Saturday, September 21, 2002

When it comes to a liberal profession of faith, I have no shame

I have it on good authority that I am going to hell when I die.

Amazingly, this isn't because I watched "The Last Temptation of Christ" back when I was in college. It's not because I drive too slowly in the fast lane, and it's not even because I think a foot-long ponytail looks good on a 34-year-old man. No, I'm going to hell because I have the audacity to call myself a Christian and a liberal at the same time. I'm a member of the Religious Left.

Despite the seeming oxymoron in a term such as Religious Left, the truth is that religion and liberalism actually have a long, shared history in this country, beginning with abolitionism.

Socially liberal religious groups such as the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, formed the backbone of the Underground Railroad, risking arrest, fines and harassment-by rescuing blacks from slavery in the South and smuggling them north to freedom in Canada.

In the years since, the Religious Left has been at the forefront of issues such as women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. While the establishment has pounded the drums for war, religious liberals have manned humanitarian efforts in the middle of battle zones to make sure that the wounded innocents are cared for.

In Dallas, the Trinity Foundation has challenged churches and synagogues to meet the needs of the homeless head on, by providing them with a place to stay and helping them find jobs. The Trinity Foundation also keeps tabs on hucksters who use religion as means to make themselves wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable.

In Chicago, the Jesus People, a religious commune on the wrong side of the tracks, has fought to1 protect the people who depend on low-income housing by fighting efforts to gentrify neighborhoods behind the guise of redevelopment.

And while President Bush four years ago was incredulous when an interviewer asked him about hunger in Texas, former President Carter — like Bush, a professed born-again Christian — is a major figure in Habitat for Humanity, an organization that has made tremendous strides in providing affordable housing to the poor.

Equal rights for women, civil rights for minorities, support of hate-crime legislation, affordable housing, food and clothing for the homeless, civil unions for same-sex couples, education for those in prison, an end to capital punishment — these are all liberal causes, and they're all causes I support as a Christian.

During the last 20-odd years, the Religious Right has been the dominant voice from Christian groups, as it has claimed a monopoly on truth, and its interpretation and application. Depending on whom you listen to, any deviation from the party line — which increasingly has meant the Republican Party line — is unpardonable.

Contrary to what many on the Right, both religious and not, would have us believe, liberalism isn't a cancer eating away at the core of an otherwise healthy society. It isn't about undermining traditional family values, about eroding the foundations of our nation, hating America, or giving people a free ride at the expense of the public.

Liberalism is the simple belief that everybody deserves the same basic opportunities and respect as everybody else, regardless of the social, economic, religious or racial position they were born with. That's it.

If it means some people will take advantage of the system, so be it. In the long run, I'd rather be taken advantage of than to throw a family out on the street because they couldn't pay the mortgage in a sour economy. I'd rather have less money in my own pocket than leave employees struggling to get the health care they need. I'd rather face disappointed shareholders than reward years of company loyalty with job outsourcing.

"Whatever you do to the least of these," Jesus says, "you do to me."

I'm religious, and I'm a liberal. Let my heart bleed.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Addicted to the kind of Coke that you can't snort

My name is David Learn, and I'm addicted to Coke.

This addiction is now entering its 10th year, and it shows no signs of getting weaker. It's taken a toll on my bank account, my health and my relationship with my wife. I thought I could quit any time I wanted, but I can't. I want my life back.

As with other people, I first started cultivating my addiction in earnest during the young and heady days of college. Between discussions regarding whether free will is a meaningful construct or purely illusory, and whether Isabella was right to refuse Lord Angelo's lewd proposition to save her brother Claudio's life in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," college was an invitation to a lifestyle of addiction, excess and wanton self-indulgence.

I was no better than my friends. While they were discovering the joys of alcohol poisoning and waking up in the hospital with no memory of how they had broken a hip, I was experimenting with Coke.

It started innocently. Other students noticed I was having a hard time maintaining the energy I needed for the college lifestyle. I could have gone to sleep earlier, but that would have required changing my lifestyle. It was easier to start using Coke.

I started small, with a little bit at lunch, to give me the energy I would need to get through my afternoon classes. Then I started getting a little more, at dinner, to get me through the evening.

By the middle of my sophomore year, I was a full-fledged addict. I would go to parties and — unwilling to drink beer because of my experiences with a grandfather who was an alcoholic — I turned to Coke. Soon I was consuming as much as 32 ounces of it at one sitting, and wondering why I couldn't sleep.

