Monday, August 24, 2009

A pirate looks at 39

In about six more hours, the sun will set on my 39th birthday.

As milemarkers go, 39 isn't one of the big ones. For one thing, it doesn't end in zero like many landmark ages and anniversaries. And while it does lie at the very cusp of middle age, it's not an age particularly noted for anything.

At 16, I got my first driver's license. At 18, I received legal recognition as an adult. When she was 25, Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne and ultimately became one of the best-loved and most powerful monarchs of England. At the age of 33, Alexander the Great had lain the foundations for what eventually would become modern Western civilization. But 39? That one's noteworthy only for being a year short of 40.

And that's essentially how I feel right now: that I'm staring down the barrel of 40 years old, and in another year it's going to blow my head off.

Six years ago, when I turned 33, I observed how nice it would be on my deathbed to quip that I had missed the best years of my career because I had spent them all with my children. Well, mission accomplished: Five years ago, I grabbed my career by its halter and led it to a place behind the stable, where I shot and killed it. Only, recently, I woke up and found its head on the pillow next to me.

Looking back I don't feel that I have much cause for regret. The past five years have been spent almost exclusively in the company of two children whom I have taught to read, whose scraped knees I have kissed, whose laughter has given me wings and whose razor-sharp tears have stripped me to the bone. I have sung with them, danced in their company, delighted in their artwork, and learned some of the most poignant and important lessons of love and life at their feet.

For their sake, I have served three years on the school board. For love of them, I have walked around in public with bows in my hair. I have scheduled my days around taking them to school, to the doctor's office, to friends' houses, and to art and ballet lessons. I have carried them on my shoulders, in my arms, and upon my back. Most of all I have carried them in my heart with such an earnestness that it has hurt.

I've received no salary for this new career, save in the only currency my children know: the tireless love and affection that they shower upon me.

It has been almost enough.

I only started to appreciate how much my career change to stay-at-home dad has cost me last Thursday, when I was talking to a friend. Only a few years older than I, Sonja is in the midst of a mid-life career change, to art history. She had just been offered an entry-level position, and she was thrilled. As she put it, it was difficult enough to compete with twentysomethings while she was in her 40s. There would be no way to start over again in her 50s.

There was a time when the world was an oyster with unlimited potential that I could crack with my good right hand. Now I am uncomfortably aware that a crocodile has eaten my right hand, and if I listen, I can hear the ticking of the clock that tells me the crocodile is coming back for the rest.

I have at most five, maybe six, years to begin my next career in earnest. Anything beyond that, and the odds stacked against my success will increase steadily with each year. So what's it going to be? Will I return to teaching? Will I return to writing news and feature stories, to magazines, or to editing and teaching other writers their wordcraft? I've done all of those, and I've done them well. On days when my neck doesn't feel the pinch of the blue monster, I am confident I can do them again.

Or maybe I should do something new. I could turn my blog into something with meaning and purpose that stretches beyond my fancy of the day, I could found an arts magazine with the local focus that I understand so well, or I could turn my full attention to my fledgling public relations business and make a living on that.

Whatever it is, I had better decide soon. That crocodile loved the taste of my hand, and he's definitely coming back for more.

What I really want, my driving passion, is not just to be a writer, but to be an author as well. The stories I can tell, the stories I need to tell, are stories that can inspire laughter, tears, longing and regret. Stories are the vehicle I use to teach the great truths that I have learned, and I want desperately to do nothing more than to take the sacred space at the head of my classroom and begin to teach.

Now, nearly five years after I left the workforce to spend more time with my children and complete the great novel that has been my ambition since middle school, I can safely say that I have spent more time with my children. The great novel, like many of my other children, lies gasping for breath in a pauper's field while I concoct excuse after excuse for not working to save it.

Three years ago, I wrote about my experience with cancer and the uncomfortable reminder it brought of my own mortality and how badly I had done on completing my life's most important work. Now three years later, I am shamed once again by how little I have changed. Age, like cancer once did, is awakening me to how briefly the candle flickers upon the stage before it disappears in a wisp of smoke.

If God is gracious, and if I am wise enough to accept that grace, I know that I can write and publish a few books in the years that lie before me, and I can give birth to many of the stories that have gestated within my mind all these years. I may even enjoy that moderate success that other writers have found, where they are not really household names, but they do enjoy a loyal following.

Whether I succeed or fail as a writer in large part depends on forces that are hardly mine to command, but I have seen the past 39 years that God prefers it when we give him something – anything – to work with.

In another 30 years, or 40 if I am lucky, I will ring down the curtain as everyone before me has done, and will exit the stage while younger performers put on their shows. When that day comes and the critics take stock of my life's work, I want to stand behind all my children and proudly say, “See what I have done with what I was given. I have been here, and I have mattered; not a thing has been wasted.”

That would be a good life.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

an open letter to tritium

Dear Tritium:

I've been reading some of the stuff people have to say about you, and it seems pretty clear that you've got a lot of people almost as impressed with you as you are with yourself. I mean, look at what they have to say: "It has an atomic mass of 3.0160492! Like, omigosh, that's the same as an atom of lithium!"

And the comic book geekboys all love you, because you occur naturally when cosmic rays hit the Earth's atmosphere and interact with hydrogen. "Yo, dude," they say, in that annoying stoner voice that we always associated with Star Trek Voyager. "That's just like the Fantastic Four!"

But let's be clear about something: Dude, you are freaking hydrogen. That's it. When it comes to the Periodic Table of the Elements, you are at the bottom of the heap. Ever wonder why you have trouble getting a date with the noble gases? That's it.

You might think you're something special because you've got two neutrons and deuterium has only one, but it's the protons that count, buddy, and you've got only one. Even if she didn't have a thing for carbon -- and who doesn't, after all? -- the department secretary isn't going to be caught dead on a date with you any time soon. She has standards, and she has a reputation to uphold. Suck it up and deal.

And there's the way you're used in thermonuclear detonations. My, aren't you impressive. Stick a little tritium in the nuclear warhead, and a regular A-bomb goes straight to H-bomb. The extra punch you pack increases the payout of the fissile material and blows the lid off an otherwise conventional nuclear explosion.

Of course, that's not all it blows the lid off -- one of those nukes can destroy a major population center, killing millions of people just upon detonation, and creating radioactive fallout that will screw up the environment for generations to come.

You know, tritium, maybe you missed this in your contemplation of how awesome you are, but the phrase "You da bomb" isn't meant to be taken literally. Real bombs suck, just like fourth-graders suck when they think that wearing bling makes them cool even though they ignore their teachers and talk trash about girls.

You want to talk radiation? Plutonium is impressive. It's named after the Roman god of the dead and for good reason. All you have to do is hang out around plutonium for a few days and you'll have some really freaky, frightening and fatal forms of cancer springing up all over your body. Same thing with uranium.

Not you, though. Your beta radiation is so wimpy that it can't even penetrate human skin. Even the cheap pocketknife I had when I was 3 years old could do better than that.

Sure, you talk big when you swagger into a bar with unbonded oxygen atoms. "Hey, baby," you say, "I have a half-life of 4,500 days, plus or minus eight days." Wow, I'm so impressed. That means in about just 12 years and four months, you'll have turned into helium-3, and your main source of income will be inflating balloons at birthday parties.

You think you're something special, but you know it's all just hot air. Even your symbol, 3H, is embarrassing. You know what that makes you look like? An isotope that didn't have even have enough protons to join the local 4-H club. How pathetic.

