Our church publishes a little booklet every Lent, comprising short meditations on chosen Bible verses, done by members of the congregation. This year, when they asked for volunteers, I signed up. Part of the reason was the challenge of saying something meaningful in 100 words. As you will see, I exceeded that slightly—but was still within the boundaries. April 3rd was my day, so I'm publishing it here as well.

Romans 9:33:  and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame

These words occur several times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. "Him" refers to the Messiah in the Old, identified with Jesus Christ in the New. In context and in combination they portray Jesus as a rock that can be a secure foundation or a stumbling block. The characteristics that make rock a good base on which to build also make it painful and costly to ignore as we walk along.

"Never be put to shame" is also translated as “not make haste, not be disturbed, not panic, not worry, not be disappointed.” If Jesus is the foundation of our lives, there is no need to worry or make frantic efforts. Our responsibility is to do our work with calm confidence:  God has our backs.

What was remarkable, for me, was how I accomplished the project. It may not seem like much to those of you who can whip off such things easily, but trust me, my usual approach to such assignments has always been (1) put it on the shelf because the deadline is comfortably far off, (2) periodically think to myself, "oh, yes, I need to get that done," (3) forget about it entirely, and (4) remember at the 11th hour, panic, drop everything else, and stay up late to finish the job, with the dissatisfaction of knowing I could have done better.

However, this time the scenario went like this:

I received my assignment on Tuesday. I took a quick look at the context of the verse excerpt, then laid the task aside, keeping it in my mind and prayers as I did other things.

During the day I found a few moments here and there to look up information about the verse and make a few notes. (Hooray for the Internet.)  I continued to think in the background and pray.

Wednesday I sat down and wrote my thoughts. This was the longest part, but it wasn't hard because I had done the legwork already. Saying what I want the way I want to always takes time, but it flowed well, which was a good thing because Wednesday was a very busy day. I finished it Wednesday night after choir and still got to bed on time.

Thursday morning I reread it, made a couple of minor tweaks, and sent it off—earning commendations for being the first to return my meditation, three weeks in advance of the deadline.

It's a small victory, but gives me hope that eventually I'll figure out how to make it spill over into the rest of my life. You know, the "do my work with calm confidence" part!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Edit
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Somewhere, in one of Glenn Doman's books, is an important clue to progress in any endeavour:

We arrange for the child to win.

Doman was dealing with severely disabled children. Forget walking—these kids couldn't claw their bodies forward two centimeters on a level floor. So he set them at the top of an inclined plane with a slippery surface. Suddenly, their random limb movements began to have an observable effect: they moved! Thus they began the critical process of associating their movements with results. Many of those children went on from that tiny beginning to learn to walk.

In an apparently radical change of direction, I bring you this article on Why Typography Matters—Especially at the Oscars.

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I never watch the Academy Awards shows, but apparently this year there was a major, embarrassing mix-up, with the best actress award winner's movie being announced as Best Picture. Designer Benjamin Bannister shows how the actual Oscar card (left) could have been designed (right) to greatly reduce the odds of misreading the card in all the excitement and bright lights. The card designer could have arranged for the card readers to win. A small change could have had great impact.

How often do we miss opportunites to make small changes that could arrange for our children, our spouses, ourselves to win? Do we somehow feel we don't deserve the help? If we have to spell out to our spouses how they can make us feel loved, it doesn't mean anything, right? Our children need to struggle for success, or else how will they grow? If we were the kind of people we should be, this—whatever this is—wouldn't be so difficult; it's cheating to make life easier for ourselves.

No, it's not.

Those immobile children who learned to walk succeeded because someone made it easier for them to make progress with their first efforts.

We use levers, wheels, pulleys, sharpened knives, WD-40 ... whatever tool or trick we can find to make our work go faster and better. That's the way progress is made. When our work goes more easily, we can do more. Plus, of course, we feel better about what we are doing and that makes us want to do more still.

Successful people work hard. They know how to delay gratification and don't indulge themselves in luxuries while building their businesses. What successful people don't do, however, is waste time with dull knives, broken pencils, worn-out machinery, people who drag them down, or anything else that hinders their productivity. They don't tell themselves, "I can make do, because I'm not that important, the work isn't that important, and I don't deserve to have better until I'm more successful with what I have." Tribulation breeds character, but unnecessary tribulation breeds frustration and failure.

What can you do to arrange for someone—yourself, your children, your spouse, a neighbor—to win? The cost might be much less, and the rewards much greater, than you think. Be creative. Until you see it, it's not obvious how an inclined surface might help a child learn to walk, nor how a small style change could prevent Oscar embarrassment.

Above all, don't wait to seek a better way until you or someone else deserves it. It's not about what we deserve; it's about setting ourselves up to do our best. If you're still stuck on your own lack of merit, think about your family. Don't you want to be your best—for them?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Edit
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Mind. Blown.

Even though I don't understand half of the items, the U.S. Debt Clock is fascinating. Because statistics without sources are useless, you can mouse over a number to see where it comes from. Amidst all the depressing figures, at least I can say that we're far better than average when it comes to personal debt, which amounts to over 56 thousand dollars per person! Fortunately, that figure includes mortgage debt, which can be less of a problem, though recent times have shown that's not always true.

