for me to feel sorry for myself than be confident in my future.

Indeed, I tend to see myself more as a wick than a reed.  How about you?  A bruised reed sounds as though it's describing an otherwise innocent person who has been injured by somebody or something else.  A faintly-burning wick seems to more aptly describe somebody who simply feels as though their very being has been compromised by some debilitating deficit within themselves. 

I don't blame anybody else for my depression, or for anything else that has affected me negatively.  Not that I'm a model of forgiveness, or champion of letting bygones be bygones.  I simply haven't been victimized any more than anybody else.

What I do believe, however, is that my chronic clinical depression has drained so much emotional, physical, and spiritual energy from me, that if I were to demonstrate the amount of fuel within my soul, and a wick were inserted to try and generate some sort of light or warmth from that fuel, the flame would be faint at best.

Yet Christ didn't come to punish me for having a faintly-burning wick.  He didn't come to snuff me out!  Amen?  He knows my weaknesses, and He's come to save me from them.  Not penalize me!

Of course, in order to benefit from this reality, I need to believe that Jesus - even the baby much of the world celebrates in some fashion at this time of the year - is indeed the Christ, the holy Son of the living God.  I need to let Him be the Lord of my life.  I need to allow His Holy Spirit to produce within me the Fruit of Godliness, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And I need to rest in His promises of deliverance - deliverance in His time and through His ways.  Not my timeframe, and my expectations.

In our popular parlance, the word "break" has become commonly used in conjunction with ending something, like breaking one's self of a bad habit, or breaking-in a new employee with an employer's preferred best-standards.  In the context of these verses, however, Isaiah is talking about "break" as in destroy, as if to regard the destruction of a ubiquitous reed with a weak spot in it as irrelevant.

And how many of us bother with a weak flame?  When you're lighting candles, or when candles have reached the bottom of the wax, and one of the flames is weak, what else do you do but snuff out the flame?  What good is a weak flame to us if we want to use it for light, heat, or even ambiance?

Providentially, God's value metrics are different from ours, aren't they?  And for that, shouldn't we be profoundly grateful?

Maybe you don't see yourself as a bruised reed, or a faintly-burning wick, and you're enthusiastic about celebrating all that our Christmas season has to offer.  You're full of vim and vigor, and really can't relate to what I'm writing about.  If this describes you, then be thankful for your lot in life, and invite the Lord to glorify Himself through the ways you celebrate His birth.

Nevertheless, meanwhile, if the Lord allows any of us to metaphorically encounter a bruised reed, let's be careful not to break it.  And if we encounter a faintly-burning wick during this candle-burning season, why not resist the urge to snuff it out?

When we're seeking to honor Christ, being mindful of others is simply following the pattern Isaiah told us He'd model.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Exploiting Sex at UVA and Beyond

It sounded true.

We've all heard anecdotal accounts of how lusty for sex college boys are.  We've seen news stories about date rape.  We know that a lot of young women go to college to major in "Mrs." (they're searching for the most promising husband they can find).  And these young women have what lusty college boys want.

So when Rolling Stone magazine shocked its readership with a lurid account of gang rape at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, it sounded true.  Even if it seemed to confirm everything we believe to be wrong about morality and gender stereotypes amongst today's young people.

And it wasn't just UVA letting an insidious rape culture thrive under a public face of progressive gender equality shown to prospective students and their parents.  Sure, UVA administrators temporarily shut down Greek life as part of their response to Rolling Stone's article, but protests against the rape culture flashed across the United States at colleges and universities of all sorts.  It seemed as though everybody was just waiting for a victim to come forward with her story that would validate everything everybody thought they knew about college boys behaving badly.

And the people who enable them.

And you know what?  There probably still is an insidious rape culture within American higher education.  But, as it's turning out, the Rolling Stone article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, may not have exposed it after all.  Instead, it may be exploiting the problem - just as rape exploits its victims.

As UVA officials and other journalists began researching the allegations Erdely chronicled for Rolling Stone, her account began to unravel.  Today, Rolling Stone officially apologized for not fact-checking enough of Erdely's story.  The credibility of everybody associated with publishing that article is currently in tatters.