Maybe you haven't quite got the picture yet, so let me spell it out for you. Every single link in this article so far is to Wikipedia. Wikipedia. You got that? You're not even impressive enough for me to bother linking to a real reference source.

Look tritium, there is one thing you do well, and we're all proud of you for doing it. You know what it is: You keep the sun going. Our sun is a big flaming ball of gas, a fusion-powered furnace that keeps us warm and toasty on this planet. I know a few people have been complaining about your job performance there too, saying that you've been letting the sun lose mass so that eventually the Earth will break free of its orbit and plunge deep into space where we'll all freeze to death.

I can't say I'm wild about that, but the truth is that we've known all along that this was only a temporary arrangement anyway. Sooner or later, we all expected you'd want to move on up the Periodic Table of Elements and try something new: maybe a stint as nickel, or copper, or even selenium. That's how these things have worked as long as the universe has been around, and you want your turn.

It'll come. Just be patient, and keep doing your job.


Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 25, 2009

That ugly, vicious thing we call divorce

I don't get divorce.

Much of this is due to my parents, I'm sure. They were married my entire childhood, and still are. They've fought over money and they've dueled over how to raise the kids, but they've never parted ways. Sometimes my mom gets aggravated over my dad's sense of humor, and sometimes he zones her out, but here they are in their late 60s, and they're still together. They celebrated their 44th anniversary just this year.

And here I am in my late 30s, and it seems like one couple after another whom I've known is coming apart. They swore to be there for one another, never to part, and that foundation of love that they laid is splitting. My best friend and his wife married 17 years ago. They're separated. My other best friend and his wife married 12 years ago and divorced last year. And now another friend writes, after more than 20 years, "We're divorcing. He won't even consider reconclilation."


Divorce is an ugly, vicious thing. It takes lives that have grown together like flowers whose stems entwine one another so closely that you scarcely can tell where one begins and the other ends, and it tears them apart. Staying married isn't easy -- I doubt anyone alive can possibly begin to explain just how much work, hard work, marriage is, and how much it hurts sometimes -- but God knows it's worth it.  When my heart was torn from me and I dropped into the volcano, it was my wife who saved me. When her mother died and drought came to my wife's life, I was there for her.

Marriage hurts, but in the end, it makes me far stronger than anything else does. I've been short on hope, but I made it through because my wife was at my side. I've lost friends, but I survived because my wife stood by me. I've lost jobs and I've seen dreams die, but because my wife was with me, I came out on top. I lost a son and though it was like the sun was extinguised and all life had vanished from the world, I found the strength to keep moving -- because my wife gave it to me.

How on earth do couples who swore to love one another all their lives, until the bitter parting of death, give that up?

When my friends Myron and Jessica separated two years ago, I told a friend of mine about it. I wished I hadn't. Jon is in his late 20s, but when he heard that two people he had never met were divorcing, I saw the pain in his eyes. His parents had divorced when he was 9, and he's never forgotten.

I have no anger, no harsh words for people who divorce. I know that their pain is deep and beyond expression. All I have is grief that anyone should have to go through such an experience.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lower the shields and prepare for transport

Maybe I should take Eowyn to see the new "Star Trek" movie; I think she'd find it very accessible.

In many ways, she's like the Enterprise herself. Get into a talk with her, and if her long-range sensors pick up something getting too close, she raises her shields immediately. Get in closer and it's all power to the forward shields, launch decoys, or whatever it takes to keep you from getting in a position to harm the ship. And if she determines you're a real menace, she'll shut down all nonessential systems and float dead in space like Kirk had the Enterprise do in "Balance of Terror."

Is there someone there? the Romulan crew wonders. Or is it a faulty sensor reading?

But every now and then it's possible to fly in close enough that you get inside the shields. You can see the dents and dings the ship has taken from its years of flying at warp speed, scan for metal fatigue where Klingon warbirds have struck with their disruptors, and even beam a landing party aboard.

It's a rare treat to walk the corridors of Eowyn's starship, but it's more satisfying than anything Paramount has produced for its franchise.

Today Eowyn let me aboard. She let me walk the corridors, visit engineering, and even gave me a seat on the bridge.  Put in non-Trek terms, this is a Big Deal. Essentially, Eowyn let me into the sacred grove as a sign of how much she trusts me not to desecrate it.

I walked carefully.

Eowyn and I were taking a walk while Ruth was at ballet, and discussion turned to hanging out with friends. Eowyn rarely does this, so I wasn't surprised when she made a silly remark to divert me. All power to the forward shields, Mr. Scott.

"You know," I said. "I've noticed that whenever the conversation gets uncomfortable, you make a silly remark. It's like this is you" -- I held up a clenched hand -- "and if someone gets too close, you try to keep them out here" -- I waved a safe distance away with my other hand. "Am I right?"

"Maybe," she said. But I could tell that I had nailed it. After all, it's not like I don't know where she learned this behavior. She has learned well.

But she has also learned over the past nine years that she can trust me when she wants to. And for some reason, she decided this time to trust me. To extend the Star Trek metaphor, she lowered her shields and allowed me to beam over, and while I was on board, we talked.

"I'm just kind of used to being alone," she said.

"Alone, or lonely?" I asked. She didn't answer, which was answer enough. "I see you alone too, and it tears me up inside, because I know how lonely you feel."

"It's okay," she said. "I'm kind of used to it."

And that, I pointed out, is one of the strangest things about human nature: We get used to anything, and tell ourselves that it's all right and even normal. I reminded her that the Bible tells us that Adam once had an easy time with his work. He would plant crops, and they would grow as easy as anything. It was work, but it was work that he could enjoy. But after the Fall, it didn't come as easy as it used to. Work became toil, weeds grew among his crops, and sometimes animals would eat his crops before he did.

"I'm sure Adam got used to living like that, but if he had a choice, which do you think he would have rather had: that life, or the one he and Eve used to have in Eden?"

"The one they used to have," Eowyn said.

So we talked some more about friends, and how sometimes you meet someone and she becomes one of your best friends almost immediately; and sometimes you meet someone, and you like her but she doesn't like you; and sometimes you meet someone and it takes a while to become friends, and you have to work at it, by talking with them, and hanging out with them, and getting to know one another.

"And sometimes that's risky, because sometimes you get hurt," I said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well," I said, "sometimes someone will do something that hurts you. They don't mean to, but it does, and you need to forgive them. And sometimes they won't do something that you thought they should, and that hurts too, and you need to forgive them."

"And sometimes they go away."


"Eowyn," I said. "I miss him too."

Of course it's not just Christian. It's Gabe and Kyra, two of her best friends from preschool whom we used to see regularly, except Gabe moved away, and Kyra's family didn't fully reciprocate our efforts to build and maintain the relationship. It's also Cassie, the older sister of one of Ruth's preschool friends, whom Eowyn got to know, but whose parents also didn't fully reciprocate our efforts to maintain the friendships.

And of course it's also the entire stinking third grade at school, when Eowyn was thrust into a classroom with none of her friends, and was barred from sitting with her friends at lunchtime because of some petty administrative need for control during the one time the kids have each day to be themselves.

But we talked. We talked for a good 30 or 40 minutes, sometimes on a bench, sometimes squatting in the parking lot. We talked about how there are a lot of people in her classroom and on her softball team who like her, we talked about the need to talk to friends and to reach out to people we like so that we can become friends, and we talked about how there's only so much that I can do as her father, and she needs to do the rest herself.