On the other hand, the fact that our children and their families collectively own almost $860,000 of the national debt is more than a bit disconcerting. Those who are also Swiss get to add another $16,000 or so, with the consolation that the Swiss national debt is actually going down. You can see world debt clocks here.

From the main page you can also check out the state clocks. Or use their time machine to see how far we've come.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 13, 2017 at 10:54 am | Edit
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Last night I listened to Afghanis singing "Here I Am to Worship" in their Dari language. It was surreal, but I'd had similar experiences before. I have met the universal language, and it is American praise and worship songs.

I have sung them in church in Japan: American praise songs with Japanese words.

I have sung them in church in Switzerland: American praise songs with German words.

I have sung them in church in The Gambia: American praise songs with English words.  (That makes more sense when you realize that English is the written language in the Gambia.)

I have no doubt that, as with McDonald's, I could encounter the same songs in China, India, New Zealand, Brazil, Kenya, Russia, and almost anywhere else in the world.

It does not make me especially happy to realize that the Church Universal is singing fast-food music. Just writing the above evokes images of Green Eggs and Ham: I will not sing them in a box, I will not sing them with a fox.

But I do, and I'll admit it is lovely to be able to worship fully with the local congregations. I'd rather be eating a more nourishing meal (singing hymns and/or local music), but I'll take fast food if that's what's served.

Everyone knows Makudonarudo. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Edit
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Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. — Thomas Edison

I'm accustomed to hearing one or another of our grandchildren referred to as a genius. Naturally, as a proud grandmother, I agree. Every one of our ten grandchildren is a genius. Absolutely.

But what do people other than grandmothers mean by that word?

It seems to denote some ability a person is born with that makes them especially good at something—a gift that one either has or doesn't have. I believe that's a vast oversimplification, if not entirely false.

The gift, if there is one, seems to me to lie in interest and focus.

  • Our grandchild who plays piano really well? He's no prodigy—but he loves to play the piano, and that's what he spends a lot of time doing, even on vacation.
  • The one who at age six earned $300 doing real work for a real business was able to do so because he had spent hours and hours mastering the necessary skills and doing the work for free before he earned his first dollar.
  • The grandchild who could count to 100 before he was two and read before he was three played with numbers and letters every day for hours.
  • My nephew, when he was three years old, could not only identify dozens of dinosaurs but could tell you many facts about each of them. You guessed it: he spent much of his time learning about dinosaurs.

And so on. None of them was pushed in these endeavors, but they do have parents who respect and encourage their interests. When you discover that playing with an alphabet puzzle keeps your fretful child happily occupied for hours, what do you do? You buy him a similar number puzzle. You give him his own, real tools. Read him books about dinosaurs. Keep the piano in the middle of the family's living area and let him play as often and as loudly as he wants—even if you long for just a moment of silence.

And the children take it from there.

I am convinced that neither I nor any other human, past or present, was or is a genius. I am convinced that what I have every physically normal child also has at birth. We could, of course, hypothesize that all babies are born geniuses and get swiftly de-geniused. ...  I was lucky in avoiding too many disconnects. — R. Buckminster Fuller

Perhaps the secret to helping our children reach their full potential is neither early formal education nor leaving them to develop "naturally," but giving them as many opportunities as possible to discover the many wonderful and valuable things of life, and actively supporting—not pushing—any healthy interest that develops.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Edit
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Recently I've seen many suggestions for Lenten disciplines, including some attributed to Pope Francis, though I haven't been able to confirm that.  What they all have in common is giving up something altogether bad, such as ingratitude or selfishness.  This is good, but it does make giving up something for Lent seem more like baptizing New Year's resolutions.  It was Jennifer Fulwiler who opened my eyes to the idea that giving up something you know you should quit altogether misses one of the best parts of Lent:  the symbolic value of experiencing the Easter resurrection joy in a personal, physical way.  Here's how she put it six years ago:

Here’s what [Lenten disciplines] I decided on: a decade of the Rosary first thing each morning, and no adding sugar to my morning tea (a small but surprisingly noticeable sacrifice for me). And…well, umm…there’s one other thing that I couldn’t decide if I would admit or not…but I guess I’ll go ahead and say it:

I’m giving up cursing for Lent.

Now, before you form an image of me yelling at my kids to stop jumping on the $%^! couch or asking my husband to pass the $%&*!# salt at dinner, let me say that it’s not that bad. I don’t use bad words in front of the kids, and it’s not like I walk around spewing profanity when I’m around adults. It’s just that I’ve noticed lately that, well, sometimes I just can’t seem to express myself without pulling out a word from my pre-conversion lexicon. So I’m really working on that during Lent, hopefully adopting habits that will last for the long-term.

Giving up adding sugar to drinks was actually a last-minute addition to my Lenten plans. I’d always heard that you should give up something good, but I didn’t really get why, so I just went with giving up cursing for Lent. But then I heard people who had given up something good talking about their plans for Easter, and it all clicked.

For example, someone I know who gave up cheese talked about how she’s going to get a huge, lavish cheese tray for brunch on Easter. When I imagined her going that long 40 days with nary [a] bite of one of her favorite foods, I could see how the ecstatic joy of the Resurrection would hit her at an even deeper, visceral level as she bit into savory chunks of Camembert and felt the luscious Brie melt in her mouth after the long fast.