I would find it hard to focus in class, and get crushing headaches. A housemate noticed that my addiction was affecting my weight, and not in a good way. He tried to say something, and I nearly bit his head off. I regretted it, and apologized, but there was no denying it. Coke had a hold on my life.
There were days Coke was the only thing I had for a meal, aside from the occasional glass of milk to calm my upset stomach.

Twice now I've managed to go cold turkey, despite the tremendous migraines and exhaustion that come on me as my body clears itself of the toxins I've polluted it with.

The first time I was clean for two glorious years — although "clean" probably is pushing things. I was living in Haiti at the time as a missionary. I could still find Coke if I wanted it, but it cost 80 cents for 16 ounces, compared to the 20 ounces of Pepsi I could get for the same amount of money. I simply changed the subject of my addiction for a couple years, although I did drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration.

My second time, I actually did go completely cold turkey when I realized how much money my habit was costing me. It didn't last.

After two weeks, I discovered that I couldn't stay up late on the job as easily as I had, and as I bottomed out, I remembered how much energy I once had had. It was too easy to fall back on old habits, even though I had told my wife I had stopped for good.

So now I'm back in the habit, drinking as many as three 20-ounce bottles of Coke a day, and paying as much as $1.36 for a fix at the Quick Chek down the street from my office.

My addiction has led to at least six cavities that I know of, it has brought me to the point that I am about 40 pounds overweight, with an attendant increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems. If that's not enough, it also aggravates the insomnia and the migraines I've suffered since I was a teenager.

I know all this, but as I write this column, I'm doing it with a bottle of Coke at my side. Unlike that other form of coke addiction, this one keeps the people caught in its clutches on a brisk slide for years before it lets them bottom out, usually far too late to make a decent recovery.

My name is David Learn. I'm an addict, and I want my life back. 

Thursday, September 12, 2002


Well, I've finally seen a few episodes of "Enterprise," and I have to say that I'm not impressed. Maybe it's just me, but it does seem like Scott Bakula is just coasting as Jonathan Archer. I saw much stronger performances from him as Samuel Beckett (and I don't mean the archbishop of Canterbury, either) and on the one episode of "Murphy Brown" I actually watched.

I'm not quite sure what it is about the show that's not doing it for me, but it lacks some essential spark to make it grab my attention and keep it. Maybe it's the lack of real conflict among the crew, or any sense that they're actually blazing new trails in science fiction or even in Star Trek. It just seems like more of the same stuff, with a little window dressing.

Maybe it's just Star Trek fatigue, at this point. More weird shit episodes, all happily resolved at the end of the episode with no lasting complications.

I do think it's interesting the way the Vulcans are being cast in a negative light, suspicious of other races and determined to control the paths of other, less advanced peoples like Terrans and Andorians. (Speaking of which, I tremendously enjoyed the appearance of the Andorians. It was a good bit of continuity with Classic Trek, and it nicely showed the unpleasant side of Vulcan behavior toward "lesser" species.)

I also enjoyed the Halloween episode, where a hallucinogen in the air was causing everyone to see and hear things and suspect the Vulcan science officer of some sort of treachery. It was a much more effective Halloween episode than "Catseye," the Classic Trek episode where the aliens turned out to be extradimensional pipecleaners.

But I do have one question: What's the Vulcan logic in that skin-tight bodysuit? I understand the ratings logic, but not the Vulcan logic.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

not (quite) on our own

I haven't been overly thrilled with the state Division of Youth and Family Services, which handles foster care arrangements in our state.

The two caseworkers we've had have been wonderful. They listen to what we say, they check up on the kids, and they've been generally responsive to our concerns. I can't say a bad thing about them.

The state bureaucracy is another matter, though. While we were between caseworkers, our case was handled by the district manager. She returned our calls (eventually), but was generally pretty rude about things and gave us the impression that we had no rights in the situation. We were told to cancel plans in order to accomodate a make-up visit they set up without telling anyone; she changed the regular visitation schedule without checking with us to see if the new times would be good for us; and she never listened to a word we said about what was happening to the kids or what would be good for them. It started a phrase between us and friends of ours who have our foster son's sister: "Well, what would we know, after all? We're just the foster parents."