Turns out, significant discrepancies exist between the facts as told by Erdely, and some facts as they actually are.  There was no social function of any kind at the specific frat house on the night in question, nor was there any pledging going on, as the rape victim recounted.  No frat member or pledge, with the name given by the rape victim, seems to have ever existed.  Nor is there an exterior stairway on the frat house, as the rape victim mentioned.

As the Washington Post has researched Erdely's reporting, they've interviewed several friends of the alleged victim who themselves now doubt her story.  The fraternity has vehemently defended its honor.  Although Rolling Stone, for its part, had been defending their journalistic ethics in corroborating and running Erdely's piece, even the magazine now is backtracking.

Where the major players in this saga go from here has yet to be determined.  Perhaps the victim can muster enough courage to come forward herself, without her alias, and tell her story without risk of any artistic license by Erdely.  If something really did happen, perhaps the perpetrator himself will muster the integrity to own up to his crime.  But of these two scenarios which could restore the public's confidence that sexual abuse is a problem in collegiate America, the second is the most unlikely.  Because, at this point, it's become easier to believe something didn't happen.

And that has advocates for sex abuse victims worried.

The "he said - she said" that haunts so many accusations of rape remains one of the toughest dilemmas to overcome when addressing the issue of sex abuse.  Witness the parade of women currently coming forward and accusing legendary entertainer Bill Cosby of rape, and the public's confusion over whom to believe.  With each new self-professing victim, it's as easy to feel sorry for Cosby because of the wholesome image most of us have of him.  Yet what else would motivate so many women to go public now?  They're not going to get any money out of Cosby.  They won't see him go to jail for what they say he did to them - the statute of limitations have expired.  Where's the proof?

Cosby's accusers say little proof existed back in the day; that's why they didn't go to the police after they say they were abused.

For the victim in Erdely's story, there isn't much concrete proof, either.  Or, at least, she waited too long before seeking professional assistance.  Indeed, one of the main points of the article is that when the young lady finally sought direction from UVA's administrators, the people who should have helped her actually tried to steer her away from involving law enforcement in her case.  Ostensibly, this was done to protect the schools' reputation.  But now that significant questions have arisen regarding whether this particular gang rape took place at all, how accurate are the accounts of UVA's administrators prioritizing their employer over their student?

Is Rolling Stone's article crying wolf?  Whether it is or not, it's at least indicative of how angry many women are at what they perceive to be an incessant domination by men of sexuality and how sexuality is conducted between men and women.  While some men demonstrated against the alleged rape culture at colleges across the country, most anti-abuse activists before this story, and now in the middle of its aftermath, are women.

If this story is a gross distortion of what really happened at UVA, then these advocates will have a lot of work to do in making up the ground they'll lose in the minds of men - and the women who think they love them - who may belittle the whole topic as much ado about nothing.

On a side note, it's interesting to note that in Sweden, some remarkable success has been achieved in reducing prostitution by criminalizing the male side of it, but decriminalizing the female side of it.  In other words, men who try to pay for sex can get arrested, but women who sell themselves can't.  According to gender experts, what Sweden has done is level the playing field between males and females by recognizing that prostitution is inherently a power play by men over women.

What Sweden's novel prostitution laws will do to the crime of sexual abuse in that small country remains to be seen.  But it's worth acknowledging that the same problem we assume existed at UVA - sexual debauchery and date rape run amok - is at least partly due to our society's persistent view of women as objects, playthings, and somehow inferior in their rights to expect sexual respect.

Which, of course, is a huge topic all on its own that goes far beyond the "he said - she said" of Rolling Stone's article.  But still, doesn't it sound true that one of the reasons rape hasn't gone away in our culture lies in our society's paternal provincialism when it comes to how women look, act, and think?

Many Americans were all too eager to jump on the anti-UVA, anti-fraternity, anti-lusty-college-guy bandwagon after this controversial Rolling Stone article.

But how many of us will second-guess the ways we're complicit in our society's devaluation of women as sexual objects?  Whether we're Christian or Muslim, conservative or liberal, New Yorker or Texan, black or white, male or female?  How much of it is really somebody else's fault?