Then I pictured myself rising on Easter morn’, taking a deep breath, and shouting the f-word. Umm, yeah. That’s why giving up something that’s bad anyway doesn’t quite have the same effect. So no sugar in my tea for Lent.

 

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 7:51 am | Edit
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In July of 2015, the Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, wrote a response to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage.  On a recent file-cleaning expedition, I came upon my copy of his wise words again, and was struck by how much this attitude is needed right now, as we face still more opportunities to respond humanely across deep divides.

Bishop Brewer's words are specifically for and about Christians, but there's much here that could be of benefit to anyone.  Since he has graciously allowed me to publish his letter in its entirety, I'll spare you my usual cut-and-paste quotations.  Context is important.

Early in Israel’s history, the people prayed for a King. They said that they did not want to be ruled merely by judges, but they wanted a king like other nations. Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the people that to have a king would only bring about additional difficulties and sorrows, but they pleaded with God and eventually God relented and gave them a king.

The prophet Samuel anointed Saul with great affection, praying for him and calling him “the desire of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:20). He anointed him king over Israel, all the while warning Israel that they had rejected the will of God.

I believe that the anointing of Saul as king over Israel and the legalization of same-sex marriage are analogous. While God’s intention has always been that marriage is between one man and one woman, people in our nation have, for decades, pleaded for gay people to be able to legally marry, and now, through an act of judicial activism, it is the law of the land. Some are elated. Some are weeping. Some are angry. The Church is divided over these matters, and we as a nation do not know the long-term impact of these decisions.

How are we Christians to respond?

1) For some Christians who are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, the legalization of same-sex marriage is an answer to their prayers. For other Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a sign of moral decay. However, the demonization of those who support same-sex marriage by those who do not, and the demonization of those who oppose same-sex marriage by those who do [not] must not be present within the Body of Christ. Such antagonism is an affront to the Gospel and a great sin. That is not to say the matter is inconsequential. The divide between these two positions is a serious one and not to be taken lightly. But it is our faith in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, who died for us and rose from the dead that unites us, and nothing other than this. Christians must choose to continue to work together across this great divide. It will not be easy, but it is our God-given task. Splitting into tribes of those “for” and “against” within our churches will bear no good fruit, and will only display to the world our lack of faith in Jesus Christ, who prayed that we might be one.

2) I fear that some backlash against LGBT people by those who oppose same-sex marriage could be one of the outcomes. Incidents of angry retaliation could be in the offing. May this not be named among Christians! If incidents of violence break out, Christians must be the first to rise up and publicly condemn them. If we do not love those with whom we disagree, then our witness for Christ is null and void.

Such a public witness of love means we must beg God to root out of us any anger and resentment we may be feeling because of this change in our laws. Forgiveness, love and mercy are our righteousness: and they are gifts from our God who makes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust. If we do not triumph in love, we triumph in nothing.

3) There also are some legitimate fears that the legalization of same-sex marriage will further marginalize those who oppose it and bring about a tacit acceptance of persecution of these Christians. Again, our call is to forgiveness, love and mercy.

4) Traditional Christians should continue to make the Biblical case for heterosexual, lifelong marriage both in our churches and in the public square. This is where I stand. While same-sex couples now enjoy the freedom to choose legal marriage, many will not. Those who do not marry will join the trend of many straight couples that are indifferent to marriage at best, even if they are raising children. The fact is that the practice of marriage (much less lifelong marriage) in comparison to previous generations continues to plummet. In our culture, it is not so much that same-sex marriage has triumphed, as it is that the case for marriage for anyone is failing. This is where the church must speak clearly.

5) As a church, we must choose to care for children, regardless of who their parents might be. Children should not be treated prejudicially because of who their parents are. They did not choose their parents, and our churches have an opportunity, even a divine calling, to invite these children into the Christian faith and enfold them (and their parents) in bonds of love that will bring many to Jesus. Again, the testimony of our faith is evidenced in our call to love by word and by deed, nothing else.

6) Importantly, Justice Kennedy’s opinion in this ruling places a profound connection between marriage and “dignity,” which leaves single people all the more marginalized. Many of our churches already, in their preference for married couples, place single people in a kind of “less than” separate class. Such a classification is entirely unbiblical. The goal for our churches is a missionary community, not a club for the already married. Both Jesus and Paul were single, with Paul exhorting his preference for the single life. While clearly upholding marriage, we need to find ways to see marital status as secondary to sacrificial discipleship.

We are in the midst of an enormous cultural sea change and we do not know the outcome. What I do know is that it is my responsibility to care deeply, love without prejudice, speak the truth as I understand it with boldness and compassion, and pray fervently. I ask that you join me.

Let's "think on these things" when events go against us on issues of profound importance, and equally when we find ourselves on the favored side.  Above all, let's remember Bishop Brewer's wisdom as we interact with our fellow Americans—our fellow human beings—when each thinks the other is standing on the wrong side of an apparently impassable gulf.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 17, 2017 at 7:15 am | Edit
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Are most Americans anti-immigration? Absolutely not.

