Friday, September 30, 2005

Tom Are sermons: epilogue

I'm sorry for getting the August 11, 1989 sermon posted late. (It should have posted last Friday, and I only finally got it posted late last night.) This has been the first week of classes for the Fall quarter at my seminary, which is always an intense time. But this year, it seems to have affected me more than usual, and I found myself extremely tired, even when I had the occasional moment to catch my breath.

The Friday sermon was a particularly interesting experience for me. For each of the sermons I transcribed, I tend to go through the whole thing over again after I've finished the first draft, and I invariably find mistakes that I made in my original transcription. Usually important stuff, like leaving out the word "no" or "not" when the addition of that word completely changes the meaning of the sentence, or forgetting to include the object of a verb.

The particular recording I used for Friday's message was of considerably lower quality than the other recordings, which were all over 15 years old, and recorded onto CDs from aging audio cassettes. I found that I had to keep my ear fixed as close to my player as possible, even with the volume turned up to its highest level, just to make out what was being said. And even then, there were a few phrases that I just couldn't quite make heads or tails of....

Thankfully, I had made some very rough MP3s of these recordings a few years ago. I had deemed them too painful to listen to due to static, which is why I'd paid to have the CDs made. But the MP3s had the advantage of being manipulated through my computer(of the time)'s sound editing software. This enabled me to make out those few phrases that I'd had trouble with before.

It was actually a surprise that, even with such technical issues, I should have trouble making out such phrases anyway. I've listened to these tapes dozens of times over the years, although admittedly not so much recently until I decided to take on this project. But I came to realize that I'd actually not paid as much attention to Friday's sermon, which does not have so much of the humor that marked the other sermons. As important as I had considered these sermons to be to me personally, I still had managed to "tune out" during some of the important parts!

I am thankful that I have had a new opportunity to "rediscover" these "lost" portions of Friday's message. I intend to leave the link to Rev. Are's sermons on this page for the forseeable future. I hope that a new generation of people will have an opportunity to be blessed by them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

BotCon Aftermath

BotCon, the official Transformers convention, has come and gone. As I indicated earlier, I did not go. Both the cost and the timing made it impossible. However, I have been able to keep up with most of the news via several Transformers news and message boards. For the most part, it seems that the convention was fairly well run, but the general feeling I get from many of the fans who attended is "they really don't get us."

By way of background, Fun Productions (henceforth referred to as "FP"), the current organizers of BotCon, have been running the GI Joe convention for nearly a decade. This is the first year that FP has organized the Transformers convention, and so they largely adapted the model for toy conventions that they know: that of the Joe convention. It was largely understood by everybody that this was the best way to do the convention in a short span of time (9 months after getting the license), and that while not everything would work as well for Transformers as they did for Joes, it was better do it this way than the reinvent the wheel with untried (or previously tried and failed) methods. Even though FP often took a "trust us, we know what we're doing" attitude that largely alienated Transformers fans with legitimate criticisms, many of us decided that it was best to wait until after this convention was over and allow FP the benefit of the doubt.

So, did they know what they were doing? In large part, yes. However, the dealer room was quite a bit smaller than usual. The art room was decimated to the point where all the entries fit on a small table, and the expensive exclusive toys were produced in such small numbers that no one who wasn't there will ever be able to afford any on the secondhand market unless they have tons of disposable income. Perhaps this web comic explains some of the feelings the best.

But probably the most telling sign that FP doesn't understand Transformers fans was the dinner. I found this statement at the Allspark forums:
The dinner was a perfectly good beef meal. For everyone. There was no spot on our prereg forms to specify if we wanted a different meal. Can't eat beef due to religious or medical reasons? Allergic to one of the other items on your plate? You're gonna have to send it back, and you're gonna have to wait up to half an hour for something else. Real American Heroes don't have such pissant concerns.
Mr. Savage made absolutely no effort to cater to vegetarians, or anybody who might not want to eat beef. This might work fine for Joe fans (who, as a commenter has observed, are a more "Republican" group. Not suprising for fans of a military toy line), but Transformers fans are a more diverse bunch, and people might not want a "red-blooded-American meal" for a variety of reasons: personal, health, religious, etc. While non-beef eaters were eventually given other options, it was only after they sent back their steak and complained, and then they had to wait half an hour. Even worse was this story, which tells of a person who can't eat mushrooms, who turned in his steak with mushrooms only to recieve chicken with mushrooms!

But even more disturbing was the fact the Mr. Savage interrupted the meal for a prayer. I first learned about this through a throwaway comment on Walky's blog, but this paragraph after what I just quoted from Allspark says it much better:
About 10 minutes into dinner, Savage came over the PA to lead us in saying grace. Maybe this goes over okay with the Joe fans. We're not the Joe fans. Everyone with an interest in saying a Christian prayer over their meal had already done so, with their own families around their own table, well before Savage chimed in. Everyone else was embarrassed or offended. But it's okay, because Jews and other undesirables aren't Real American Heroes.
Mr. Savage not only alienated a lot of non-Christian Transformers fans (which, I'm sad to say, is probably the majority of Transformers fans), but he embarrased most of the Christians, who (as was already noted) had already said grace if they were so inclined.