We thought the claims against UVA sounded true.  Meanwhile, is it easier to rationalize away whether we might play any role in sustaining an environment and mindset that devalues women?

History tells us that Thomas Jefferson, who founded UVA, sired more children with his slaves than he did with his wife.

Wa.  Hoo.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Another Grand Jury Resolves Little

First it was Ferguson, Missouri.

Second, now, is Staten Island; the whitest, most politically and socially conservative borough in the City of New York.

In each place, the result is the same:  a grand jury no-bill of a white officer accused of murdering a black man.

Staten Island's grand jury reached its decision today, and New York officials are feverishly pleading with the city's sizable black community to refrain from reacting with violence.  Eric Garner, the deceased, was being questioned by the NYPD this past summer because he was suspected of selling loose cigarettes.  Their confrontation somehow escalated to the point where one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, used a chokehold* to restrain him.

NYPD official procedures forbid the use of chokeholds, a fact which helped many New Yorkers who are skeptical of their police department hope for an indictment.  But for some reason, the grand jury heard enough testimony exonerating Pantaleo to overcome the officer's unauthorized tactic.  At one point during Pantaleo's use of the chokehold, Garner gasped that he couldn't breathe, and it is believed that those were his last words.

Pantaleo isn't off the hook entirely - his employer, the NYPD, is still conducting their own internal review of the case, centered on his violation of department policy regarding that chokehold.  Yet the grand jury's decision today appears to further muddy civil rights waters already contaminated, according to many people, by the Ferguson decision.

Unfortunately, this Staten Island case may hold legitimate cause for even white New Yorkers to be concerned.

The biggest elephant in the room is why a police officer investigating the illegal sale of cigarettes felt as though a procedure banned by his rule book was the best method of protecting himself.  Garner was a tall, burly man, but it was broad daylight in New York's safest borough, and even if Garner was threatening Pantaleo, surely the "city's finest" have been equipped with better ways of subduing unruly suspects than a chokehold.

Across the country, it's widely known that police officers rarely get indicted by grand juries, mostly because the public wants to give their police departments the benefit of the doubt.  Few of us would want to go out and patrol the neighborhoods we expect our cops to patrol.  But New York's police have a bad record in the civil rights department.  Remember the Central Park Five?  Remember all of the frustration over "stop and frisk"?  One would hope that every single employee of the NYPD would always act with an abundance of caution when they interacted with the public.  But before the cameras come out, like one did that videotaped the last part of Garner's arrest, black New Yorkers unfortunately have a right to be on guard against discrimination and heavy-handedness by rogue cops.

No, not every police officer is a rogue cop.  In fact, even within the NYPD, no proof exists that a significant number of employees are "bad cops."  But it takes the occasional notorious cases like Pantaleo's for public perception to be swayed against the entire force.

And that's why Pantaleo, like Ferguson's Officer Wilson, probably should have been indicted - at least for something.  All police officers are public employees, and doesn't the public have the right to know what they're doing when they're on the clock?  Especially when they're acting on our behalf out on the streets?  If a grand jury no-bills a cop who kills somebody while off-duty, that's one thing.  But for officer-involved on-duty killings, isn't it in the officer's best interests to bring the case to a public courtroom? After all, grand jury proceedings are usually secret, which itself can lend a heavy air of suspicion to whatever decision they reach.  In a public trial of some sort, evidence is presented for everyone to see and evaluate, even if it's in the court of public opinion.

As it is, most police unions vehemently oppose any solution that implies an accused officer acted unlawfully.  A no-bill may agitate some members of the public, but a criminal indictment makes the department look bad.  Yet should public perception trump the justice we say we want in our law enforcement environment?

Some of us will probably always side with the police every time an officer is involved in a deadly incident.  Some of us will probably always oppose the police whenever an officer is involved in a deadly incident.  Yet the rest of us are smart enough to realize that there are good cops and bad cops, and there are people who are belligerent around cops, and there are people who aren't.

Is a secretive grand jury the best way to pick who is who?