Is President Trump anti-immigration? I don't think so. It's difficult to pin down what he actually believes about anything, but being concerned about uncontrolled immigration from unstable and/or dangerous countries does not mean one is opposed to immigration per se.

I found George Friedman's take on the subject enlightening, despite missing a few of my concerns. His example of our societal attitude towards Indian and Chinese immigrants is especially interesting.

Trump has pointed to two very different patterns. One is immigration to the U.S. by Muslims. The other is illegal Mexican immigration. Both resonated with Trump’s supporters. It is interesting to consider other immigration patterns that have not become an issue. One is immigration to the U.S. from India. The other is immigration from China and other parts of Asia. Both have been massive movements since about 1970, and both have had substantial social consequences.

It is the example of the Chinese and the Indians that blows up the theory that Americans have an overarching anti-immigrant sensibility that Trump is tapping into. It also raises serious doubts that Trump is anti-immigrant. I have searched and may have missed it, but I didn’t find that Trump made anti-Chinese or anti-Indian statements, as opposed to anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican statements. If it were classic anti-immigrant sentiment, the rage would be against Indian immigrants who have emerged as a powerful and wealthy ethnic group in a startlingly short time. But there is minimally detectable hostility toward them, which means that the immigration situation in the United States is far more complex than it seems.

The issue is not whether Trump and his followers are generally anti-immigrant. The question is why they are so hostile toward Muslims ... and to Mexicans. I wish the explanation were more complex, but it is actually quite simple in both cases.

The United States has been at war with Muslim groups since Sept. 11, 2001. ... When there is war, there is suspicion of the enemy. When there is suspicion of the enemy, there is fear that émigrés might be in the United States on false pretenses. ... After 15 years of war and many Americans dead, [post-9/11 fears have] congealed into a framework of distrust that may well go beyond the rational. ... Are all Muslims warriors against the United States? No. Do you know who is or isn’t? Also no. Wars, therefore, create fears. There is nothing new in the American fear of Muslims in the context of war.

The Mexican situation is different. ... [T]he driving issue is illegal Mexican immigration. There is a great deal of homage paid to the rule of law. Congress passed a law specifying the mechanics of legal migration. Some 5 million Mexicans broke the law. Whether this has harmed the U.S. economy or not, the indifference to enforcing the law by people who are normally most insistent on the rule of law has created a sense of hypocrisy.

The anger is not only directed at the Mexicans. It is part of the rage against those living in the bubble, who present themselves as humanitarians, but who will encounter the illegal aliens, if at all, as their servants. And rightly or wrongly, some suspect that open support for breaking the law is designed to bring cheap labor to support the lifestyles of the wealthy at the expense of the declining middle class. The fact that the well-to-do tend to be defenders of illegal aliens while also demanding the rule of law increases suspicions.

At first I took issue with this, for while true, it doesn't speak for the many of my friends who count themselves "defenders of illegal aliens" but are far from wealthy by American standards. But...

As we saw with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese, things that are obvious to those living decades later are not obvious at the time. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to be unable to empathize with the fear felt after Pearl Harbor. In our time, the failure to empathize comes from those who feel immune to illegal immigration or the 15-year war. It is part of the growing fragmentation of American society that different classes and regions should experience these things so differently, and that each side has so little understanding of the other.

My non-wealthy friends may not be among the rich, but it is true that they (like me) are largely immune to the effects of both illegal immigration and terrorism. We even benefit from illegal (slave) labor through lower prices.

(In my life, it's the actually the Indian and Chinese immigrants he mentions who have caused the problems—they are the ones whose competition directly affects the Information Technology industry—but I believe that legal, controlled immigration is healthy for a country.  How could I be anti-immigrant when our own daughter is one?)

As long as illegal immigration is permitted, the foundations of American culture are at risk. It is not simply immigration, but the illegality that is frightening, because it not only can’t be controlled, but also the law is under attack by those who claim to uphold it. The fear that a person’s livelihood is being undermined and his cultural foundation is being overwhelmed creates deep fear of the intentions of the more powerful.

I want to quote a lot more, but I fear I'm pushing the edge of "fair use" for a review as it is. It's an article worth reading. I'll just make one more comment, on what Friedman calls "the refusal of the government at all levels to enforce the law."

I'm not a fan of "zero-tolerance" legal situations, which leave no room for discretion and grace. But massive discord between rules and enforcement breeds both disrespect for the law and tyranny. When a law is on the books, but not enforced, people become accustomed to violating it. This may look like freedom, but it opens the door to graft, blackmail, indifference to other laws, and some very nasty surprises.

When I was studying to pass my driver's test, there was a law on the books in Pennsylvania requiring that vehicles must slow down to 25 miles per hour when passing through any intersection. (For all I know, it's still on the books.)  Obviously that was written a long time ago, and rather than the law being changed to fit reality, it simply stopped being enforced. If I hadn't been taking a driving course, I would never have known of its existence. However—and this is the kick—the police sometimes found it to be useful: If for some reason a miscreant wiggled out of whatever they wanted to charge him with, they could usually get him on the charge of passing through (often multiple) intersections at more than 25 mph. Do you see what this does? You may go for years, casually breaking the law, but suddenly one day, when they want to get you, they've got you.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Edit
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Here's some wise advice from Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.  The context was running a business, but moms of young children will understand the need more than anyone!

