Sunday, October 31, 2004

the party's over

As I write this we are in the process of recovering from the 5-2 celebration we had here today. We celebrated Evangeline's fifth birthday and Rachel's second, with Rachel's celebration coming only one day ahead of her actual birthday.

What a great time!

I have now formally surrended in the fight to keep Barbie out of our house for as long as possible, that time now apparently having passed. E got two Barbie dolls this summer, which pretty much signaled the beginning of the end. The girls have fought more frequently and more contentiously over who gets to play with the two Barbies and with Ariel than anything.

Today, E and R opened their presents from their Grandma H and found not only a new Barbie for each of them, but new outfits that fit their old dolls as well. (For the first time in months, Ariel and Barbie are no longer lounging around the house naked, trying to seduce Moon Knight.)*

Additionally, when we have our smaller family gift-giving tomorrow, R is going to discover the Barbie doll that Daddy bought her last month, in foolish oblivion to his mother-in-law's designs. Five Barbies, an Ariel and a Belle who walks around wearing nothing but her corset should be enough for a two-girl family, I reckon. Especially since the girls also have taken to playing with Moon Knight recently.

R blew everyone away while unwrapping her presents today, when she opened a package from her Auntie Audra and discovered her own princess doll. "It's Snow White!" she said, clear as a bell of purest crystal. I am happy to report that although Snow White and Barbie briefly switched outfits this evening, she is still wearing clothes. Moon Knight reportedly is disappointed, but is happy he will not need to be increase his cold shower regimen in the near future.

And naturally the fight we had to break up tonight was over who got to sleep with Snow White.

E's favorite gift today appears to be a queen outfit, complete with a gown, a crown and nice queen shoes. After the party had ended, the first thing she did was to change out of her dress and into her royal attire. Quite a sight too -- we took a picture which I may someday share here if I ever get around to it. Other gifts received today include early reader books, books that Daddy can read to her and loads of art supplies, since E is our little artiste.

The present that most amused me is the new Lite Brite. It's battery-operated, which is annoying since we'll need to replace batteries quite often, I should think, but it's also portable (being battery-operated, duh) and -- this is the amusing part -- is billed as "flat screen." Some friends of ours and I were joking that it's the new hi-tech Lite Brite. It's cable ready, and has a high-density plasma screen for you to use when you stick plastic pins through construction paper.

Something like 17 kids came, plus their parents and the Reading Fairy, which made our house one crowded, happening place. On top of that, the pizzeria where we usually order our pizza apparently is closed, so we had to scramble at the last minute to find a new place to order seven pies -- and they forgot to include the sausage on one pizza, even though they still billed us for it.

Ah well. At least no one gave us an Elmo toy.

* Moon Knight, as in the Marvel Comics split-personality superhero who functions as a Batman rip-off, blessed with superpowers by Konshu, an Egyptian moon god I never heard of outside "Moon Knight" and "West Coast Avengers." I have an action figure of him, who apparently has been ready to give his right arm to spend some quality time with Barbie, since that's precisely the appendage that came off him today as he was rescuing Barbie from some monster or another.

back from babylon

Our trip went well, all things considered, though next time I'm going to try to find other things we can do while we're up there. It just seems like such a waste to spend all that time on the train, and then turn around to come home after an hour.

The train ride was a lot of fun, though. This was Evangeline's second trip to a photo shoot in Babylon and she every bit as enthralled this time as last, perhaps even more. The entire way up to Penn Station in Babel, she kept the passengers in the car entertained by talking animatedly about how fast we were moving, asking if this stop was ours, and screaming, "Look, Daddy! We're in outer space!"

She surprised me, though. After we reached Penn Station, we got onto a PATH train to head to the World Trade Center in Babylon. Evangeline, who was not even 2 years old on 9-11, asked me if it would be safe to go there.

"Yes," I told her. "The bad men who knocked the buildings down can't hurt anyone anymore."

She was great the whole time. She loved going on the subway, and although she is still intimidated by escalators, was a trooper at going up one in Daddy's arms, and never once let go of my hand the entire time we were in the city.