* The police union alternatively describes Officer Pantaleo's action generically as a "take-down technique" taught in the police academy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Depression, Dementia, and Heavenly Relief

Dad used to be deeply concerned about my mental health.

After I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1993, he'd send me letters of encouragement, with 3x5 cards on which he'd hand-written Bible verses pertaining to things like hope and endurance.

I've kept several of those 3x5 cards, along with one of his letters.  The letter is from August 1993, when he wrote that he believed I would be healed from my depression soon - with "soon" underlined.

Today, twenty one years later, I have yet to be healed from my depression.  And he can no longer remember that I have it.  He doesn't remember attending therapy sessions with me, once he and my brother had driven up to New York to move me back to Texas.  Shucks, he doesn't remember that I used to live in New York City, let alone that he used to mail me letters of encouragement.  Some of the time, he can't remember who I am.

Yesterday afternoon, he thought I was the son of his childhood neighborhood's ice cream man.

A couple of years after I moved back to Texas, Dad retired, and I was going nowhere fast with my therapy for depression.  Nevertheless, with Dad's retirement, he and Mom began spending their summers in coastal Maine, away from the miserable heat here in Texas, and for days leading up to their departure, I'd become physically sick with separation anxiety.  I was supposed to be developing some semblance of maturity and personal responsibility by staying at my job, working, being somewhat independent, and coping on my own.  But it usually took most of the summer for me to calm down emotionally, and by that time, Mom and Dad had begun closing up the Maine house for the season in preparation for their return to Texas!

Dad no longer remembers Maine, or those cross-country trips, or the big riding lawnmower his former co-workers gave him the money to buy as a retirement present.  The property in Maine had quite a large lawn, complete with a bucolic, bubbling brook running alongside of it, but Dad has forgotten all of that.

Instead, nearly every evening these days, he asks to call his mother.  He can't remember that she died in 1979, when she was in her 80's.  In fact, she died 35 years ago this evening.  When Mom and I tell him of her passing, he becomes upset, both because he's learning of his mother's death as if for the first time, but also because he senses he should know that she's dead.

He yells at Mom and me when we urge him to brush his teeth.  His dentist says he's developed an infection in his gums from neglecting his oral hygiene.  If we didn't urge him to brush his teeth, he'd completely forget to do it.  Now, Mom has him swish some Listerine in his mouth, and he complains of the pain it causes, yet he refuses to admit that better oral hygiene would fix the problem.  He can no longer draw the correlation between clean teeth and pain-free gums.

The other night, he awoke in a wild stupor, vehemently insisting on getting dressed and starting his day.  Even though it was 12:15 in the morning.  As mom's voice rose in their bedroom while she confronted his irrationality, I woke up and went down the hall, walking into a bizarre tableau of his anger and accusations.  He yelled that we had kidnapped him and were holding him against his will.  When I began to pray out loud for the Lord to give us peace, he sneered at me.  Mom called my brother, who's now in Michigan; yet Dad, unable to recognize his other son's voice on the phone, accused him of being the mastermind of his abduction, and hung up on him.

Desperate, Mom asked Dad what it would take for him to calm down.  "Get me the police," Dad thundered.  So Mom called 911.  Before it was all over, we had two cops, two ambulance EMTs, and several firemen in the house.  And Dad was reveling in the company, charming them with stories of Brooklyn, and showing them pictures he'd painted years ago.

He finally went to bed at 3:30 in the morning.  Didn't remember a bit of it when he got up several hours later.  Mom and I are still trying to recover.

Back in the late 1970's, Dad's mother produced similar outbursts and crises during her struggle with what was then called "hardening of the arteries."  Dad's sister would call us from Brooklyn, at her wit's end, hoping Dad could calm their mother down.  Today, Dad remembers none of that, even as he causes as much pain, despair, heartache, disruption, and anxiety as she did.

This won't end well.  That's part of what makes all of this so utterly sad.  Dementia has been called "the long good-bye," and it is indeed that.  It is long, and it is good-bye.  Its victims don't recover from it in this lifetime.  There is no antidote, no surgery, no treatment that can reverse it.  My grandmother ended up having a massive brain aneurysm while climbing a flight of stairs in her apartment building.  Their Brooklyn neighborhood then was so crime-ridden, it took almost half an hour before my aunt, frantically scanning a phone book in the days before 911, could find an ambulance company willing to enter it at night.  At least when Mom called the police early Monday morning, I could see emergency lights flashing through the curtains within moments.