"I'm so busy doing what I must do that I don't have time for what I ought to do ... and I never get a chance to do what I want to do!"

"Son, that's universal.  The way to keep that recipe from killing you is to occasionally do what you want to do anyhow."

That's how I ended up re-reading this book.  Feeling ill was keeping me from sleeping, so I got up and for some reason thought of the only Heinlein book that survived (because it was not with the rest) a long-ago bookshelf purge.  Mostly if I'm awake I'd rather be working, but that formula does not play well when the body is demanding the mind's attention.  Citizen of the Galaxy was the perfect diversion.  And how nice it was to find this justification when I reached the penultimate page!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 20, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Edit
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At first glance, despite his many racing achievements—and having his own Wikipedia entry—Danny Chew isn't the kind of success most parents envision for their children. He's 54 years old, still living with his mother, and has spent his life ... riding his bicycle. All day, every day, all over Pittsburgh, across the country multiple times (twice winning the Race Across America), to Alaska and back with his nephew, all things biking, all the time, with the goal of riding one million miles in his lifetime. A monomaniac, content to live very simply (except when it comes to bicycles) and remain dependent on others.

That's Danny Chew seen from the outside.

But there's success, and then there's success. The world needs all sorts of people. A freak accident last September revealed much more of Danny Chew seen from the inside.

Immediately after the crash—even before the ambulance had arrived—not feeling his legs and fearing paralysis, Danny expressed his determination to continue toward his million mile goal, even if he needed to use a handcycle. That's grit.

But that's nothing compared to what Danny has done and is doing in working for his extensive rehabilitation—since he is, indeed, paralyzed from the chest down and most likely will be for life. That monomania I mentioned?  It's powering his recovery.

Do you know what else is powering his recovery?  His vast and devoted network of friends.

Immediately after Danny's accident, the world poured itself at his feet. People came long distances to visit him in the hospital, even though they knew they might be turned away because his condition was still so serious. His nephew set up a fundraising site, and money poured in from multitudes of fellow bikers. The Dirty Dozen bike race in Pittsburgh, held a couple of months later, was turned into a fundraiser for Danny. Despite insurance, expenses are huge, not only for his rehab, medical expenses, and necessary equipment, but also for refurbishing his family home to accommodate his new needs. Expenses are high, but so is the wave of people inspired to help.

Inspired by Danny Chew. By who he is and what he has done, despite—or maybe because of—his eccentricities. His life, even before the paralysis, may not be what most of us would choose, but when it comes to what's most important, can it be called anything less than successful?

Which is more the possessor of the world—he who has a thousand houses, or he who, without one house to call his own, has ten in which his knock at the door would rouse instant jubilation?  Which is the richer—the man who, his large money spent, would have no refuge; or he for whose necessity a hundred would sacrifice comfort?

— George MacDonald

If you want to help Danny out, you can make a contribution here. (Disclosure, which is probably not necessary since I get nothing monetary out of this:  Danny's sister is our friend, a former coworker of Porter's.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at 7:05 am | Edit
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Maybe it's social media, maybe it's that those who present the news can't seem to do so without whipping up our fears and our anger, but I'm sensing a deep angst in much of America that doesn't seem to have a rational explanation.

Maybe it's appropriate in a society where the term "hate" has been so devalued that it is pulled out to explain mere difference of opinion, but I'm seeing an entirely irrational, and sadly pervasive, attitude of hatred for ... 2016. One person expressed it this way: I'm going to stay up past midnight on New Year's Eve just so I can watch 2016 die.

Really people? You hate a segment of the calendar? You would rejoice over the loss of 365 days? You are so miserable that you would wipe an entire year out of your life?

I've had some hard times in my 64+ years on this planet. But even the year where I lost both my father and our first-born grandchild, while still reeling from the death of my mother-in-law, a job loss, a traumatic move, and the shock of 9/11—even that year was so loaded with blessings I can't imagine cursing it or wishing it had never been.

It's true that 2016 was hard on some who are dear to me. The death of a mother. The unexpected and tragic death of a young brother. A brother paralyzed in an accident. Cancer. More cancer. Troubles with marriages. Troubles with children. Natural disasters. Wars. Trauma floods our world, and 2016 was no exception.

But that's it: 2016 was not exceptionally traumatic, as years go. For anyone who thinks so, other than on a direct, personal level, I recommend travel outside the tourist zones of a third-world country, or a good course in world history. Even my friends who were hit hardest during the year are finding reasons to be grateful and press on with life. The paralyzed man was planning how to carry on with his life goals even before the ambulance arrived, and discovered family and community support of amazing breadth and depth. Even as the man dealing with cancer struggles to adjust to his new reality, he—having spent time himself in third-world countries—takes care to express his gratitude for the medical care available to him. Across the world, our Gambian friends—who daily face tragedies that don't even cross the radar of most Americans—are revelling in the hope of their first democratically-elected government, ever.

It is not wrong to grieve. Grief is a proper response to tragedy. What troubles me is not personal grief, but the debilitating angst that appears to have gripped so much of our nation. I'm sure it has many causes, but my own theory is this:

We are trying to take on more tragedy than any one person was meant to bear.