We talked a long time, and when we were done, I knew she had been crying, though she didn't want me to see the tears that had gathered on her nose.

We talked, and before we had dinner she called one of her friends and invited her to come over on Monday after school.

I'm trying, Lord. It's not easy, but I'm doing my best.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Rain, rain, go away

It's pouring for the fourth or fifth time in the last six days. Huge, heavy sheets of water are pounding the pavement outside my window, streaking the air and scouring the streets, carrying away anything small and light enough to be borne upon the currents.

This isn't rain. Raindrops are small, they strike the window with a dainty tink-tink-tink that is calm and reassuring, as gentle as a bee on the flower. This is a river, falling from the sky in a torrent of a thunder god's wrath. If you go outside in rain, you feel refreshed and cleansed; if you go outside in this, you feel cold, tired and miserable, and all you want to do is to go someplace warm and dry off.

Rain waters the plants. This beats them to the ground, stripping leaves and even branches from trees. The only thing that is growing from this symphony of thunder and water is mushrooms. They came from nowhere, an army of decay, and suddenly the soldiers are everywhere, overrunning everything. They have overrun the back yard, appearing on wood chips, popping up between the blades of grass, and growing ever larger in the dim afternoon.

Meanwhile lightning strobes overhead. It barks thunder like a mighty cannon, rattling our ears, shaking our teeth, and making tall buildings groan and hide.

This must be what it was like for the neighbors of Utnapishtim: day after day of unrelenting water and no sun, until the creeks rose, the rivers revolted against the chains that fixed them to their beds, and even the highest hill disappeared beneath the cresting waves.

As it was in the days of Noah ...

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, May 01, 2009

linkedin recommendation

As someone originally from the Northeast, I frequently have been disappointed by the quality of drugs available during my trips to the South. I've never found a dealer who could give me a nice cut of weed, one that didn't give me a headache when I smoked it; the last three times I tried to buy coke, the idiot tried to sell me Mello Yello; and the ecstasy dealers, when they weren't peddling useless shit, were so clueless that they actually preferred to sell E at clubs frequented by the police.

Ms. B., however, has renewed my faith in the South as a place to do illegal drugs. She runs her organization with an efficiency that borders on the brutal. There are no snitches in her organization, although there are several buried beneath parking lots and shopping malls in her area. Delivery of the smack was always prompt, discreet and at competitive rates.

What's more, this is some high-quality shit that she peddles. Smoking even a small dose of the crack that she provides was enough to put the monkey on my back, let me see all my bones, and give me an experience that neither I nor the fifty people I allegedly ran into that night will ever forget.

And the angel dust she sells -- wowza! The police claim that I broke the jaws and ribs of sixteen different officers before they were able to take me down.

I would be remiss not to mention the extensive connections Ms. B. has built up with local, state and federal authorities in Georgia. I attribute this not only to her line of work, which always draws official attention, but to her generous nature, which prompts her to give money, cars, expensive watches, junkets and other gifts to friends in need of them.

In short, you cannot ask for a better employee for your organization than Ms. B. She is going places, and believe me, wherever she is going, she will take a horde of clients in her wake. I would not hesitate to do business with her again, once I am eligible for parole in 2096.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The doctrine behind 'Good Omens'

The thing about "Good Omens" is, it's just as fresh and original the third or fourth time through as it is the first time.

Bar none, this is the finest novelization of the Apocalypse that has ever been written. Leave "Left Behind" under the short leg of your table, where it's actually useful; and never mind the attempts of other authors to cash in on Antichrist fever. If the End of Days doesn't happen the way authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett describe it, there needs to be a do-over.

The bulk of the action takes place in what is supposed to be the last week of history as the armies of heaven and hell amass for the epic conclusion of their war, at the culmination of human history. There's only one little problem. The forces of hell accidentally misplaced the Antichrist shortly after he was born, and no one's really sure where to find him.

As the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride their motorcycles toward Tadfield, England, a demon and an angel who have been living on earth for so long that they can't bear to see it destroyed, join together in a desperate effort to find him and avert Armageddon.

Not surprisingly, the book is full of oblique references to "The Omen." For instance, the infant Antichrist was meant to be switched with the infant son of an American diplomat, as in the movies. The satanist nun involved in the switch suggests "Damien" as a name for the baby, as he was named in the movies. And so on.

Originally published in 1990, "Good Omens" was ahead of the curve for the millennial craze that eventually spawned "Left Behind," so "The Omen" at the time was the most recognizable story to feature the Antichrist.

The fast pacing and British humor that Pratchett and Gaiman bring to the book are reason enough to return to this book again and again; but these two are intelligent writers, and there's enough meat in the book to draw me back long after the jokes will have worn out. (If that ever happens, which seems unlikely.)

There's an interesting humanism at work within "Good Omens" that expresses itself through the framework of Armageddon. Since Adam was raised not at the center of power, as the son of a powerful American diplomat, but as the son of nobody important in Tadfield, England, he's grown up free of the influence of both heaven and hell. He's just pure boy, loving the things a boy loves, doing the things a boy does, and seeing a resolution to the War in Heaven that neither heaven or nor hell apparently anticipates.

The book also repeatedly underscores the role and nature of humanity itself, as the unconsidered third party in this war. The angel Aziraphale and his demonic colleague Crowley, regularly are surprised by a capacity for goodness in humanity that astounds Aziraphale, and a capacity for evil that shocks Crowley. Crowley, we discover, took credit for the Spanish Inquisition even though he had nothing to do with it; and Aziraphale blows up the radar guns of police, because he always assumed that hell's side had come up with them.

In a sense, the humanist themes of "Good Omens" are a rejection of popular Christian eschatology, which often juxtaposes harmonious depictions of Christians leaping straight from earth to heaven via the Rapture, with horrific descriptions of the Great Tribulation, in which God pours out of his wrath upon the earth, and a third of all living things perish, a third of the grass burns up, and a third of the stars are darkened, and so on.

The existence of God himself isn't called into question in the book, ironically enough, although that admittedly would be hard to do when you have angels, demons and the Antichrist himself running around as major characters. God instead is treated fairly respectfully; the questions about his ineffable purpose, such as "Why put a tree right in the middle of a garden and say 'Don't eat from it' instead of planting it somewhere remote and inaccessible if it's such a bad idea?", are hardly new questions, and have in fact bedeviled Christian and Jewish thinkers and philosophers alike for thousands of years.

Crowley and Aziraphale wrestle with these questions themselves after Armageddon passes with the world unexpectedly still intact. Crowley ultimately rejects the notion of history as a cosmic chess game between God and Satan; and, given God's omnipotence and omniscience, decides that it is, instead, more like a very complicated game of solitaire.

Like any good piece of fiction would do, "Good Omens" ends there, leaving readers to sort out for themselves such questions, as well as the general morality of evicting humanity from Paradise over a piece of fruit.

As I once wrote about "It's a Good Life," the Twilight Zone episode where 6-year-old Anthony Fremont sends anyone who displeases him to "the cornfield," stories like this serve an important function for Christians and for the church, if we will let them.

Far from being attacks, they usually are thoughtful critiques of the message that Christians present as coming from God. Sometimes they point out ways that we have bowlderized or just avoided difficult or painful truths; other times, and I think "Good Omens" falls into this category, the stories can and should shore us up, and draw our attention to faults we never admit to ourselves or one another but that are painfully obvious to anyone who has listened to us for five minutes.