We were stuck with Anne for about three months, by the end of which I was practically pulling my hair out in frustration. The drivers who came to pick up the kids didn't have the appropriate child safety seats -- he once actually tried to use a regular seat belt on a 2-year-old! -- and were rude as could be to us. They didn't come to the door to collect Isaac; they stayed in the street and honked the horn. My wife was grilled because Isaac fell and skinned his knees once, and we were told we had to buy him new sandals and clean his ears better. (I had just cleaned his ears the night before and flat-out refused to spend money on sandals he didn't need.)

The worst was when the system decided it was all right for the birth parents to come to our house to pick their son up for visits, all without consulting us first. I had to raise cain and threaten to get a restraining order before they backed down.

All this is a long and circumlocutious way of answering your question. Do I feel abandoned as a foster parent? Not entirely. But I don't feel like the system really cares about me, or about my foster son.

Monday, September 09, 2002

staring into my child's grave

So here I am, wide awake at 12:16 a.m. Sept. 9. I should be asleep upstairs so I can be awake in nine hours when I go to work. After all, I have a ton of Sept. 11 news coverage to prepare and do, and regular work at the newspaper besides, but I can't help it. Sleep is about as far from me as the Super Bowl is from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

My foster son is going to his parents for a visit this morning, one that will last 24 hours or so. My daughter is going to be asking for him nonstop, and I'm going to be looking for him all day too. He's not going to be there when I get home from work, and he's not going to scream for joy to see me. I'm not going to get a hug from him, I won't get to hear him build his language skills, and I'm not going to be able to tuck him into bed tonight.

Instead, he's going to be with the people who left him in the abominable developmental mess he's been struggling out of for the last 10 months. He'll be in an apartment so filthy that cockroaches climb on the bedroom wall, under the tender ministrations of people who got his sister to bleed from the head while they were changing her diaper during last week's visit.

His caseworker acknowledges they're a mess and the situation, far from improving, probably has worsened since the children were removed last December.

And yet it looks like he's going back there in just two short months.

If God is just
If there is intelligence in the courts
If this universe makes any sense
... something's going to happen to stop that from happening.

In the meantime, I'm faced with the inevitability of the unthinkable. I feel like I'm watching a child die in front of me, and I'm unable to give him the treatment he needs to live.

I can't begin to tell you how angry -- and how very, very heartbroken -- I am right now.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

bracing for departure

As our foster son has begun longer, all-day visits with his parents in preparation for his dreaded day of return to their custody, our daughter has been noticing his absences and commenting on them frequently.

The other day, after being told for the fifth or sixth time that he was away for the day with his mommy and dady, Evangeline decided Isaac must be "outside," so she started to put toys outside for him to play with. Kind of sweet and thoughtful, in a toddler sort of way.

Of course, I'm kind of concerned that she's going to get the idea that people leave after a while, and will start worrying that mommy and daddy will send her away next, or will send the baby somewhere else.

The state workers told us that she wouldn't be hurt by his departure, and people keep telling us how resilient children are, but I'm not stupid. I've seen my foster son's emotional scars, and I wonder how deep they'll be on my daughter.


I spoke with the caseworker for Isaac and his sister a fair amount this week and it seems like she is starting to understand our concerns about the children returning to their parents under the current circumstances.

I have no idea what this means in the long term. Although at this point I still have to assume that the kids will return to their parents, it's looking a little better for them in the sense that DYFS is starting to raise all sorts of new flags over the potential for neglect and abuse.

My prayer isn't that Isaac stays here, or that his sister stays with her foster parents: I simply don't want them to be in any situation, in any home, where we are concerned that they are being neglected and not being challenged to develop properly emotionally and mentally.

Beyond that, I don't want to say. I just ask that you keep both children heavily in your prayers. They need it. 

cgc: what went wrong

What follows is my own take on the last year-and-a-half. This should be viewed as the self-absorbed ponderings of one man, and nothing more.

Abner started at the church back around Easter 2001. I don't remember how much earlier than that we voted for him, but it wasn't much earlier. To a large extent I voted for him because he was recommended by people whose opinions I value highly. And to tell the truth, if we were in the same situation now and they recommended somebody, I would still value their opinion quite a lot, though I might ask a few more questions.

For me, the trouble started soon after Abner came on, though to call it "trouble" probably isn't fair. I started developing reservations about what he was preaching. There are different views of what a sermon is for, some good and some bad. One is teaching, which is I've encountered primarily at mainline denominations. This is long on doctrine and biblical exegesis, but short on application. Another is the fire-and-brimstome approach, with its variants "You're all going to hell unless you repent *NOW*" and "Society's going to hell, but we're okay." And so on. I guess that's a little off the subject.