Our ancestors experienced far more suffering and tragedy than most of us ever will, but it was localized, among their own families and neighbors. Their vicarious suffering was limited by the size of their small communities, and what's more, these were people they could personally help, hug, grieve with, and carry a casserole to.

Today we are awash in earthquakes, wars, murder, mayhem, homelessness, starvation, child abuse, torture, injustice, and other tragedies of any and every sort from every corner of the world. And that's just the news. Our movies and television shows assault our senses with violence and grief of even more intensity—and our limbic systems are lousy at separating fiction from reality.

What do we do in response? Maybe we change our Facebook profile pictures for a whle. Or toss some money in the direction of the problem. There is very little we can actually do to help in 99.99% of the tragic situations we are made aware of. This rots our souls from the inside out.

It is rotting our national soul.

We get angry, we become afraid, we act irrationally. We cast blame broadside and search wildly for scapegoats. We moan, we whine, we rant, we riot. We turn the pain inward and instead of facing challenges with courage, generosity, and gratitude, we let evil have the last word, denying all the wonder and good in the world. We convince ourselves that feeling miserable because of another's pain makes us righteous.

This kind of angst well deserves the scorn with which C. S. Lewis treated it in The Screwtape Letters.

The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality. Thus if you had been trying to damn your man by the Romantic method ... submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses — you would try to protect him at all costs from any real pain; because, of course, five minutes’ genuine toothache would reveal the romantic sorrows for the nonsense they were. 

I don't recommend dental pain, much less something more tragic, as a curative for our national depression, but perhaps we do need a touchstone of reality. No matter how you feel about 2016, my recommendation for 2017 is less second-hand social media (things only shared or "liked" by our friends without further comment). Fewer movies, books, and TV shows that show us the worst of life in lurid detail. More that show us ordinary heroes responding with righteousness, determination, and courage. Not withdrawing into ignorance of what's happening in the world, but getting our news in the least spectacular fashion—more words, fewer pictures—and from a balance of sources. Staying away from news sites and blogs that only inflame our prejudices. Above all, immersing ourselves in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. C. S. Lewis again: "It’s all in Plato. What DO they teach them in these schools?" (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Take a deep breath, refocus, and gain some perspective.  Plant a gardenSnuggle a babyChange a diaperVolunteer at a soup kitchenWipe away a child's tearGo for a walk in the woods and try to hear what the trees are telling you. Get up to see the sunriseTravel to a foreign country and get out of the tourist zoneBite the bullet and spend some quality time getting to know—really know—people who voted for someone other than your chosen presidential candidate. Smile at a stranger, unless you're in Switzerland, where that makes people nervousDo something that will personally and directly make another person's life betterBake breadWrite a letterFocus on seeing and speaking the positive—or in the words of the Bible, 

Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

Think on good things, and even more, do good things. George MacDonald was very big on the uselessness of thoughts and words that do not lead to action, but he did have a broad definition of what makes a good action. From The Princess and Curdie:

How little you must have thought! Why, you don't seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don't mistake me. I don't mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you. ... There are a great many more good things than bad things to do. 

Do you think it wrong to focus on the good when there is so much evil in the world? On the contrary, I'm convinced that to do otherwise is to surrender to the evil forces, and leads to an unhealthy mental state that does good for no one.

Let's say farewell to 2016 with gratitude for all the blessings and wonders that it has brought, and face 2017 with a cheerful courage.

Have a Happy New Year!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 31, 2016 at 8:42 am | Edit
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Why do people hate the rich?

Perhaps it's simple jealousy, especially since we tend to define as "rich" anyone who has more money than we do ourselves. Differences in wealth and power have been around forever and likely always will be. Jealousy and resentment have plagued us at least as long.

The hatred seems particularly virulent these days, however, especially among those who are themselves wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the world, both now and throughout history. It has bubbled up recently in the idea that being rich somehow disqualifies many of the people whom Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet.

I hate conspicuous consumption, and I despise waste even more. Most of all, I grieve that the lifestyles of the rich and famous, fueled by unwise use of money, consumes their souls like an aggressive cancer. But as Scottish author George MacDonald—himself often desperately poor—takes pains to make clear, the love of money destroys the souls of those who have too little just as surely as it destroys those who have too much.

But through the years I've come to respect most rich people and see their importance to all of us.

Rich people get things done.

We all know spoiled "rich kids" of any age who have inherited their wealth and done nothing to earn it, nothing to increase it, and nothing good with it. But by and large, people become wealthy because they make things happen. They work very hard, too—but hard work alone is insufficient. The same character traits that enable some people to get rich often also enable them to accomplish great things. Sure, there's some luck involved, but it takes something else to make that luck work in your favor—a something else most of us do not have. (One of my favorite quotes, which I learned thanks to my friend the Occasional CEO, is J. Paul Getty's secret to success: 1. Get up early. 2. Work hard. 3. Strike oil.)