(In this case, I'd have to say it's the self-righteousness that glories in the suffering of non-Christians, combined with the narcissism of the prosperity groups that most push the Rapture. Gaiman and Pratchett serve this up in the midst of the Apocalypse with a scene involving an American televangelist who embodies both those traits.)

When you get down to it, "Good Omens" really isn't primarily meant to be a depiction of the Last Days or of biblical prophecy, any more than the book of Revelation is. It's a rollicking good tale, with several themes beyond those I just outlined. The book of Revelation, while it does contain prophecy, is primarily a book about the majesty and glory of God, and the promise that however bad things are, we can be assured that Good will prevail.

And isn't that a more meaningful story than the one they like to tell in church about the Antichrist?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Something to remember next time you need surgery

I got a call from my younger brother today that made me stop and think about some of the problems that are endemic in health care.

We all have our areas of specialty. Brian, it's generally accepted, is the brother we call when we have computer problems. We call Herb when we need help with our cars, and I think we've all talked with Ward at one point or another about our animals, Since I have a liberal arts education and earned a degree in English literature and language, I don't get many panicked phone calls from relatives. It's not like anyone needs a point-by-point comparison of Chaucer's "Troylus and Criseyde" with Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida"; nor do I get asked to field many questi;ons about sentence structure, subject-verb agreement or dangling participles.

In fact, no one in my family has called with a question related to my field of study or choice of career, ever. Until today.

Ward called the house around 10 a.m. Monday with a question. The doctor he was working with had been reading an article in The New Yorker, where the writer had used the word coöperate, and the doctor was trying to figure out why someone would write the word like that. He was pretty sure that was called a dipthong, but even so, it was a mystery. Why put two dots over the O?

So Ward called me from the hospital to find out.

Those two dots are properly called an umlaut, but it's pretty rare to see them in English. Given that this was The New Yorker, I presume the usage was correct, but umlauts only appear in English in loanwords, usually words that we have imported from another European language. English by and large has done away with diacritics in general, umlauts included, in favor of the standard 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. That's why we write fiancee instead of fiancée, and facade rather than façade.

Having gained the answer he wanted, and -- what's more -- having learned two new words to showboat with, Ward hung up the phone and returned to surgery, where he shared his news.

"I have decided to change my title to perfusiönist for added snob appeal," he later wrote me. "That was the moment of public recognition guys like you wait a lifetime for, and you were a couple states away. Sorry."

Just remember: This is what occupies the minds of your surgeon and her crew when you are on the table.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good night, moon

Today I liquefied my brain and removed it through a hole I had drilled in my skull, then filled the skull cavity with epoxy. Well, no, not really, but that's about what it felt like.

What actually happened is that I chaperoned a field trip with Rachel's class to the State Theater, where we saw a dramatic performance of "Runaway Bunny" and "Good Night Moon," both by Margaret Wise Brown. These are pretty basic bedtime stories, only 34 pages each, aimed at essentially preverbal preschoolers.

If you're thinking "What an incredible idea! I'll bet this was a really innovative reinterpretation of the books, bringing out the latent drama in a child who feels suffocated by his mother's all-consuming desire to thwart his independence, and his Gilgamesh-like desire to demonstrate his worthiness of immortality by resisting the beguiles of sleep," then you are thinking exactly what never occurred to me.

Alas, it also never occurred to the good folks at Mermaid Theatre, who turned two 34-page children's bedtime stories into two 34-minute children's plays with lullaby music and some clever puppeteering, in a very dark theater. No interpretive dance, no music numbers, no dialogue, no Avenue Q. Just puppet rabbits that hop, fly or sail, depending; a couple of cat puppets; and a mouse puppet that runs around. And a bunch of adults who quietly fade off to sleep while the kids watch the show.

Well, the kids enjoyed it, at least. But I remember thinking, as I drifted off, "I spent $27 so Rachel and I could watch this?"

But of course that's not why I spent that money. While we watched the show, I put my arm into Rachel's seat, and she let me wrap it around her waist. She moved closer to me, and I felt her warm little body snuggle against mine, and I thought, This is money well spent.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'Jesus Camp'

My first thoughts after watching "Jesus Camp": Geez, that was unsettling.

Filmed in 2006 during the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Samuel Alito, "Jesus Camp" follows three children to a summer camp at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. There they are taught about the need to stand up for their faith and for righteousness in America, and to reclaim the nation for Christ. The "Kids on Fire" summer camp is led by the Rev. Becky Fischer.

This is one creepy movie.

I feel that creepiness in part because I'm a former Pentecostal myself, having joined the Assemblies of God in 1989, about a year after my own spiritual awakening. I don't recall seeing anything as extreme as what I saw in "Jesus Camp," but I definitely saw the tendencies. Watching the movie was like looking into a mirror and seeing in its reflection all your inner workings when you're accustomed only to seeing your outward appearance.

Evangelicalism generally and Pentecostalism particularly stress the importance of an emotional born-again experience, where the person awakens to a keen sense of their sinfulness and unworthiness to stand in the presence of God.

This isn't just an intellectual assent to "Yes, I've done wrong in my life." In the Pentecostal church especially there is pressure to make it an emotionally driven affirmation of wretchedness. You have to feel that the building is on fire and there is no way out, that the water is rising and you are running out of air, that there is a gunman about to blow the brains out of everyone you love -- and it's all your fault.

To be fair, I'm exaggerating a bit, but less than some of my Pentecostal and evangelical compatriots would like to think. Altar calls, as they are called, are emotionally driven affairs, given while the music is playing softly and a preacher you've taught to respect greatly because of his ministerial office, gently and repeatedly implores people to accept Christ.

A typical appeal goes something like this: "I know you are out there. You've been coming to church for years, thinking you're following Jesus, but deep inside, you know you aren't. You've been fooling everyone, even yourself, but not God. And now he wants you to make it real. Every head is bowed, every eye is closed. If you'd like to accept Jesus as your savior, raise your hand."

That's a lot of emotional manipulation for adults, but it's unconscionable to subject children to it, especially when you consider that the message Jesus and the Apostles brought to the world wasn't "You're going to hell," but "Follow me."

So while it was weird to see a mullet-haired boy named Levi saying that he had become a Christian at the age of 5 because he "wanted more out of life" -- I guess the Cartoon Network and Oreo cookies just couldn't fill that void -- it was distressing in the extreme to see children, some seemingly as young as 6 or 7 years, brought to tears by this church pastor over their sins.

Children do have the same human nature as their parents. Anyone who has had a child between the ages of 2 and 4 knows how selfish, angry, and even cruel they can be. But honestly, is it necessary to indoctrinate children, using the same psychological techniques of breaking down and rebuilding that get used for brainwashing adults? The term "abuse" gets abused a lot these days, but I don't think it's much of a stretch here.

(And Fischer is aware of what she is doing. Watch the movie and you'll see her working on a PowerPoint presentation for maximum impact, complete to picking a blood-drooping font for the Bible verse "The wages of sin is death.")

Fischer also repeatedly appeals to the example of Islamofascist camps run by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, where children are taught to hate and kill Jews and Christians. Her argument is that it's necessary to do the same with our children, in order to save the world. That's not a comparison I like, personally. In addition to the Islamophobia she encourages with blanket statements about Islam, Fischer is also suggesting that the proper response to Islamofascism is christofascism. I wonder if she appreciates the irony of using the same justification that terrorists use in defending her ministry.