I have to admit to being rather torn on this one. As an evangelical Christian, I'm not unsympathetic to the argument that Christians should not be afraid to demonstrate their faith, even in secular, public forums. But this crosses a line for me. Mr. Savage wasn't just demonstrating his faith, he was forcing everyone else to participate in it. While I do believe that Christianity is the "one, true, way" (even though I'm not willing to be any more specific as regards any Christian denomination), I do not believe that one should force someone to participate in a Christian act of worship. A person comes to Christ themselves (or more properly, through an act of God), if at all. They cannot be forced into it. The prayer at the BotCon dinner was totally bad form.

So, the end verdict? Lots of style, but the substance leaves a lot to be desired. Time will tell if FP has learned from the experience.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Trying again

After some encouragement from friends of mine after writing this post, I decided to post a response to some of the notes made on my earlier post on the physical seminary "Board of Declaration" (as we call it) a week ago. Here is the text of that response, with hyperlinks incorporated into my source references.
For the record, I don’t generally post in response to anonymous jabs written on top of existing posts. Not only is this a cowardly form of attack, but it is generally forbidden by Board of Declaration guidelines. This is a forum for debate of issues, not insults to one’s intelligence. To the person who suggested I take Economics 101, you do not know me. You do not know how well-versed in Economics theory I am. All you have done is suggest that I must not know what I’m talking about because I suggested a solution that you disagree with. As you would note if you read my article, and some of the supporting links I provided, I am well aware that there is not universal agreement on how to deal with issues of poverty. However, it is neither anything like universally agreed by Economists that raising the minimum wage is a bad thing to do. Likewise, to call this plan “Socialism” (obviously intending this to be an attack) is a vast oversimplification. “Socialism” has to do with advocating “public control of the basic means of production, distribution, and exchange, with the avowed aim of operating for use rather than for profit.” [Source: Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary] While advocating a higher minimum wage is indeed a form of public control of distribution, it is a very limited one, and I do not advocate the public control of production, nor do I suggest that profit is entirely a bad thing. I’m merely suggesting that we work harder toward ensuring that people who work for a living earn enough to make a living.

Although I am grateful to the posters who have likewise written on my previous post in my defense, I would suggest to them that it would be far more helpful if they would post their statements (even if they’re just quick one-liners) on separate sheets of paper, complete with names and dates. This maintains the Board of Declaration guidelines, intended to keep this forum a place where fair and free exchange of ideas may occur. In fact, the only response that has met these guidelines has been [name withheld from the web]’s article. Although I disagree with some of the fundamental assumptions of economic theory that his article uses, he has engaged in the debate process in a very appropriate manner, and I wish to thank him for his efforts.

To briefly respond to a couple of his points, I would agree that it is difficult to suggest raising the minimum wage when so many companies ([the poster] cites several airlines) are going into bankruptcy. However, I would maintain that there is plenty of money to go around, if it were indeed distributed fairly. The average CEO makes over 430 times as much as the average worker. [Source: http://www.faireconomy.org Also, see http://www.orlandosentinel.com, which suggests that the ratio was only 301-to-1 about a year ago] By comparison, the average CEO in Japan makes only about 55 times as much as the average Japanese worker. [Source: http://thinkprogress.org] In fact, even in the US, the ratio has skyrocketed only relatively recently. The Economic Policy Institute of Washington, DC suggests that the ratio only topped 100-to-1 around 1990. [Source: http://www.epinet.org] I do not mean to suggest that CEOs should be paid the same as the average worker. CEOs deserve to be paid for the knowledge and experience which they possess. Such knowledge and experience is valuable and fairly hard to find. However, I expect very few people really want to argue that CEOs are worth 400 times more!

In any event, I’m sure that some people will disagree with my proposed solutions. However, I do not take kindly to having my intelligence, nor my Christian faith, called into question because I advocate for greater care for the poor. My Christian convictions cause me to seek solutions to this issue, and I believe it very important to come up with as intelligent and as practical a means of doing so as possible.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Would you believe...?

Don Adams, who played Maxwell Smart on "Get Smart," died today at 82. There will never be another like him....

Friday, September 23, 2005

Tales from Tom: It's For the Baby!

With this morning's tale, I bring the Friday series of Tom Are, Jr. stories to a close. I hope that you've enjoyed them. If you're interested in hearing more of Rev. Are's stories, I invite you to check out the web site of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, where Rev. Are is the senior pastor. The site has an archive of sermons, both printed and on audio, dating back to when Rev. Are joined the church.

And, as always, if you'd like to read the full text of this sermon, please click on the Tom Are, Jr., sermons link on the right. This story is from the sermon for Friday, August 11, 1989.
I remember… I was eight years old. My mother and father came in, and they had that serious look on their face. The one that says, “we have something very important to tell you.” It usually came right after I had done something very bad. I was a little nervous, we went into their bedroom. Mom and Dad… they were a little nervous. That was evident. They kept looking back and forth at each other. It was clear they had not rehearsed.