The neighborhood we live in would probably be considered lower middle class. There are people of all classes in the huge—over 900 homes—subdivision, but on average I'd say lower middle class covers it. Our kids go to the same high school as kids from some very wealthy neighborhoods, and there's certainly some resentment over their cars and fancy clothes. But when it comes to doing things for the school, the wealthier parents—at least those wealthier than us—lead the pack. And when a planning decision at the school board level threatened to split up our school, it was people from the rich neighborhoods who saved ours along with their own, because they had the experience, the knowledge, and most of all were willing to put in the time and effort, to propose and fight for an acceptable alternative plan. The rest of us cared, but the wealthy made it happen, not because they were rich, but because they knew what to do and worked till the job was done. Frankly, I'd consider that an asset in any Cabinet position.

Our recent trip to New York City, with its museums, big and small, public and private, also showed me the advantage of having rich folks around. Where would high culture be without the wealthy? Not only do they support art, music, and theater by commissioning works, but they collect, preserve, and protect works of art—art that the rest of society may not fully appreciate for a century or so.

Not to mention the fact that rich people create jobs for the rest of us. Even those fancy cars, ridiculously large yachts, and over-the-top opulent houses provide work for a whole bunch of people. Most important of all is that the people who have the qualities that enable them to become rich are the ones who create the industries that we depend on. Would I rather see a rise in family-owned industries, small farms, and sole proprietorships, in which more people work for themselves rather than for someone else? Sure. But not everyone can do that, and not everyone wants to. Someone like me can give an poor person a handout, but a rich person can provide a job that will give him self-respect and lift him out of poverty.

We don't have to approve of everything about the way rich people behave to recognize their value to society—and to a government. Would you be happier if John, Robert, or even Ted Kennedy were in one of the Cabinet posts? Take a closer look at some of that family's behavior, and especially how they amassed their fortune.

Are many wealthy people being irresponsible with their money? Certainly. Aren't we all? It's a disease as widely distributed as the common cold, afflicting businesses, institutions, and governments even more than individuals. But that issue is completely irrelevant to someone's fitness for a Cabinet post.

Envy is an ugly trait, and a terrible advisor.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Edit
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Reading my way through the massive World Encyclopedia of Christmas (thanks, Stephan and Janet!), I've come to be more understanding of those, like my Puritan ancestors, who banned the celebration of the holiday. It had become anything but a holy-day, filled with drunkenness, lewdness, and all sorts of riotous and unseemly behavior, hardly appropriate to the sublime occasion. In those days, the "war on Christmas" was led, with good reason, by Christians themselves.  If our moral behavior is no better these days, at least the holiday is kinder to children.

It is unfortunately fashionable among Christians to mock other Christians who worry about what they think is a secular war on Christmas. Despite Martin Luther's approval of its use in certain circumstances, I think mockery is a very low form of argument, hardly suitable for one human being to use against another. Be that as it may, I don't think there's a war on Christmas.

Call it cultural appropriation.

Christmas is one of the greatest festivals of the Christian year—among many Christians the celebration lasts 12 days. Some would say Easter is more important, but as I wrote five years ago,

If it is unique and astonishing that a man so clearly dead should in three days be so clearly alive, and alive in such a new way that he has a physical body (that can be touched, and fed) and yet comes and goes through space in a manner more befitting science fiction—is it any less unique and astonishing that God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, should become a human being, not in the shape-shifting ways of the Greek gods, but through physical birth, with human limitations?

Christmas is the celebration of this Incarnation: The God who in the act of creation made the world separate from himself, at a specific time in history implanted himself in that world, not from the outside like some alien visitation, but from the inside, as deep and physically inside as a human baby in a woman's womb. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.

Just as there is commonly a lot more involved in the celebration a wedding than the legal act of marriage, many traditions have enriched the essential celebration of Christmas. From gift-giving to special foods, from carols to children's pageants, from decorated Christmas trees to stockings hanging by the chimney, beautiful customs have grown like many-faceted crystals around the core meaning of Christmas.

Indeed, these traditions are so special that millions hang onto them who reject the idea of God entering the world as a particular baby in a specific place and time. They even retain the name "Christmas" for this eviscerated holiday. Once upon a time that bothered me, but then I recognized that the symbols and traditions of Christmas are so rich and so powerful that—like a Christmas tree—they can retain life and beauty and a pleasing aroma for quite a while even when cut off from their roots.

Using the term "Christmas" for a celebration that no longer acknowledges nor respects the holiday's origin and history may be what is derisively called cultural appropriation, but I'm no longer convinced that's a bad thing. Christmas carols are very popular in Japan, a country where less than 2% of the people believe the words they are singing. In Europe, Christian holidays are celebrated by people who probably know no more about the meaning of the days than that the stores are closed and they don't have to go to work. In America, children eagerly count the days till Christmas, who neither know who Christ is nor have ever been to mass.

More power to them. Cultural appropriation at its best is a terrific learning opportunity. For ourselves, let's take pains to celebrate the whole tree, root and branch. Beyond that, I see no need to fret about keeping Christ in Christmas. He's there, in every lovely symbol and custom, waiting patiently, as he always does, to be revealed at the right time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 25, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Edit
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What adjectives come to your mind when you think of someone who voted for Donald Trump?

Racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, selfish, idiotic?  Probably.

How about compassionate, loving, open-minded, generous?  I didn't think so.