I could go on, as many others have, about the false correlation of Christianity with conservatism; about the children who are taught bad science in the name of Truth; and the generally unsettling attitudes being inculcated by groups like this. (I will say I was amused by the boy who confided to his breakfast table that he watches Harry Potter movies when he visits his father. It generated the same reaction you might have expected had he produced a copy of Playboy.)

It's a frightening thing to see a large group of children being indoctrinated into militant paranoia, but that's essentially what this movie shows. I don't think it is an entirely objective perspective on evangelicalsm, but it is an accurate depiction of what goes on in a vocal and active subset of evangelicals here in America.

A friend tells me that when she watched "Jesus Camp," she felt like she was watching a documentary of her own childhood. I can't claim that, and I'm glad that my children can't either. I teach Evangeline and Rachel, rather than indoctrinating them, and I encourage them to ask plenty of questions not just of their Sunday school teachers, but of me as well. I don't have all the answers, and my hope is that they will see that from the get-go, and not be crushed when they discover that themselves in years to come.

But for children like Levi, Rachael, and Tory, unpleasant discoveries are on the way. They don't know it all, and their parents don't either. At some point they are going to learn about a much larger world outside their church doors, and hopefully the damage done by well-meaning evangelists won't overwhelm them and leave their faith in ruins.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

To absent friends

Last Tuesday as we were eating dinner, Evangeline told me that she does not want to move away from Nova Bastille.

There are no plans to move, but she was not to be put lightly aside. She does not want to leave. She has a school here, she has friends here, and it is, after all, the only home she knows. It soon became evident that she's concerned that we'll have to move because neither I nor her mother is having much luck finding full-time work here in Iowa. The economy is in the tank, and while it doesn't seem to be falling faster, she's concerned we may have to relocate to find a job.

Moving's rough, especially when you're a kid. It's not just the disruption to your life, it's having to start all over. It's having no one, because you've lost all your friends.

Like her father, Evangeline is not a person to make friends at the drop of a hat. She judges people carefully before she commits, and when she decides someone is a friend, she locks onto them for good. Evangeline feels friendship deeply. Losing a friend means having a piece of your heart torn away, and feeling your life flow out that hole every day.

I was reminded recently of this when I came across my friend Erzsébet on Facebook. She and I met in 1993, when she came to Haiti on a short-term missions trip with STEM Ministries.  We bonded quickly. She and another team member joined me and another of the resident missionaries for card games in the evening on our grilled porch, we hung out and talked on the roof of the missions base while parts of the city electric grid turned on and off, and we talked around some of the troubled dynamics that sprang up between the team and the resident missionaries. (I also tormented her ruthlessly with a large plastic tarantula my brother had sent me, at every chance I got.)

In Haiti, we relied on a private service to bring us our mail.  Letters were a godsend, a reminder that people back home still thought about us from time to time and cared enough to let us know. Maybe two weeks after she had returned to the States, Erzsébet surprised me with a long, hand-written letter, beginning a relationship that was to last for five years. We continued writing back and forth, and when I returned to the United States, we switched to e-mail and to weekly phone conversations that could run for hours.

I'm fairly certain that Erzsébet's mom, who had been on the missions trip with her daughter, had high hopes for our relationship. Those hopes never came to fruition. Shortly after I got married in 1998, Erzsébet and I lost touch. I tried calling her about two years ago, but the phone number I had was no good, and I couldn't find a new one.

I have thought of her plenty the past 10 years, if not every day then certainly every week, at times with a soul-ache that is numbing in its intensity. We were close enough, I think, that if we were to connect again, especially in person, things would slide back into place and the years, like this too, too sullied flesh, would melt and resolve themselves into a dew.

I've told Evangeline that when we love someone, whether a friend or a family member, we remove a piece of our soul and give it to them to care for, to remember us, and to stay connected with us. I saw Erzsébet's profile recently on Facebook, and I stared at her picture in wonder, recalling some of the conversations we had shared and the letters we had written and read. I could feel my soul crying out for its missing piece, and I wondered if hers ever feels that same longing.

Sometimes that ache overwhelms me because of the number of friends I've lost track of. There is Brian VanWyhe, the English teacher I worked with at Cradle of Life Christian School, who became my closest friend in Haiti; and Dan Kramer, another close friend who joined STEM the same time I did and whose wedding I foolishly did not attend.

There are other people, including some who live right here in the Bastilles, whom we lost track of after our old church disintegrated. I wonder how we can bear to give our hearts to our friends, when we value friendship so lightly that we let it go over a paltry argument, a failed church, or even over nothing at all.

Evangeline is fearful of losing friends if we have to move, though neither her mother nor I have said we are actively considering such a course of action. That is the edge of a razor I would do anything to spare her, but I know that ultimately she will feel it one day, and it will cut her deeply.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mike becomes Shelley

So this is it. In about eight more hours, my friend Mike will be done with being Mike. He will be living as Shelly 24/7: going to work as Shelly, seeing her wife and kids as Shelly, attending church as Shelly, and self-identifying without exception as Shelly.

Much of that isn't new; she's been moving that way for most of the past year. What's new is that this is the crossover point. After breaking the news to her co-workers on Thursday and spending Friday in her male identity, she is returning to work on Monday in her female identity.

After moving out of the house and letting the kids work through this at their own pace, she is visiting them one last time, on Valentine's Day, as their father. The cat is out of the bag, and let the mice beware.

After today, I'm not really sure how to classify what her relationship to them will be, as their other mother, or as their female father, or as something else.

I've known this day was coming for a year, arguably for closer to a decade, and I'm having a hard time dealing with it. I can only imagine how they're feeling.

Aristotle once wrote, "What are friends but a single soul inhabiting two bodies?" That's pretty much how I've felt about Mike. After my wife, there is not a person alive who knows me better than, nor even as well as, Mike. There is not a single secret that I have from him at this point. Not one.

We have walked with one another through the darkest moments of our lives. When I lost my foster son, Mike listened without reproach as I raged against God. When our marriages have teetered on the brink, so near to ruin that we could taste the burnt gunpowder of divorce, we listened, we stood together, and we provided support without a word of judgment or reproach.

We've written together. Stories, the first draft and half the second draft of a fantasy novel, and reams of original humor, from faux news reports to mock histories, and our signature "Chicken Soup for the Soulless" that nearly got us sued by a publisher of inspirational material.

And now ... and now, I don't know what to say.

Mike has been my best friend for more than half my life at this point. This is without question the biggest change either of us has gone through so far: bigger than our respective marriages, bigger than having children, bigger than his decision to break with evangelicalism or mine, and to be honest, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with it.

I don't get it. Gender dysphoria is a mystery to me. I don't understand how someone can physically be one sex and yet self-identify as another. I don't understand how dressing and socializing as a woman will in any way make him feel that he has actualized this self-identity any more than wearing a costume can make someone feel that she is a police officer. I don't get it, I don't get it, I don't get it. I try, but I do not.

All I can say is that I know that Mike is a good person. I know that he has put himself through hell trying to make it work as a man, for the sake of his wife and his children. I know that he has taken every reasonable measure he can, and more, to avoid hurting the people around him. He has gone out of his way to consider the feelings of his parents, his wife and children, his sister, and his friends.