And then Mom finally said, “Tom. We want to tell you that you are going to have another brother or sister.”

I said, (in an “awww, man!” fashion) “Again?” I didn’t remember putting in an order for one, you know?

They said, “You’re going to have another brother or sister.”

I said, “Today?”

They said, “No! No, no, no. Not today.”

I said, “This weekend?”

“Not this weekend.”

“Well, when then?”

“Well, sometime in January.”

Well, school hadn’t even started yet, you know? It was still summer. When you’re eight years old, January may not ever get here! I said, “Why tell me now?”

She said, “We just want you to be prepared.”

All right. Well, then, pretty soon, this crib showed up in my room. I said, “Mom, very few people in the second grade are in cribs these days. You know?”

She said, “Tom, it’s not for you! It’s for the baby!”

I said, “The baby’s here?”

She said, “No, son! January!

I said, “Mom, it’s not Thanksgiving yet.”

“We want to be prepared.”

All right. Then some real strange things started happening. They painted my room. They had never done that. They had never… even when I got the Play-Doh stuck on the wall in the corner, they didn’t even try to paint any of that… but they painted my room. And then they put these little clouds on the wall. I thought that was ridiculous. I thought that poor kid’s gonna feel like he’s falling out of an airplane his whole life!

“It’s for the baby… who’s not here.”

And then, Mom started going to other people’s homes, and having parties… for the kid! She tried to throw me off and tell me they were “showers,” but I knew the difference between a shower and a party. One I would do gladly, the other I hated! But that kid was having a party! Did they bring me anything? No! He still had four months to cook and he’s raking it in!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A New Fundraising Idea?

Fred over at Slacktivist is a newspaper reporter who often comments on political issues of interest to me. (He also has an often hilarious commentary of why "Left Behind" is so bad that he adds to every Friday, but I digress) Today, he posted on the issue of President Bush's pledge to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina in their recovery efforts. A pledge made with one breath while, the very next time he exhaled, Bush promised not to raise taxes, suggesting that somehow more cuts could be made to pay the cost (a suggestion that even fellow Repulicans are saying is ludicrous). This is an issue I commented on just the other day. Fred's done me one better. He not only comments on how irresponsible it is to make such a promise while refusing to pay for it, but adds in commentary on one of the other things I like to make fun of: the yellow "Support Our Troops" magnets that many people put on their cars to tell you that they're better than you because they "support" troops with warm fuzzy feelings.

But why should I keep going on? Fred says it so much better, so I'll simply direct you to his post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tired

There's little question that my posts have veered heavily political in the past few weeks. These are issues I care about, and I have to think that I still have some measure of power to affect positive change in the world, even when so much evidence these days seems to argue the contrary.

Last week, when I posted this bit about California's minimum wage, I posted a copy (edited to make the links clear on a non-web hard copy) on a physical seminary bulletin board used for the purpose of debating such issues. I don't do this terribly often, as the board usually degenerates into a bunch of political name-calling that achieve little positive outcome on either side.

But it had been about a year since I'd posted there last, so I went ahead. A few days later, a student stopped by my office to turn in a paper, and he commented that he appreciated the post, and would post a reply of his own. I thanked him for the compliment, and encouraged him to do so, although I know that the student in question tends to take a far more conservative point of view on most issues than I do. I told him that I thought debate on the board was healthy, so long as the debate didn't become a bunch of useless name-calling. To his credit, when his post finally appeared, it did indeed remain substantially on the issue, although my instinct that he would, in fact, try to argue against my position did, in fact, prove reliable.

More troublesome is the unknown person who wrote "take Economics 101" on my post. Leaving aside for the fact that this is simply rude and against forum rules (not that these have ever stopped similar attacks in the past), it's just annoying. The person doesn't know whether or not I know what I'm talking about, they simply assume by my position that I must know nothing about Economics. I know better than to waste my time trying to defend against such attacks, but it's still disheartening.

Truth be told, I probably won't waste my time trying to defend against the more substantive post that the other student had put up, either. It's a whole four pages long, and to be frank, I couldn't force myself to read through the whole thing. And to make a substantive rebuttal, I'd really need to have a copy at my disposal so I could go through all the substantive points one-by-one, which is difficult to do with a bulletin board post....

It's not that he doesn't make any valid points. In fact, he does, and I'll readily admit as much. It's difficult to argue that businesses should pay more to their employees when, to use an example he cites, lots of large corporations are going bankrupt (he cites several major airlines). On the face of it, paying employees better would be like squeezing more water out of an already dry sponge (which is exactly what I accuse President Bush of trying to do in my previous post).