We got off at Union Square, and she had a blast there, too, looking at all the pumpkins that were being sold, all the dogs that were being walked, and so on. Naturally, although I found 15th Street right away, I wasn't sure of my orientation and ended up walking five blocks the wrong way before I was able to establish that I was getting farther from West 15th Street and not closer. Five blocks, carrying a child on my shoulders and a backpack full of books we brought in case we had to wait at the photographer's for our turn.

There was no waiting period at the photographer's, though. We went in, filled out our paperwork, Evangeline got her picture, we left and got a snack, and then we began the trip back to Iowa in the middle of rush-hour traffic.

It was a lot of fun to make the trip with her, but like I said, the next time I hope I can figure out some more of what we can do while we're in the city and make more of a day of it if we can. I'm not inclined to shop much at Babylon prices, but if we can find something historic or artistic to see, it would make a nice addition to her homeschooling scrapbook.

If we're lucky, they'll call us back next week and Evangeline can get some money for college to make up for all our traveling ...

Friday, October 29, 2004

out of the fire

Well, it's done. Today I wrote my last two editorials, handed in my office key and said my goodbyes. Time and God alone will tell whether my being at WCN served any purpose or advanced the kingdom of God in any way. It was a hard time for me, but I'd like to think that some good came of it.

Actually, I know some good came of it. For starters, I know better now what I want out of my life and I think I'm less likely to settle for something less than what I need. Being in a stinky situation has a way of giving you some sort of clarity about what you want, what you're capable of, and why you keep ending up in bad spots.

I shared the gospel with a number of co-workers, and a few officials.

In my editorials and columns, I strove to uphold basic truths about our obligations to care for the needy. I issued calls for change, and sometimes that alone was enough to stir other people to action.

I got to make fun of Elmo in front of more than 100,000 readers.

I trained two reporters and made them stronger writers, shored up two sagging newspapers and gave them renewed vision and respect within the community, by bringing in local columnists, and making the papers into a voice for the community and within the community.

It still angers me that the W's work only 40 hours a week and yet still take the money they do -- and then have the gall to say that there's no money in the budget to provide better resources, hire more than a skeleton crew or pay us better. But in the long run, I think I gave some of my co-workers hope. An editor with the same ridiculous work load as me has given notice; another editor told me he plans to give notice in two more weeks. And I know of two different reporters who have refused promotions because they want more money than the company is willing to give them. (That apparently caught management completely off-guard when it happened, but people are catching on that we get change when we force them to face reality.)

I think I earned something of a reputation as an agitator at WCN because I kept pushing for more help and better resources to do our jobs, and kept urging other people to do the same. My reporter is one of those who has been telling them that she's not taking my job unless they pay her better for it than they've offered.

It's done, though. My wife starts full-time at Rutgers on Monday. It turns out that she actually will make more than I have been, and she's going to get better benefits than I had too. (And there's no commute, since she can walk to work, which means we'll save on gas.)

Thanks to everyone who's put up with me through this. It's been a long and torturous road, but it's finally over.

off to babylon

I'm taking Evangeline to Babylon tomorrow, Friday, for an afternoon trip. As long as I'm there, is there anything people would like me to forget to get them?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Kerry by default

I expect I will vote for Kerry on Nov. 2, but if Nader weren't a looney, he might be a viable candidate for me to vote for.

In no event is a vote for Nader a vote for Bush. It's a vote for Nader, even if it indirectly leads to a Bush victory. The Star-Ledger published a voter's guide Sunday that I want to look at more closely, since it's possible its presentation of third party and big two candidates will lead me to reconsider my vote.

(Yes, I am still relatively undecided because, quite frankly, neither of the main two candidates appeals to me.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

black jesus

I'm tired of seeing the white, blond-haired Jesus, but who isn't? I want to see black Jesus some more.

White blond Jesus everywhere you look. He's in the Sunday school material, even though Jesus wasn't blonde. I taught at a Christian school in Bethlehem, Pa., and he was in all the Bible class materials, even though all but two of my students were Hispanic or African-American.

White blonde Jesus had a nice run, but let's give him a break. Let's remind ourselves that Jesus is for other people too, and not just us.