Abner's teaching struck me fairly early on as prosperity-oriented, or aimed at the self; i.e., how can I get more out of God? He's had a number of sermons along those lines -- How can I avoid financial ruin?, How can I experience the fullness of God's plan for my life? and what else. It's the sort of teaching reflected in popular books like "The Prayer of Jabez" and has the heart-warming message that God loves us, wants us to be happy and successful, and there's nothing wrong with asking God to give us health, wealth and happiness.

I don't quite see the gospel that way. As I understand him, Jesus calls us to self-denial and to service of others, and he promises pain, suffering and heartache in this life. Self-actualization doesn't seem to rank very high on the list of things he promises followers; in fact, his exact words are "Unless you take up your cross daily and follow me, you cannot be my disciple." To the rich young ruler, he said, "One thing you lack: Go and sell all your possessions and give everything you have to the poor" and remarks "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven."

So I had problems nearly from the start with the content of Abner's sermons. I talked with a few other people, but they preferred more of a wait-and-see attitude, arguing that he was using those things as a hook to draw people in. And so, as Gandalf says in "The Fellowship of the Ring," my doubts slept, but uneasily.

As time went on, I found I pretty much ignored what Abner said during his sermons because I found them dull and uninteresting. I either was in the nursery with my daughter, in the hallway with a friend, or busy writing something unconnected with the sermon while he preached. The sermons I did list to struck me as wrong in a number of ways. Often they were what one friend of mine calls a "vending-machine faith": If you X, then God will do Y. Anyone who's followed Christ for a while knows it's not that simple; worse, this presentation of things can be a brutal stick for young Christians to beat themselves up with. "I'm not experiencing this, so God must not love me because I haven't ...."

After a while people we knew started to leave or at least to talk about leaving. Everyone listed the preaching as a problem, but many of them also were complaining about broken confidences, insensitivity and broken promises. I didn't have any of those experiences because I never felt close enough to Abner to confide my private demons to him.

What I did see in Abner was a lot of pride. Last December, we were chosen to be the recipients of the church's Christmas gifts for the needy among us. This bothered us for two reasons: We learned from Jenny McGrath that the homeless shelter CGC had been working with for years had been cut off with no warning (which Abner denied), and secondly, people who had bought gifts for the giving tree had done so with the understanding they were helping needy people who wouldn't have had much of a Christmas otherwise. I was unemployed, but we were well in the black and had bought Evangeline plenty of presents.

When I called one of our elders, he agreed that maybe the church had erred and would need to rethink its mechanism for distributing gifts. Abner wouldn't hear of it. It took me something like five minutes to get him to listen to me and understand that I wasn't attacking anyone, and was sharing an honest concern about resources being misallocated. (For the record, the gifts we set aside what we were given to donate to a homeless shelter to make needy children happy at Christmas.)

That was his response toward any criticism, I found: Pride and an inability to recognize the validity of a viewpoint other than his own. As people started to leave in droves, he started to use the pulpit to criticize people who were leaving and he often said that people could get on board with what God was doing at Crosspointe, or leave.

In the end, I decided that what God appeared to be doing at Crosspointe was getting people out. So that's what we did.

cgc: in memoriam

I miss a number of things, not excluding the neighbor's house when I pull out of the driveway.

I miss the genuine and regular sense of interacting with a church community. I've been a Christian for 14 years and I've been involved with a number of churches, but CGC is the first place I felt I "belonged." I was frowned upon for being an individual, for raising questions or for even disagreeing with pastor.

Nicest of all I suppose was the way no one ever got hung up on stupid side issues. I've been in Christian groups were you were out if you weren't a strict Calvinist (I'm not), if you didn't speak in tongues (I never have) or if you "walked the walk without talking the talk" (I try to do the former but can't stand "spiritual" talk).

CGC was a place where we could be natural and be ourselves, and if people minded, it was because you had different personalities, not because you weren't one of "us."

What I really loved about CGC was its approach to fulfilling the Great Commission. While many churches and many Christians live in retreat from society and seek "safe" alternatives to what the evil, ungodly and wicked society presents us, I didn't get that sense from CGC much. The intent there wasn't to live in retreat from society but to present a dynamic interaction that follows the model Christ gave us and that really changes lives.