I'd be a liar to say that I'm completely at ease with the approach he has taken and the decision he has made -- I'm not. But it's not my decision, it's his, and for better or worse, he's made it.

God be gracious to us all.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A load of dolumbs

A couple months ago, a friend of mine and I noticed that the word verification mechanism at Blogger increasingly was using strings of characters that either were really words, or at least came close.

One of the more interesting logisms was "dolumbs." I say this primarily because Brucker noted that dolumbs looks like a word, but means nothing. But as I contended, it's easy to deduce the meaning of such a logism in context, and trotted out several possible uses:

  1. The crew was overcome by a severe case of dolumbs.
  2. It was a difficult operation, but fortunately the patient had come to a state-of-the-art hospital where doctors had all the necessary equipment, even a set of dolumbs.
  3. The salad bar was full of everything Freddie would need for his meal. There were plump red cherry tomatoes and mounds of grated cheese, the bins were heaped with mounds of croutons and delicious bacon bits. But when Freddie saw the dolumbs, he knew he truly had found the holy grail of salad bars.
  4. "Whoa!" Pete cried, elbowing Vern in the chest. "Check out the dolumbs on that babe!"
  5. The gym teacher was furious. He'd seen some useless students in his day, but this class had to be the biggest set of dolumbs he had ever come across in 36 years of public education.
  6. "I might be a dolumb," thought Melvin, "but at least I'm no rathro like Kevin."

In each of those examples, the supposed meaning is fairly obvious and easy to determine. As used, dolumbs means boredom or perhaps an illness; a piece of surgical equipment; something eaten with a salad; some aspect of a woman, presumably one that makes her attractive, although it could be something else, like jewelry or an article of clothing; an unimpressive or uninspiring student; and lastly, some undesirable appellation, like "loser" or "dork." Interestingly, one could argue that the word refers to the same thing in all six sentences, though I have no idea what possibly could fit such a wide range of uses.

The truth of the matter, naturally, is that dolumbs is essentially meaningless because it is not a word. We can run it up one flagpole or another and assume a meaning from the way it flutters in the breeze, but a shift in the wind or the use of a different flagpole is all that it would take to wrench it away from that assumed meaning and send it blowing away.

It lacks the weight of a thousand years of usage to shape its definition; the force of the mass consent that defines the words contained in the English lexicon, the experience of hearing it and speaking it; and the vast tomes of poetry, drama, essays and other literature that give words meaning in any language. In short, it lacks the necessary context to be a real word, and not just a neologism.

I don't mean to belabor the point, but it's an important one. In the third example, Freddie recognized the eatery as the holy grail of salad bars. The Holy Grail refers to the legendary cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper. A thousand years or so of English and Continental literature have established the Grail as the most sacred of relics, capable of bestowing immortality or other great treasures on anyone worthy enough to find it. The weight of that literary, cultural, and historical context allows us to use the phrase "holy grail" in a metaphorical sense; i.e., this is the salad bar before all other salad bars. For the afficianado of salads, there is no better place to be than the restaurant with this salad bar.

The word even holds up to being used as a verb. Were I to write "Stephen has gone a'holy-grailing," most English speakers will grasp the sense immediately. Conversely, the meaning of "Holy Grail" is so fixed in our minds that a sentence like "Frank took his Holy Grail for a walk" is just nonsense. I might use "Holy Grail" in place of the word "dog," just as a salesman might refer to mattresses as "dog kennels," but the misuse of the term throws the meaning of the sentence into doubt and imbues the discussion with a surreal, Pythonesque feel.

If this is true of words we speak, it is even truer of the stories we fashion from them. We understand stories firstly from the context of our own experience. In the case of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," I've encountered people whose reactions ranged from the intended enthusiasm for Scrooge's redemption to scoffing at the story for empty-headed sentimentalism, to disapproval at its liberal message that Scrooge should pay Bob Cratchitt any more than what he is contracted to pay him. The strangest take on it I ever heard was a psychosexual one: that Scrooge didn't need the spirits of Christmas to change him, he just needed to have sex. (No, I'm not making that up.) I imagine a swineherder in a remote South American village would have no reaction at all; if he had no knowledge of Victorian England and Christmas, or if his ghost lore allows no room for helpful spirits, the story is likely to be completely meaningless to him. So meaningless, in fact, that it would be impossible to translate it directly.

It's possible for us to derive some meaning from our own context, and if we're close enough to the source of the story, we might even get a semblance of the meaning, but the further we are from the philological, historical and cultural roots of the story, the more likely we are to get it wrong. One dramatic example of this is recounted in the missions biography "Peace Child."

In this story, author and missionary Don Richardson explains that among the Sawi people whom he was living with, treachery was seen as an admirable behavior. Someone who could act like your friend and then destroy you, was hailed as a hero by his clan. Thus, when Richardson presented the story of Jesus to the Sawi people, the man they admired wasn't Jesus. It was the traitor Judas Iscariot, hardly the hero Richardson had hoped they would embrace. Richardson eventually discovered a meaningful cultural context among the Sawi that enabled him to reinterpret the story to them so that they perceived the same inherent meaning that he did.

The Sawi case presents an extreme and obvious example of missed contextual clues, but if we're willing to admit it, the truth is that we ourselves often misunderstand the stories and misconstrue the message of the Bible ourselves. We do not speak the languages the Bible was written in, we lack the premodern mindset of its authors, and we do not share the cultural mores that they took for granted.

Nor, ultimately, do we possess a knowledge of the extrabiblical literature that helped to shape the mindset of the Bible writers, such as the histories of the kings of Judah. When we do possess such literature, we rarely avail ourselves of it. Relatively few American Christians bother to read the book of Enoch, even though the book of Jude quotes it by name.

One of the greatest problems the American church has in terms of biblical literacy is our assumed familiarity with the text. We all know the Haggadah, how Moses came to Pharaoh and demanded that he free the Israelites, and when Pharaoh refused, how God struck him with a series of plagues. Many Americans would be surprised to discover the significant role that Aaron has in this story, just as they might be surprised to discover that Pharaoh would have been Moses' uncle and not his brother.

It goes on from there. Aside from the many ways Hollywood has mined the rich vein of Bible stories, there are many stories that have been told and retold so frequently that they have been reduced to children's tales, with the result that religious folk feel we know not only the story but the moral we're supposed to draw from it.

Why were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego saved from the furnace? Because God rescues people who are true to him. Why was Joseph treating his brothers so harshly when they came to Egypt to buy grain? Because he wanted to test them to see if they had become as mature as he had always been. Who is the Parable of the Prodigal Son about? Clearly, it's about the son who squanders his inheritance in a faroff land and then comes to his senses and comes home. In each of those three stories, those lessons  I have just shared are commonly taught, but it's fairly clear from the actual biblical passages that none of those is the main point.

Perhaps the biggest loser in this too-familiar approach to hermeneutics is Jesus himself. Among evangelicals in particular, the message of Jesus has been reduced to a simple conversion appeal that is shocking in its absence from the actual teachings of Christ found in the gospels. The repent/confess/believe message has been preached so widely and so thoroughly in America that we often miss the heart of his message, which was a call to a much deeper spiritual revolution than one of simply changing where we go to church and which label we affix to our set of religious beliefs.

What we need -- all of us -- is to return to a sound basis for Bible study. Christianity has bigger PR problems than the Exxon Valdez because of the boorishness of many of our appointed representatives, but we also have bigger credibility problems than a town hall of politicians in no small part because we've forgotten how to read a text intelligently.