Ever since the election I have found myself in the incongruous position of defending the supporters of Donald Trump.  Perhaps it's due to my shock at the virulent attacks against them from the mouths and pens of people who have in the past taken pride in their openness, tolerance, and love of diversity.  Maybe it's because of my natural tendency to be contrary. My daughter said, "Mom, if you were a salmon, you'd be swimming downstream."  I had to think about that a bit.

I'm pretty sure, however, that my change of heart came mostly because I took a good look at the only Trump supporters in my circle of friends.  We have friends who are staunch supporters of Bernie Sanders and reluctantly switched to Hillary Clinton when she became the party's nominee; friends who supported Hillary Clinton all along; friends who couldn't stand Donald Trump from the beginning and voted for him only because the alternative was unthinkable; and friends who voted third party or sat this election out because they couldn't bear to cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.  Out of all my friends, only two openly cheered for Trump.

So I took a good look at them.

  • Smart, educated, and well-travelled
  • Raised five children, as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family
  • Personally settled and supported over a dozen refugees, and assisted hundreds more
  • Took in hundreds of the most difficult-to-place foster children
  • War veteran
  • Cleaned the homes—often on hands and knees—of elderly people in the community who could no longer do the work themselves
  • Support orphans and others in need—financially and in person—on three continents
  • Open their home and hearts to countless visitors from all over the world, of diverse cultures and religions
  • Are unabashedly and enthusiastically Christian, for whom that is always a reason to be more active, inclusive, and loving—not less
  • Have uncompromising moral values which never deter them from loving and helping those who do not share their standards
  • Have a joyous enthusiasm for life, in good times and in bad, that spills over into everyone they meet
  • Are called Mom and Dad by enough people around the world to populate a small city

These are the only Trump supporters I know well enough to judge, and I don't have a fraction of the cred I'd need to cast a stone their way.

Before we write off as immoral subhumans half the people we share this country with, maybe we should get to know them better.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 1, 2016 at 10:16 am | Edit
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It's far too early to have figured out all the ins and outs of the recent Ohio State killings, but two lessons seem clear to me.

I wish we would not be so quick to label such acts as terrorism. The officials may be cautious, but that doesn't stop the public from making its own hasty judgements. We don't want to dilute the term, and I for one am tired of every act of violence toward more than one or two people being called terrorism. Maybe this was, but my own feeling is that terrorism has to have a broader purpose, such as an ideology or at least a campaign to gain power and intimidate a group of people through fear. Murder/suicide, mental illness, anger, and hatred have been around a long time, and calling them terrorism gives the actions a certain respect that could lead still more deranged people to express their feelings through dramatic forms of murder/suicide.

However he might have cloaked his actions, this attacker sounds more like a lone wolf with personal problems. Calling him a terrorist, no matter how much he may have played into the hands of certain terrorist organizations, is according him a dignity he does not deserve.

Empowering is better than cowering. This article from the Columbus Dispatch explains why Ohio State broadcast the message "Run Hide Fight" to their students during the attack. (Emphasis mine.)

“Run Hide Fight” has become this generation's “Stop Drop and Roll.” It stems from a public-awareness campaign used by the Department of Homeland Security. ... The message is meant to get people to go through a series of steps to ensure survival: Run if they can, hide in a secure place if they can't and, as last resort, fight for their lives.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, an expert on threat assessment in the workplace and schools, said the “Run Hide Fight” protocol has been an effective tool in helping people react in mass-violence situations.

“What I teach in my program is these (attackers) aren’t Navy Seals, they are dumb or mentally ill guys with guns who can be stopped,” said Albrecht, a former San Diego police officer who is now based in Colorado. “You have to give people the mindset that we can fight back, and that we have to wait around for someone to shoot people is wrong. And that’s why the 'Run Hide Fight' approach has worked and fighting back has helped save the day in many of these situations.”

That's pretty much the advice we were given when our homeowner's association had a program on what to do during an "active shooter" situation—which, by the way, the speaker pointed out is a misnomer that we should stop using. A rifle range is full of harmless active shooters, and the killer at Ohio State managed to do a lot of harm without firing a shot. "Active killer," or "active attacker" would be more accurate, though I don't expect the media to change their language anytime soon.

Our speaker had some other good advice, such as:

  • When you walk into a room, note where the exits are. Active attackers may actually be rare, but that's good advice for many situations, including fires and having to take your toddler to the bathroom.
  • Recognize that guns and knives are not the only weapons available. Chairs, tables, umbrellas, and other items in the room could save your life.
  • Know the difference between cover and concealment (both make you more difficult to find, but only cover will stop a bullet).
  • Run if you can, and keep running as far as you can. Don't stop just because you have gotten out of the room/building. Many dangerous things will stil be happening. And try to remember to run with your hands up, because the police don't immediately know who the dangerous people are.
  • Remember that you won't necessarily know who the police are. In such situations, the police are called in from all over, and may not be in uniform.
  • If you are a concealed carrier and have heroically saved the day by shooting the assailant, drop your gun, put your hands up, and step away from the scene. Remember that the police will enter the room intent on stopping a man with a gun in his hand....

It's high time we stopped teaching our children that they are helpless. We don't want them to be so confident they take unnecessary risks, but if we don't give them knowledge and skills and teach them to be courageous in the face of danger—even evil—we're lost.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 29, 2016 at 9:21 am | Edit
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