I don't believe that this is actually the case, of course. Besides the fact that CEOs are paid over 400 times as much as the average worker (a 431:1 ratio according to this site), implying that there's plenty of money to go around if paid more equitably, most jobs at the major airlines aren't minimum wage jobs anyway, and would therefore not be directly affected by a raise in the minimum wage. Such wages would likely go up in time, but only as the economy allows for it. (For the record, I don't argue that CEOs should be paid the same as the average worker. CEOs deserve to be paid for the knowledge and experience which they possess. Such knowledge and experience is valuable and fairly hard to find. However, I expect very few people really want to argue that CEOs are worth 400 times more!)

But the fact is, I'm tired. Defending against the inevitable attacks that come from people who disagree with me on these issues is getting old. People will always be able to post 4 page documents with plenty of flow charts to make their point, even if the argument eventually proves not to hold water. I believe that defending against such spurious arguments is worthwhile, and we need people capable of making these defenses. And I still intend to post such issues here as I feel the need arises, and will respond to comments such as come on this blog. But I know that my readership here is so small as to be almost non-existent. I post as much for my own well-being (learning more about issues I care about, learning more and more how to write effectively, just plain venting, etc.) as for any real sense of social activism that I hope to ignite. I don't have the time or energy to expand my arguments to a bulletin board that tends to become more vitriolic than substantive anyway. Life's too short. I'll do much better just to write the letters to my political representatives myself (as I have done on both of these recent issues) and help the people within my own sphere of influence as I have the ability. Trying to debate with people who won't listen is just wasting my and their time....

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Time to Act is Now

This past Thursday night, President Bush gave a speech promising that the federal government would foot the majority of the bill for expenses to rebuild New Orleans and other areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He also pledged to work to overcome the forces of racial discrimination and poverty that made this disaster even worse that it might have been. (Here's a link to the full text of the speech) The amount to be paid by the government is expected to be around $200 billion.

Yet, the very next day, he said that he would do this without raising taxes. He expects to pay for these expenses by cutting spending in existing programs.

It's just not possible. We've already been watching the administration bleed as many organizations dry as possible. Social services are more hard-up for cash than they've ever been, as many of my friends who work in such services will attest, having seen their resources dry up to the point where they are understaffed and underfunded to do even a fraction of the work that needs to be done.

And the President wants to ask the government to cut spending even further? In case he hasn't noticed, $200 billion is a huge number! And that would be on top of all of the cuts that have already happened over the past several years! Just how does he think he's going to find that much money without breaking his promise (a commitment restated in his words after Thursday's speech, quoted in the CNN news article linked above) to cut the deficit in half by 2009?

It's simply not possible. Unless, of course he wants to eliminate a bunch of agencies entirely, which would of course exacerbate the very problems of poverty and racism he committed to work to overcome in Thursday's speech.

I'm not a fan of tax increases, myself. I already think that the government takes too much of my meager income, and uses it in many ways that I do not wish to see my money spent. But there's simply not enough money available in the government coffers to pay for the hurricane recovery efforts without raising more resources. I do, however, have a possible solution. 1) Simply not to drop the existing taxes. It is well known that Bush has been lobbying to have the estate tax (often called by him and others a "death tax," even though it really is no such thing) eliminated in the near future. In light of current needs, this is an even worse idea to do now than it ever has been before. 2) I would propose a temporary tax increase. Say, for example, 1/2% on all incomes over $1,000,000, scheduled to expire after two years have passed. Part of the reason Bush asked to have recent income tax cuts "made permanent" is because the cuts were made to last only temporarily (unless extensions, such as Bush asked for and has gotten, were made). This is the same principle, only for a targeted tax increase, set to expire at a predetermined time, to be used for the particular purpose of disaster recovery. The rich might not care for this on the surface of it, but if it were made clear up front that such an increase was intended only temporarily, and for the specific purpose of funding hurricane recovery efforts, most people (even many of the wealthy) would support such an increase. Such a proposal would work wonders on Bush's reputation, proving that he's actually serious about combating poverty and helping the disaster-stricken area.

Of course, I don't expect Bush to find this kind of proposal on his own. I would therefore ask that any of you who think that this (or anything similar) is a good idea to please write your local congressperson or senator, whether they be Republican or Democrat, to suggest positive ideas that will help those in need, without ballooning our federal deficit or cutting needed programs. If we, the people, don't act now, the problem will only get worse in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Tales from Tom: Patrol Camp

I've really enjoyed transcribing these sermons (and the stories within them) over these past few weeks. As I'm getting down to these last couple, I've had occasion to realize that I've lived with these sermons as part of my own story for more of my life than I'd lived prior to hearing them at the age of 15 (I'm 31 now). While I'm not sure if that should make me feel old or not, it definitely says these stories have had "staying power" for me!

If you want to read the entire sermon of which this story is a part, click on the link on the sidebar for sermons by Rev. Tom Are, Jr. This sermon is the Thursday, August 10th sermon, and has a lot of good stuff to say about forgiveness.