Everybody says the same thing; Dad's neurologist, their primary-care doctor, the police and EMTs the other night:  there's not much we can do.  This is dementia.  This is elder care in the 21st Century.  It's not even like Dad is the worst case out there.

Still, it's so depressing.

We've known of Dad's dementia for seven years, and we suspected something was wrong for several years before that.  Our faith tells us that we need to trust in God, and find peace through the power of His Holy Spirit.  And yes, some days, it's easier to "be still, and know that God is God."  On many other days, however, the darkness, the morbidity, the irrationality and nonsensical nature of dementia... the despair can be overwhelming.

I used to hear about other families and their struggles in caring for loved ones with dementia.  But I didn't understand what they were going through.  I thought I had an understanding, but now that I'm in the thick of it myself, I realize that nothing else is like this.

Not that people who don't have loved ones with dementia are wrong for trying to help and sympathize with those who do.

Plus, plenty of other people are dealing with plenty of other afflictions at least as bad as dementia, if not worse.

But I'm not looking for sympathy anyway.  I'm looking for relief.  Okay; I admit it: I'm no super-spiritual saint.  I am disappointed that Dad never saw the healing of my depression.  I'm disappointed for him, but also for myself.  I often wonder if I'd be dealing with our current crisis better if my own problems with depression had been alleviated beforehand.

Then, this morning, for the first time in years, I reached for the little dusty bundle of 3x5 cards that have remained, paper-clipped together, in a cubbyhole of my roll-top desk, above my computer keyboard.  And in my Dad's handwriting, I see Psalm 40:1:

"I waited patiently and expectantly for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry."  With "inclined" and "heard" underlined.

This is another one of those things that's really all about depending on God, isn't it?  We can't make sense out of clinical depression, or of dementia.  Yet does God expect us to?  Or does He invite us to wait patiently for Him to eventually defer to us and receive our request?  In His timeframe; not ours?

In my narcissistic human mortality, I find little comfort in having to wait for God.  And I find zero comfort in my afflictions - afflictions which the Lord has allowed to begin with!  I dislike having anything imposed upon me.  And it sounds pretty haughty of God to say that He will "incline" to us.  So much of our hedonistic enculturation teaches us to make our own way, and solve our own problems.  Now!

Then again, of course, our culture doesn't recognize that God is God, and we are not.  We forget that we don't deserve any of the graces He bestows upon any of us.  Graces like having a mortal father who, when in his "rightful" mind, loved me, and desired to lead me in God's truth.  Graces like salvation, and unlimited opportunities to communicate with my Heavenly Father about issues like depression and dementia.

Life has seemed dark to me for a long time, and particularly recently.  Yet I still wait for the Lord.  In a way, there's not much else I can do, is there?  Many cynics would say that weak people like me simply need to hold on to something.  Desperate for peace, we hold on to God, or some other religious deity, or food, or money, or social status, or our job, or our family.

But I don't see myself holding on, as much as I believe God is the One holding on to me.

Perhaps some personality types deal with these issues with less anxiety and gloom than I tend to.  But I've tried for decades to change my personality, and nothing seems to have worked.  Maybe if I'd gone to seminary, or memorized every verse in the Bible, or gotten married, or... done something else morally and mortally possible that could have benefited me in various ways, including putting some cushion between myself and my problems...

But at some point, the rawness of awful things will impact us.  And we will need something we never could have conjured up for ourselves.  For example, even though he doesn't realize it, Dad needs me today, just like I needed him over twenty years ago.  Far more than this, however, we both need the Lord.

Have you ever considered the irony of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph all being afraid when God's angels appeared to them in preparation for the nativity of the Christ child?  "Fear not!" each angel commanded them.

And what is my despair, but a fear of God not being as sovereign as He says He is?

Dear Lord, please help me not to fear, but to find relief in Your salvation!