That's been fairly evident the past few weeks as the scientific community has taken time to mark the 200th anniverary of the birth of Charles Darwin. There's scarcely a news article without a snark about the creationists who insist on reading Genesis 1-3 as a scientific treatise on the origin of species and the formation of planets.

That text is beautiful, affirming the transcendent qualities of God and declaring the value of the life of each ecosystem, from the smallest vernal pool to the deeps of the ocean, but let's remember what it is. It's a myth, doing what all great myths do: explaining the relationships among humanity, the world, and the creator of both. The text continues to relate the moral dimension of God, that he approves of certain behaviors and not of others, and it warns that walking out of faith with God can have disastrous consequences.

These are, in all probability, not stories that originated with the Hebrews, although the Hebrew Scriptures reinterprets each one in a manner that is positively revolutionary. The ancient Sumerians told a story virtually identical to the Noah tale found in Genesis, but there the Deluge was brought about by the vagaries of a god who was tired of the noise people made while he was trying to sleep.

The Babylonians told the story of the world's creation as the result of a conflict between Tiamat and Marduk. Only in the Hebrew Scriptures is there a depiction of a God outside the world, who calls it into being by his own authority, and who regards the people he has put there with affection rather than with a tolerance that often borders on annoyance.

There's a lot about the Bible that can be understood just by reading it casually, and I wish many more Christians would do at least that much. But any responsible reading is going to involve a fair amount of study. To know what the authors were saying, we need to study more ourselves about their values, their beliefs, and their other literature. It may take our faith to places we never imagined we would go, but in the end it's all worth it.

Otherwise, we might as well just be reading a page full of dolumbs.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Repo man

About seventeen years ago, I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was a resident missionary with STEM Ministries.

STEM is a missions organization with a focus on the North American church. By providing groups from the United States and Canada with short-term experiences in third world nations in the Caribbean and South America, it hopes to awaken the church in two of the wealthiest nations on Earth to the global scale of God's work.

In other words, it might seem really pressing to build a state-of-the-art nursery with a cappuccino bar for the workers, but there are Christians in the Dominican Republic where they'd be grateful for a corrugated tin roof to keep the rain and sun out.

It's a pretty straightforward proposition: Show American Christians what the rest of the world is like, and let God challenge their preconceptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you forget right away, sometimes your experiences in the third world stay with you for the rest of your life.

While I was there, one of the nationals we worked with came to the ministry with a problem. He needed money, or the bank would take the land he and his family had been living on. Seventeen years is a long time, so I don't remember all the details. What I mostly remember is Steve Schmidt, our base director, mentioned that another missionary he knew would categorize this fellow's problems as the wealthy ignoring the plight of the poor, if not outright taking advantage of them.

Steve dismissed that as nonsense, since as he (correctly) pointed out, the fellow in question did have the money for the bank payment, or at least he used to. Like many people, he had used the money for other things, including things that he hadn't needed.

That's actually a common situation in Haiti, I'm afraid. A boujwa will come and buy a piece of property from someone for a handsome price, and tell him that he's going to build a house there in 10 years or so. Ten years will come and go, and then the boujwa will start building his house.

The former owner of the land, sadly, will still be on the property and will no longer have the handsome sum, which he theoretically could have used to buy land elsewhere, buy some goats or pigs to start a business and raise his family out of poverty, or something of the sort. Sadly, the owner usually will have done none of those things, and now has nothing left to show for the money he once was paid. It's all gone, and soon they are not only out of the money, they are out of the place they have lived for years.

There's no denying that the fellow who sold his home and then frittered away the money -- aside from any money that was put to a good use, like sending the kids to school -- made some really stupid decisions with his money, and in the end has to shoulder responsibility for his plight. On the other hand, it's a pretty cold thing to throw a family out of their homes, and leave them to fend for themselves.

Steve isn't that cold. He gave our national colleague some of the ministry's designated mercy money -- not enough to cover the whole payment, but a good chunk of it. The idea was that he would have to earn the rest of the money somehow, and make some adjustments, rather than us encouraging dependency on the "rich white missionaries."

Still, the story has stuck with me for the past 17 years because I can't shake the fundamental wrongness of evicting people from their homes. That feeling has stayed with me, and in recent months has grown still stronger, as banks that essentially preyed upon people by offering them mortgages that they couldn't afford, all in the name of making a buck. And while those homeowners have been thrown out onto the street, figuratively or literally, the executives responsible for the mess have been raking in huge bonuses even as the economy comes crashing down around the ears of the rest of us.

One fellow I know -- a dyed-in-the-wool God-is-a-Republican sort of Christian -- insists that capitalism is biblical. I'm not sure entirely how he justifies that, but there you have it. American-style capitalism unquestionably grew out of the Protestant work ethic practiced by groups like the Puritans and the Moravians, but it's quite a stretch to my mind to see Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" as being in sync with a text that never really got into particulars of economic theory beyond things like stressing the value of honest weights. At best, I can say that it is an extrabiblical economic system that can be shaped by biblical values of compassion (as opposed to the greed that drives the market most times).

But you know, home ownership is one area where capitalism keeps running afoul of biblical values, I think. In the U.S. economy, if I default on my mortgage, the bank theoretically has the legal right to foreclose on the mortgage and kick me, my wife, and our children, out onto the street.It doesn't matter if I've lost my job because of what the financial giants have done to the economy, it doesn't matter if they sold me a predatory mortgage for a market price that is three times the house's actual worth. If they have my signature on that mortgage contract, theoretically they have the legal right to kick me out of the house and try to sell it to recoup their losses.

There's something else at work here, though. While the hardcore apologists of a free market will expound on the virtues of tough love and making people take the consequences of their bad choices like parents disciplining an unruly child, it's not hard to find public sympathy for homeowners who are falling prey to economic forces that they have no control over.

There is something fundamentally unjust about evicting people from their homes. Not just unfair, but unjust. There is a fundamental connection between people and the homes they live in that we violate at our peril and to our shame.

The Bible backs me up on that. In ancient Israel, where my friend sees evidence of capitalism at work, that relationship was inviolate. An Israelite could buy the land of another Israelite, it's true, but only for seven years. Levitical law requires that when that seven-year period ended, the land had to be returned to its previous owner. The Torah also instituted the Jubilee, a period that came once every 50 years, where all debts were canceled, all slaves were set free, and all property rights were restored.

And therein lies a challenge for the American church as we stand on the cusp of what may blossom into the Second Great Depression. As we move forward, we must be mindful that we do have neither the right nor the authority to dictate to the rest of society how it should function.

But we should -- we must -- champion justice, and we have an obligation to advance alternatives to what our society practices, alternatives that respect and safeguard the basic dignity of everyone, especially those whose lives so often are chewed up in the cogs and gears of the systems that make our society work.

Some countercultural groups like The Jesus People in Chicago, or A Simple Way in Philadelphia, have explored the power and strength of communal living in contemporary society. Clearly that's not for everyone, but the alternatives are limited only by our faith and our imagination.

In the name of the one we claim to follow, we have a calling to do better.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Nightmare on water

There is light just beyond my reach as a shapeless terror closes in. It shimmers and flows on the other side of the water that has closed over me, too far away. The water is warm and suffocating. I cannot breathe.

How did I get here? My mind searches for an answer, but comes up empty. There is no explanation to be found, just the terror, and I cannot breathe.