(And, as a total aside, "Happy Birthday, sis!")
When I was in the sixth grade, I went to Bear Elementary School in Montgomery, Alabama. I was a patrol… a safety patrol at Bear Elementary School. Now, how many of you were patrols? (waits for show of hands) Good! I bet every one of you wore those little orange sashes with the little aluminum badges on there. (applause indicates he’s correct) At Bear Elementary School, we didn’t wear those things. We wore uniforms, man! We had these grey uniforms with stripes running all the way down the side of your leg. We had real badges, not those aluminum kind! We had real… they made your pockets sag, you know? They gave us whistles that we could sorta loop on this pocket… we were bad! We knew we were bad! You know… we’d strut down the hall! All the kids would look up and say, “Oooh! He’s a patrol!” And we were weren’t just “safety patrol.” We were “Junior Traffic Police.” Had this patch on our shoulder: “Junior Traffic Police.” We had policewomen that would come out to the school, and they would teach us to march, you know… “Left, right, left, right.…” We could do that by the sixth grade. And we would go out to the street, and we would haul the little flags out there that would say, “Stop.” And all the traffic in Montgomery would stop. And little Billy would walk across the street, you know, with his lunchbox. And then we’d let the traffic… we were in control! We were the baddest kids in the school, and we knew it.

Now every summer, they had what they called “patrol camp.” That meant that every school… every school would send a delegation to “patrol camp,” and there, there would be contests. You know, we’d have the canoe race, we’d have the tug-of-war… we would have “hold your breath underwater”…we would have all those kind of… kind of contests, and at the end, the delegation that attained the most points would take home the trophy. The valued “patrol camp” trophy, you’ve probably read about it.

For the past four years or so, Bear Elementary School had brought home the trophy. We sorta felt like it was ours. But last year, our rivals, Bellingrath… they took the trophy!

So, there we were, our delegation. We were ready to go to patrol camp, and our captain huddled us together, you know, and he said, “All right, men!” Here we are, in the sixth grade, you know, “All right, men! We’re sending you on a mission, here! If you want it bad enough…”

We said, “Yeah, we do! We do!”

“If you want it bad enough, you can bring home the trophy to Bear Elementary School, where it belongs…”

And we said, “We will! We will!”

And he said, “We’ll display it right there in the case next to the Honorable Mention of the Spelling Bee…”

And we said, “We’ll put it there!”

And we were all pumped. And we went to patrol camp. And everybody was there… but Bellingrath! And we weren’t sure where their delegation was. Now, we weren’t nervous. We were too cool to be nervous. We were acting a lot like how uncool people act when they’re nervous, but we weren’t nervous! We were just “curious” about who Bellingrath would be sending.

Well, right after supper, we’re out on the porch, and we’re sort of doing this (acting cool), you know? And then, there was this car that came down the dirt road, that had little red and white stripes of crepe paper tied around the antenna, like people do, you know, to let you know they’re special or something. That was the colors for Bellingrath! They pulled up in front of the main building there. And they had the tinted windows on the car, so we couldn’t tell who was living in there. And then, Mom gets out of the front seat, ‘cause Mom’s still driving in the sixth grade. And she goes to the back door, and she opens it like earth, wind, and fire is going to jump of there or something. And she opens the back door…

… and out of the back seat ROLLS the only guy from Bellingrath! He had to have been 350 pounds, man! He was the only guy there! Now, he had the tug-of-war, but the canoe race was in the bag! (laughter) We knew it was coming home, and we were excited! This guy was a nerd! We looked in the dictionary: “nerd.” Right next to it’s his picture! You know? He was the definition… He had on this little… beanie kinda hat. It didn’t have a propeller on it, but that’s only because somebody had knocked it off earlier! He had on this striped shirt with, like, orange, and purple and green, going up and down, and then these sorta striped pants going the other way. I’ve never seen anybody, well Scott Matheny (MYC ’89 co-director), other than that I’ve never seen anybody dress like that (loud cheers and applause)! You know? Nobody wore that kinda stuff in 1971! You know, you could wear anything you want to in the ‘60s but by ’71 we were civilized, you didn’t wear that kinda… you could go to jail if you wore that kinda stuff! … He got out dressed like… then he had on these white socks, and patent leather shoes that were two-tone!

We were looking at this guy, and we said, “We cannot believe it, but this guy is a geek!”

He walks up to us. He says, “Hi, guys! My name is Byron Ralph Gazortny!”

I was feeling pretty good about “Lorraine,” then, you know? Byron Ralph Gazortny? That’s even a geek name!

We get up the next morning…. Breakfast at patrol camp is an experience. It is a test of your commitment. Let’s see… patrol camp is in July. They start frying the bacon, like, in February. All right? When you get it, it’s about that big (gestures to indicate a tiny piece), you know, and when you pick up a corner of it, that’s all you get, it just sort of shatters right there in front of you. But the eggs, they didn’t start in February! The eggs still had some of that clear stuff on it that did like this (jiggles) when they give it to you!