It's a shame it couldn't last, but frost always comes to Eden in the end. The question we have to answer is what we do now. 

I think the team is still here, and I think the team is still capable of accomplishing tremendous good. I think we need to regroup and restrategize perhaps, but I can't believe that the CGC community -- what was valuable about our church -- has been destroyed by a little thing like the dissolution of an organization. 

What happens when newspaper layout goes wrong

"A policy on wedgies and engagements?" I thought to myself. "That can't be right."

Wondering if I somehow had been reduced to a character in Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" series, I did a quick double-take and found the questionable headline. Sure enough, it wasn't right. The headline, hanging on one of the desks at the newspaper's composition office, didn't refer to wedgies at all. The offending word was "weddings."

With song lyrics, this sort of goof is called a mondegreen, as in "They killed the Duke of Earl and Lady Mondegreen." Well-known mondegreens include the faux Jimi Hendrix lyrics '"Scuse me while I kiss this guy" and Credence Clearwater Revival's classic warning that "There is a bathroom on (he right."

I'm generally good with song lyrics, so I never made those particular mistakes, nor thought that Johnny Rivers really was singing about a "Secret Asian Man."

That aside, I do seem to have a problem processing what I read with my peripheral vision. As a result, I'm constantly misreading things when I'm in a hurry.

One of those moments came in 1992 when I was living in Haiti, during the military government of Gen. Raoul Cedras. Glancing at a 10-gourde note, I could have sworn the bill said "Banana Republique de Haiti."

It's nice when a government can recognize its own shortcomings, but isn't it going a little far to admit it on the nation's money?

Newspapers can have “visual mondegreens,” often created by the blind spots we work ourselves into because of the presuppositions that guide the placement of articles, ads and photos.  In this business, we have all sorts of layout tricks to group page elements together and reduce confusion of what piece goes with what. One of the most common of these is the box, which we often use to mark stand-alone photographs that don't run with news stories.

Approximately four years ago, I was a reporter in Montgomery Township when Joanne Stransky, the longtime municipal clerk, retired. When Assistant Clerk Donna Kukla assumed her former supervisor's post, I wrote a short story introducing her to the community. The story was published with the headline "New clerk has familiar face."

Unfortunately, the editor also placed the story under a stand-alone picture of a chocolate Lab being spotlighted by the local animal shelter. The picture and caption were boxed, but that didn't make a difference.

I'm told that to this day, some Montgomery officials still call Donna "Pepper."

Ad placement also can be a tricky matter. In an advertising section such as automotive or real estate, publishing an ad next to a competitor's press release is a major no-no.

Even so, every now and then the advertising gurus foozle an ad placement so badly it baffles the rest of the civilized world.

Approximately six years ago, The Times of Trenton published a political advertisement on the obituary page. If that alone doesn't suggest some commentary on a politician's chances for election, consider the wording of the ad: "Bring back Caprio."

There are many people I would like to see brought back, even if it means reassembling them from spare parts. Not many politicians are on the list.

The all-time winner, though, has to go to an ad that I am told ran in the Bound Brook Chronicle a few years before I started to work at the chain the paper belonged to.

A trash-removal service came to the newspaper with a last-minute ad that absolutely had to be published that week. Unfortunately, the ad dummies already had been completed, and only one page had the space left to fit the ad.

And so it was that when longtime readers turned to the obituary page, they were greeted by the image of a large trash truck with the text "Have You Considered An Alternate Means of Disposal?"

Sometimes, I think, a policy on wedgies and engagements isn't such a bad thing, by comparison.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

identity crisis

I discovered today that I'm not really Evangeline's father.

We were sitting in the car while Natasha went into the Blockbuster, and to pass the time I started asking Evangeline where Evangeline Learn and Isaac Jones were. (This is to remind her that Isaac is not a permanent part of our family, since he is likely to return to his birth parents soon.) When I asked her where Daddy Learn is, she responded indignantly, "No, you're not a Learn! *I* am."

So not only am I not her father, I don't even know who my parents are.

blue must die

Fun things your child can do with her stuffed Blue toy:
  • Make you buckle Blue in with a seat belt
  • Put Blue in time out
  • Let Blue wear some of her hats
  • Make you put a pair of shoes on Blue's feet so Blue can go outside
  • Sing about getting a letter
  • Leave clues everywhere
  • Make daddy use his "Blue" voice until he wants to shoot Steve, Joe and everyone else connected with the show