In Haiti, at the Baptist Haiti Mission in Fermathe, I saw a picture of the Holy Family in the art museum there. In this picture, a black Joseph was teaching a white Jesus the family trade while a white Mary was busily at work nearby. It was a very Haitian scene, except for the white people.

That's the damage the white Jesus can do; people forget that he's like them, and instead they see him as like another people, the missionary or the American forces. He's a foreigner, an outisder; and not someone who knows what it's like for them.

I do enjoy the other-ethnic pictures I've seen. The National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince has pictures of the black Jesus at different times of his ministry: his baptism, raising Lazarus from the dead the Last Supper.

The funniest part of the black Jesus is that he's usually pictured with a white Judas.



Copyright © 2004 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

not in the funny papers

A friend of mine wrote this comic, based on a church drama I wrote about telling off God. The occasion for the drama was the loss of my foster son.Indigo did a fantastic job, and made the cuts I needed to make in the drama.

She's amazing.

remember to vote

Just to make sure everyone has heard:

Because election officials are expecting a large turnout at the polls for the presidential election, because of the low number of poll workers, and mostly because of the potential for physical altercations between Republicans and Democrats, Congress has decided to alter the election turnout rules:
  • Democrats are to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
  • Republicans are to vote on Wednesday, Nov. 3.
  • Members of third parties are to vote on Thursday, Nov. 4.
This also should allay fears of voter intimidation and tampering, and should eliminate problems of the sort of that jeopardized the 2000 presidential election.

Remember, every vote counts!

Monday, October 25, 2004

philadelphia visit

A few weeks ago, we took a homeschooling field trip to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and afterward went to visit the Betsy Ross house down the street. Lo and behold, they were having an impromptu sword fight by a troupe called Joke & Dagger.

I genuinely wish I had brought a camera with me -- they're not allowed in the mint, so I hadn't bothered -- because the final segment of their presentation included giving training to children in the audience who could answer history questions connected with Colonial America. (Evangeline correctly stated that there were 13 Colonies.)

For 15 or 20 minutes, Evangeline and Rachel dodged, parried, and generally came within a hairsbreadth time and again of hitting one another, the other children and the actors with their wooden poles as they swung them around. Evangeline actually drove one of the actors to the edge of the stage, and when they were teaching the children to duck and thrust, Rachel managed to go up and down at precisely the opposite moments of when she was supposed to.

Much we all loved the Mint and enjoyed the visit to the Quaker Meeting House, I think the swordfight had to be everyone's favorite part, especially because the girls got to go up on stage themselves.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

'jesus' movie anniversary

Twenty-five years ago today, "Jesus" opened in the U.S. Since then, it's been shown in every country of the world, and translated into over 800 languages.

Based on the gospel of Luke with a disco twist, it has been called a "Saturday Night Jesus."

religion in politics

For its protestations to be nonpartisan, this petition does take a few obvious swipes at Bush. That, I suspect, is due more to the presumption, real or imagined, of the Right that everyone who follows Christ should vote Republican in the national election.

Still, I wholly agree with the basic thrust of the petition: There are other moral issues that Christ calls us to work toward that both parties systematically ignore.

Politicians and politically minded folks regularly use religion as a means of building support for themselves, their candidates or their issues. I've seen or heard it used to rally opposition to same-sex unions, to oppose stem cell research and abortion, to call for reforming public education, and just to suggest that one presidential candidate is somehow superior to another.

It really gets sickening after a while. Which was more laughable: Bush calling Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher, or Howard Dean claiming that Job is his favorite New Testament book?

Ridiculous.

People of conscience, religious and not, are going to have stands on all these positions, and I think it's a given that God cares deeply about these and other issues facing America, including those that don't get mentioned.

If politicians are going to be brazen enough to invoke God's name to justify their candidacy, then they need to follow through with a commitment to pursuing the things that God names as his priorities, not just the hot-button political issues of the day. And both sides of the political debate, Right and Left, need to remember that there are legitimate differences of opinion on several of these issues. Greg Hartman is opposed to same-sex marriage; I support it, and I'm proud to call him a brother. To naby, abortion is the overriding issue that trumps all others; while I am unabashedly pro-life, I consider other issues as well -- and still we stand in prayer for one another when the need arises, and would share Communion if the chance arose.