They give you bacon, and those eggs, and then grits that had these lumps in it. You could suffocate on those lumps, man! They get stuck right in there, you’d be a goner, that was all there was to it! You couldn’t eat the food at patrol camp! But Byron Ralph? He’s sitting at the end of the table, and said, “If you guys would just lift the table down there and slide all that stuff to me,” and he’s sitting there eating it all up! He even took the camp peanut butter. That’s the kind that comes in the can, that you have the key and you sorta twist it. You ever seen that stuff? They’re three layers to it. It’s got like this Georgia red clay on the bottom. And then there’s probably some 10-W-30 or something in there. And then about six peanuts floating in the oil. Byron Ralph dumped all that stuff on there, he didn’t even mix it up, he just dumped it on there, eating it up, “yeah, man, this is good…” We knew this guy was a geek!

Well, we decided that… he needed to be… “included.” We decided he needed to be “officially welcomed.” Byron Ralph… this was ’71… Byron Ralph probably washed his hair in ’66, we figured. So, that first night, we took a little Prell concentrate… doesn’t need much… just a little on the pillow... all he needed was a touch of sweat, and turn his head every now and then… he woke up in the morning and there’s white cloud everywhere. Bubbles coming out of his tent, you know? We were loving it! We looked at him and said, “Oh, Byron Ralph, what happened?” You know? We didn’t have a clue.

The next night, Byron Ralph got a little carried away. Literally. About ten of us got around his bunk. We walked him down to the lake. (laughter) This is not a suggestion…. walked him down to the lake. We put him in the rowboat. We pushed him out into the lake. And then we rang the wake-up bell! Byron Ralph gets up, he stretches, he steps out of his cot, and bloosh! (laughter and applause) It was wonderful! It was wonderful! Water flying out of there, you know? He asked us about it, we didn’t have a clue! Don’t know. I guess it was just “sleep rowing,” you know, that happens….

All week long… all week long, we gave that guy more than he could take. And we could tell it was eating at him, but he never said anything. But we could tell it was just chewing him up, you know? I could also tell that he knew that I was behind it all.

The last night, we were going to camp away from camp. Now, I never did quite figure that out. We were gonna go camp on the mountain. All right? In Alabama, they don’t have mountains, man! They got bumps, but they didn’t have any mountains! So they had, like, this trail to this bump, and we were gonna go camp on the bump. So, everybody gets his backpack on, and we’re hiking through the woods. The last night, we’re hiking through the woods, and I’m there with all of my buddies. We had won the trophy. Everything was good. We were gonna stay up all night and sing songs and have a great time. And we’re hiking down the trail… there was this tree that fell down right next to the trail. So all the guys jumped up on it, and they’re running down the tree. So I’d jump up on it, and I’m running down the tree. And all of a sudden… I think a Mary Lou Retton or something. I don’t know. I go up in the air, and I come back down on the tree… almost.

Sort of on the side of it. And this was a round tree. So I went all the way down to the ground, and my ankle was sideways. And it sorta… popped.

And I said, (as flatly as possible) “Oowwowch!” (laughter)

And all the guys looked back at me and they said, (very concerned) “Are you okay?”

I’m a patrol, man! I said, (very unconvincingly as he hobbles around) “Sure! No problem! Having a great time!”

I couldn’t walk. My ankle’s sitting here, inflating! I said, “You guys go on, I’m gonna sit here and wait for Byron Ralph and do some more stuff to him!”

And they said, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s great!” So they go on. I’m sitting here on this log watching my ankle just… explode.

Byron Ralph starts coming up the trail. I know that I’m a dead boy. You know, I’m sort of playing the video of my life in front of me. Because, when you’re in the sixth grade, you don’t have one that’s long enough even for commercials, you know? It’s just sort of... it’s over.

Byron Ralph is coming up… I know he’s gonna kill me. I’m sitting there on the log, I can’t go anywhere, and he comes up the trail….

(Sound effect akin to an elephant stomp, then another) Have you ever seen those forest fire commercials? You know, where all the birds and stuff go (sound of rustling out trees in large numbers), like? That’s what it was like, man! He’s coming up the trail, and everything’s going (rustle-rustle-rustle).

He comes around the curve, and he sees me on the log. And he just smiles….

That made me really nervous.

He walks up to me, and I’m thinking, “one punch.” You know? One punch and I’m out!

He said, “Stand up!”

I thought, “I can accommodate.” I stand up.

He said, “Give me your pack!”

I said, “Going for distance?” (laughter)

He takes my pack… puts it on his shoulder. He hands me the stick that he’s been using to come up the trail… and he walks off.

By the time I hobbled into camp, he had set up my tent. He had gathered some wood for a fire, and he was over there scrounging through his stuff to begin to set it up.

I crawled in my tent, and I cried.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Impartiality

I've spent a fair bit of the past few days listening to the Senate hearings, whereby John Roberts will likely be confirmed as the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For the most part, this has been a surprisingly civil discussion. This is even as liberals, concerned that a conservative judge (such as Roberts appears to be) will overturn rulings that have secured several important liberal freedoms, have pressed Roberts for details on how he is likely to rule. Details that Roberts has, mostly, been unwilling to provide (consistent with the stance held by most other Supreme Court nominees that have been so questioned).