I am straining hard for the surface, and I cannot breathe.

There is something here in the water, lying in wait for me. I cannot see her, but I know she is there, very old and very patient. She moves slowly, like someone who has all the time in the world.

I cannot breathe.

She is there, waiting for me, closing in. The light above is failing, the horizon is shrinking overhead. I kick with all I have and it is not enough. If I do not get free, I will die.

I am sinking. I will die.

The light is now a dimly shivering disk overhead, the size of my hand, the size of a quarter, and it is shrinking fast. There are warm tendrils gathering about me in the darkening water. In a moment I will be hers. I will never be seen again.

Something within me stirs, and I lash out again, struggling, kicking, forcing my way toward the light, toward the surface, toward the air. With a last desperate lunge, I force myself into the open. The blankets lie tangled over me, and the pale blue lights on the clock burn the time 2:34 into my weary mind.

Aside from that light, the room is dark. My wife sleeps at my side, unconscious of my movement. There is a lingering tremor of fear, but nothing else remains of my nightmare beyond associations that fade even as I try to lock onto them.

I lay myself down and close my eyes. I am asleep in minutes, but not as deeply as before. Before the night has ended, I will have awakened in the same manner three more times.

Something is waiting.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Pete Seeger: 'My Name is Liza Kalvelage'

I've spent a lot of the last two days listening to "A Link in the Chain," a two-CD collection of Pete Seeger songs. It's an amazing collection, sometimes hilarious, sometimes inspiring, sometimes innocent fun, and often challenging.

One of the songs that's been haunting me is "My Name is Liza Kavelage." The song -- and it's really more of a singsong delivery, rather than a song proper -- is a true first-person account of a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States after the war.

Here in the United States, she was repeatedly asked, "Where were you when the Nazis were doing all those horrible things? Why didn't you stop them?" She found that saying, "I was only a child, no more than a teenager" wasn't enough; her questioners wanted to know where her parents had been.

And so, Kavelage was burdened with national guilt, a phenomenon that is unfamiliar to many Americans. She came to realize that there was no explanation for her parents' presumed silence, nor for anyone else's, and in 1966, she decided that once in her life was enough to bear the guilt of a nation's silence in the face of its government's actions.

She and three other housewives went to a factory that was manufacturing napalm bombs for use in the Vietnam War, and protested. More than protested, actually; they got in the way of the workers, and ended up being arrested.

To that point, peace protesters largely had been teenagers and hippies. The arrest of four housewives changed the picture dramatically, and made them an instant media sensation.

In the statement that become the basis for Seeger's song, Kavelage essentially said, "I want my children to have an answer when they are asked what their mother did when she saw her government committing an injustice." She made the news again six years ago, when she protested the Iraq War, despite her age. (She was 80 at the time.)

It makes me think, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable.

My parents were both born in 1940, which means they grew up during McCarthyism and saw the 1960s in all its glory and shame. Mom and Dad have never really talked about duck-and-cover drills, loyalty oaths, Freedom Riders, draft dodgers, nor any of the other hallmarks of two very interesting decades.

Perhaps I shouldn't make rash presumptions about what they did in the 1960s, but the truth is, I don't know what they were doing while the Civil Rights was transforming America, nor how they felt about U.S. intervention in Vietnam. (Since my father was stationed in Panama after college because of his ROTC commitment, I would speculate that they at least tacitly supported it.)

But I don't know. My mother has said previously that she had heard of neither Seeger nor the song "We Shall Overcome," which I have to admit doesn't bode well for their social consciousness during the 1960s. Where were my folks when a lot of their peers were trying to make the world a better place? I don't know. (I am certain that they weren't involved with the destructive outlets of the 1960s, though.)

More to the point, though, what will my children be able to say 20 or 30 years from now, when their children ask them where I was while the United States was torturing prisoners, holding people without a trial, denying gays the right to marry, and kicking people out of their homes when the economy had gone sour while bailing out the businesses and people who had made it go sour?

What will they say when asked where I was when anti-immigrant sentiment surged, and we saw the bitter flower "English only" begin to bloom, or when Muslims and Arabs were viewed with suspicion as likely terrorists?

Where was I?

Guilty as charged.

I like Seeger's music quite a lot. It is simple and easy on the ear, but its folksy sound should never be mistaken for easy listening. In his music I hear the ironic voice of God speaking prophetically about the state of our country, our attitudes and our values. I look at the life I have lived so far, and find that the world has changed me more than I have changed it, and find that it changes me more every year. As revelations go, this is not a pleasant one.

I am running for re-election to the school board this year. I have determined that when I give my speech, I will give it in both English and Spanish, without the aid of a translator, even if I make a fool of myself. I don't think it's necessary to speak English to be a good American, and I hope that even if I mangle their language in the process, our Hispanic parents will understand that I want to connect with them where they have the home advantage.

I am fishing for a suitable way to be heard concerning the other issues mentioned. Particularly in matters of economic injustice, like the rescue of multibillion-dollar businesses and their CEOs while homeowners are left to eat the rotten fruit  of a predatory economy, I believe we can no longer play by the rules that we inherited. There are deeper truths set down to guide us, and we must find them.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, January 02, 2009

On Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a difficult thing for all of us to extend when we have been hurt, especially by people or deities who should know better.

I think part of the conflict is that we've conflated forgiveness and restoration into a single act; i.e., "If you've forgiven me, why am I still in the doghouse?" It's like when Bill Clinton apologized for his adultery, his denials and obfuscations and then his perjury. "I said I was sorry. Why are we still dealing with this?" Because while forgiveness may be extended and received, there is still an aftermath to the offense that includes damaged trust among the other more obvious consequences of the offense.

Even God's forgiveness is like this. He may have forgiven David for having Uriah set up to be killed, but consequences lingered. Joab had a hold over the king that helped lead one day to civil war.

Forgiveness can, and perhaps should, take place in an instant. But restoration can take years of someone demonstrating to the other person that they can be trusted with the power, authority and position they once had. I don't doubt that Swaggart received God's forgiveness for his scandal back in 1987, or that Haggard could receive forgiveness for his escapades and scandal, but I think in both cases their advisers/supervisors were right to say "It's time for you to step down from this ministry."

All that said, I think there is a power in real forgiveness (as opposed to just "letting go," which is often a means of avoidance) since christocentric forgiveness involves restoring a relationship that has been sundered. But that's also a forgiveness that can't be done in a vacuum, by yourself. It requires talking to the person who needs to be forgiven, and explaining why what they did was so fucking painful, so they can actually appreciate for themselves what they have done.

Of course, that's really easy to say, but it's much harder to accomplish. I've had some really good conversations with Natasha in the past where I was able to explain just how badly she had hurt me and why I didn't want it to stay there ... and I've had conversations with pastors, former co-congregants, friends and even a mother who just could not understand what I was on about, no matter how I explained it.

In the former scenario, it's wonderful; you have salvaged a relationship that otherwise might have been dealt a fatal blow. In the latter, you at least have made the effort, taken the lead toward reconciliation, and can have a clean conscience that you have extended a true olive branch to someone else.

What I can say is that I have found Christ to be in that effort of reconciliation. In reaching out to people who have wronged me, I have found forgiveness myself for resentment I hadn't realized I was harboring; I've found the mystic communion with Christ that comes when two people make peace; and I've also known his suffering, since he often has extended forgiveness to people like me who rebuff him because they just don't see why they need it.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.