It's not an issue of whether we're a Christian nation; it's whether those who declare themselves followers of Christ are going to pursue the standards of justice laid out in Scripture, whether they will see care provided for the orphans and the widows among us and whether they will be servants of the least Americans, or only of the strong and powerful.

Monday, October 18, 2004

open letter

Dear Vera,

Believe it or not, but I understand exactly what you're saying. What you're going through, and perhaps staring to see the end of, is one of those long trough periods called the Long Dark Night of the Soul. They're hideous. They're times when it feels as though God has led you down a dark and treacherous path to the very bottom, and suddenly leaves you there. On every side are monsters with teeth and claws that will rend you if you take one wrong step, and when you scream and curse and howl at the One who led you into that pit, demanding some explanation, some reason that could possibly justify why a God who claims to be so full of love would do this to you, all you get is one simple command: "Follow me."

I've been there. I know how you feel. Losing my son two years ago was the worst thing I have ever been through in my life, and it was every bit as bad as what I just described, if not actually worse.

If I can give you any encouragement, it is this: You are not alone. You cannot always see us, but you are hemmed in on all sides by a great cloud of witnesses, of other believers who have been to that place of despair and places worse still and found victory in Christ. The longer-standing members of this forum carried me far during that time -- I don't think they know how far, and in some ways I don't think even I can fathom how far -- and we will carry you. It's not just in prayer, but it is a mystery. Who among us does not suffer and the rest of us do not suffer with them? We're a body, and when one part is injured the whole body feels the pain.

You are not alone, and one day the anguish will be over. Before that happens, you may have felt pain a thousand times worse than anything you ever known before, and you may have sunk deeper into despair than you ever have. But it will end. And when it is over, you will find that you experience joy in a fullness you never believed possible, and find a peace and a faith that are more unshakeable than you have ever known.

I still have scars from what happened to me when I lost Isaac, and that loss still strikes like a blow to the chest at times, and sometimes I still weep. But you know something? I wouldn't trade those tears for anything I had felt before it all came crashing down on me.

Our choice, as always, is to ruin our own lives, or to let God ruin them for us, for his greater glory. I know how I have chosen, and I every confidence that you will make the same choice I did.

quote

Cervantes once wrote, "Even a fart can be musical" -- a memorable way of saying that even something that appears to be useless can still have beauty and something of quality about it. He saw the unauthorized sequel to "Don Quixote" as the only exception to this rule.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

fighting terrorism

Anyone who thinks we can significantly end terrorism with military force is kidding themselves. And, I just don't see Jesus advocating military force against anybody. There has to be a better way.

There has to be a better way, but I have no idea what it would be. Some might say, something along the lines of "Give them what they want, and supposedly they'll go away." Of course, it used to be when a terrorist struck, the group would issue a demand, like "Withdraw the occupying troops from Belfast" or something. Al Qaeda made no such demand on 9-11. The whole of their message seemed contained in the events of the day: Die.

I think we can make a strong case, that privation provides as fertile a breeding ground for terrorist ideology as a pile of manure does for flies. But how do you end that privation? I've lived in the Third World; I've seen how much U.S. aid money makes it to the people it's intended for, and how much makes it into private bank accounts. Pouring money into other countries willynilly does little to solve their economic problems, and often ends up fostering anti-American sentiment because we shore up corrupt and oppressive regimes like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein's.

Not to say that poverty is the only cause. Bin Laden and his lieutenants were all wealthy and educated. Clearly living in an insular society that brutally suppresses free thought also can lead people to horrific crimes and terrorist behavior. But impoverished areas can be terrific breeding grounds for hatred and terror. Bin Laden and Arafat, after all, don't blow themselves up. They send other people.

And generally, although not universally, terror finds more support among people who feel they have no other way to express their voice, not among the well educated and wealthy who stand to lose if the status quo is shaken.