I have been given a renewed opportunity to consider the matter of impartiality, as Roberts has contended, time and again, that he will be a Justice who rules according to the rule of law, and not according to his beliefs. This is a laudable goal. To the extent that Justice Roberts (as he will no doubt become in a matter of days) can keep this goal, I actually believe that he will be as acceptable a Justice as it is possible to find under the current conservative administration.

But one truth that I hold to be self-evident, that I often feel that more conservative thinkers are unwilling to accept, is that there is no such thing as total impartiality. We are all, conservative and liberal alike, influenced by our beliefs. While we can make it a goal, as no doubt Roberts does, to be as impartial as possible, there will always be some degree to which that is impossible. To some extent, anyone would be an "activist judge," to use the term that the Bush administration has so often used to deride some judges. Being a conservative does not make one any less of an "activist," although the fact that Bush has used the term "activist" to describe liberal judges almost exclusively would have one think it does.

While it may indeed be true, as some Republicans have contended, that Democrats wouldn't favor any candidate that President Bush would nominate, I can't help but feel that many would feel just a little better about a Bush-nominated justice if some "Bush conservative" would acknowledge that total impartiality was impossible. After all, it is only as we are aware of our prejudices that we can work against them.

But I haven't seen such an admission yet....

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Prayer request

I would greatly appreciate your prayers over the next month. An appointment to the optometrist to get new glasses last month has turned into a series of visits to various health professionals in a sequence of "hoop jumps" designed to appease my health insurance representatives. A likely benign pigmentation was discovered at that original eye examination, and I was encouraged to see an ophthalmologist to have the phenomenon photographed in case there is any change. This pigmentation was also observed 3 years ago, and there has seemed to be no change during that time, and so there has been little cause for concern.

However, to meet the requirements of my health insurance, I couldn't just go see an ophthalmologist. Rather, I had to visit my regular doctor to get a referral. This has meant that, by the time I finally got to the ophthalmologist yesterday, I had been to three different doctors, having to pay the $10 co-pay each time, and have had to ask for half-days off of work on each occasion.

It turns out I'm not done yet! Upon observing the pigmentation, the ophthalmologist is concerned about possible retinal detachment, and asked to see me again in one month. If there is any change, I may have to have surgery. It should be noted that, if there is any such problem, it must be slow-moving, as this was observed by the optometrist 3 years ago, as I said previously.

So, best case scenario, I have to do another $10 co-pay, and I'll probably need to have regular examinations for a while. Worst-case, I go blind.... :( (Although that's a rather unlikely scenario. I'm probably more scared of the possibility of surgery at this point....)

In any event, I'd appreciate your prayers throughout this time. Thanks!

(You know, I don't think the ophthalmologist ever did take that picture....)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Transformers Reviews for Non-Transformers People: Bumblebee

While most of my friends tend not to be Transformers fans themselves, they're generally kind enough to show a general interest, if only because they care about me and know that I'm a Transformers fan. They don't really understand my own interest, but they'd like to understand a "little bit," in order to better understand me. I'm grateful that they care enough to try.

In that vein, I'll try here to give a little bit of background on one of the main characters. The Autobot known as Bumblebee.

Now, the first thing you need to know, when I use the term "Autobot," I'm referring to the "good guy" faction of Transformers. There are a few others, most notably the "Decepticons," who are the usual "bad guys." Now that we're clear on that, on to Bumblebee himself....

In the Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee is most familiar as the Transformer who spent all his spare time running around with the main human character, Spike. Because of Bumblebee's comparative small size, he was able to interact more easily with humans, and he had a very warm and likeable personality.

Bumblebee was able to transform into a small, yellow, Volkswagen Beetle. While not quite as ubiquitous as "Herbie" back in the early '80s, this made him instantly recognizable.

The original toy version of Bumblebee was one of the less expensive Transformers available back when the line first came out, which no doubt added to his popularity. His transformation was very simple: push the arms in, fold the feet down and push the legs up, fold the head over, and you're done!

This character was so popular, in fact, that three other toy versions of Bumblebee were made available by the time the original line ended in 1990, representing six of those seven years (1988 seems to be the odd year out) making Bumblebee the most readily-available character of the original Transformers toy line!

Monday, September 12, 2005

A Tale of Two Weddings

This past weekend, my wife and I attended the wedding of one of my wife's cousins. It happened to be at the same church that hosted our own wedding just over two years ago (although neither of the officiants at either wedding are the pastor of the church in question). The two services could not have been more different.