The remedy, ultimately, isn't going to come from a political system, since in the end this isn't a political or economic issue but a spiritual one. So the question before us really is, how do we as citizens of the Kingdom of God respond to terrorism and to the terrorists? What can we do as believers, in addition to praying, to see an end to terror and the advancement of the Kingdom of God whatever happens to political structures and hierarchies?

Saturday, October 09, 2004

the religious left

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 footlong 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, going back at least to abolitionism, when socially liberal religious groups such as the Society of Friends 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. Susan B. Anthony? She was a Quaker. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? That should be obvious. Many who added their voices to his in calling for an end to segregation, did so because they shared his convictions, based in the teachings and example of Jesus, that racial segregation has no place in a civilized society.

Not surprisingly, religious liberals have strong feelings about war. 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, since the time of the Civil War on. Others have fought hard to maintain or restore the peace, remembering as Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

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, when the city administration decided to gentrify an area, the Jesus People -- a religious commune on the wrong side of the tracks -- fought to protect the people who depend on the low-income housing that had been targeted for redevelopment. They called the exploitation and willfull disregard for the poor what it was, and saved the homes of hundreds of immigrants.

And while President Bush during the 2000 presidential primaries 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 for 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. You can't disagree and still be a "real" Christian.

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.



Copyright © 2004 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Thursday, October 07, 2004

halloween sells out

I was complaining at work Monday night that everyone has forgotten the true meaning of Halloween, and it's all become commercialized. Nowadays the Great Pumpkin rises from the pumpkin patch and starts doing endorsements for one brand name after another.

Aside from that, it's just a fun and harmless children's holiday. When it ceases to be fun because of vandalism or recklessness, it needs to be reined in, but I really don't worry that my daughter is going to run off and join a coven because we made paper jack-o'-lanterns yesterday for homeschool crafts.

I did explain to her the history of jack-o'-lanterns, and told her that people used them before they knew about Jesus to keep themselves safe from scary things. (Evangeline has an active imagination, so I didn't see a need to start filling her idea with notions about ghosts, goblins and demons in the hours just before bedtime.) I told her that now that we know about Jesus and don't need to be afraid of those things, we make jack-o'-lanterns because they're fun to make and because they also can remind us that Christ is the one who frees us from fear and from our sin.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

ghost stories

I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, but I love the stories people tell about them.

I've heard stories of mischievous ghosts that hide the car keys, protective ghosts that drive off intruders, malevolent ghosts that try to kill people for coming into the ghost's territory, compassionate ghosts that comfort people who are upset, and indifferent ghosts who are just minding their own business, doing what they used to do when they were still alive.

I heard one ghost story about a teenage girl who desecrated a grave -- I think it was something relatively minor, like stepping on it, or leaving a note there for somebody -- and started getting stalked by the ghost in a threatening manner, including one point where the ghost tried to strangle her. I would have no problem believing a spirit that malevolent is demonic.

On the other hand, what about the squatter ghost Daniel mentioned to Christina, who hangs out by a campfire only he can see and still thinks he's in the 1800s? There's a ghost story in Clark about a man who died of a heart attack while walking his dog to the train station, and could be seen many as 60 years later, still walking along the tracks? (He finally disappeared when the train station was torn down to widen Central Avenue.) That hardly seems overtly demonic; nor does Sam, the ghost who allegedly haunts WCN Newspapers. Sam supposedly is a former publisher who feels bad for reporters who have to stay there late, and supposedly has appeared to a couple late at night and put a comforting arm on their shoulders, metaphorically speaking.

I'm not inclined to give much time or space to any ghost that appears to me, but at the same time I'm reluctant to say they're all demons. I'd be hard-pressed to tell what exactly they'd be getting out of hiding the car keys, for one thing. Even though a demon can appear as an angel of light, it still invariably is going to tip its hand by the effect it has on people or the things it communicates.

In any event, I would say that most ghost stories are outright fabrications, and most of the rest have a completely legitimate physical or psychological explanation that has been overlooked. The remainder -- a very small percentage to be sure -- may have something supernatural about them, and given the general silence of the Scriptures on ghosts, I'm not inclined to believe in ghosts qua ghosts, even though I find the stories fascinating.

But at the same time, given the general silence of the Scriptures on ghosts, I won't rule out the possibility definitively, either.