The first words out of the officiant's mouth at our cousin's wedding told of how marriage was under attack in our society. He then listed a litany of ways in which our secular culture maintains these attacks upon the institution of marriage. He contrasted this with Jesus' approval of marriage, demonstrated by the working of his first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). The officiant went so far as to point out that Jesus created 180 gallons of wine at this event (I looked up the passage. Jesus filled 6 containers, each of which are said to contain 20-30 gallons. While this makes 180 gallons technically possible, it's unlikely that this was the exact amount. It could have been as low as 120 gallons. Surely it would have been enough to say that Jesus created a fair amount of wine in this miracle, but I digress.).

As he detailed the responsibilities of marriage to the bride and groom, he used heavily a passage from Ephesians chapter 5, especially verses 22-33, detailing the analogy of the husband to the wife as Christ is to the church. This analogy allowed the officiant to make several points. The husband (Christ) is the "prophet, priest, and king" of the household (this being a doctrine about Christ derived from the Westminster Confession of Faith), each item gaining a lengthy extrapolation of the responsibilities involved. Correspondingly, the wife (as the church) is to submit to the husband (as the church does to Christ). It was emphasized again here how rare a "Christian wife" was these days. The words were often very condescending, and were done in a very stiff, unfriendly manner. When the officiant talked about the roles of the couple in regard to any potential children that might come from the marriage, it became especially clear that he had not spoken with the couple at any length, as we already know that the husband (who already has a grown daughter from a previous relationship) has no desire for more children (or perhaps the officiant knew, but chose to ignore that fact).

In short, not only did this service espouse very traditional roles for the husband and the wife in a "Christian" marriage, it did so in an over-the-top fashion that I've actually not seen anywhere else in my experience with multiple traditions of Christianity, including several fairly superfluous references to all the things that our culture does wrong and going out of his way to emphasize the exclusivity of Christ to any who may not be Christians in the audience.

Our wedding service was very different although, ironically, our officiant took his cue from the same chapter of Ephesians. However, he emphasized the verse just prior to the references to Christ and the church. This is the verse that, very specifically, tells husbands and wives to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21) Emphasizing mutual submission puts the verses that follow in an entirely different light, and thus the tone was set for a very different kind of wedding service. The first words out of our officiant's mouth were words of welcome to the community, emphasizing the actions of God in the service, over and above what we mere humans did or said that day.

My own feelings on gender roles are no doubt clear. However, I would also suggest that the wedding service we attended this past weekend was less of a worship service than our own wedding service two years ago in the same church building. There were few prayers, no songs or hymns, no Scripture readings (only a few quotes which the officiant incorporated into his remarks), and not even any sermon to speak of, although the officiant did do a lot of talking about truth and right doctrine. By contrast, my wife and I (with the help of our officiant, who is a good friend) constructed a service that was very intentionally Christian, with appropriate music, Scripture readings, liturgical prayers, and a full homily from the officiant on the importance of mutual submission to one another as the foundation upon which to build a future together. I truly hope and believe that God was honored at our wedding service, and if there were non-Christians in the audience, that they felt welcomed into a sense of who and what God is that went far beyond the scare tactics of the other officiant's exclusivist message.

Perhaps most interesting of all, at the wedding service this past weekend, the lighting of the unity candle was forgotten until after the service was over, and thus was never actually performed as a part of the service. Not all services do include this, of course, but it was indeed intended here. The lighting of the unity candle is a symbol of the unity of the couple out of two distinct individuals (in our service, we kept the original candles lit, because we remain individuals within our unity. Some churches blow the original two candles out to symbolize the two becoming one.). This very powerful symbolism was completely lost amidst the endless words spoken by the stiff officiant.

Or perhaps a different kind of symbolism took its place. In placing so much emphasis on relatively minor matters of theology and doctrine, the officiant missed the more important points of worship and unity that are at the heart of what a wedding ceremony is supposed to be about. My wife and I are thankful that the success of our cousin's marriage will have little to do with the wedding ceremony itself. That is but the event of a day. A marriage is a lifetime.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Tales from Tom: Brothers

This story from the Rev. Tom Are, Jr. is a bit longer than most, as I found it difficult to find a clean beginning and ending point. To understand the context, you need to know that this sermon talks about the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31). As always, if you're interested in reading the whole sermon, just click on the appropriate link on the right to be taken to the sermons page.

You see… I know that the elder brother is not the good guy. I know that the elder brother is not the example for us. I know that the elder brother does not wear a white hat in this story… but I gotta tell you, the boy makes some sense to me!

Makes a little bit of sense of me….

‘Cause I’ve got a little brother! If you’ve got a little brother, maybe even a little sister, you probably can understand this guy! You see, my brother, Jim… we didn’t get along! It’s not that we were enemies. You know, we didn’t bring bodily harm to one another, we… we… we just were brothers! And Jim, I don’t know what’s wrong with the boy… Jim…(laughter) It’s good Presbyterian belief to believe that every person has a reason for being… that every person has a purpose in this world. Jim was thoroughly convinced that his purpose… that his calling… yeah, one even he had received by divine intervention… his reason for being was to get on my nerves! (laughter) And Jim was very obedient to his calling.

Now it worked okay for a little while. Because Jim was about this many years old (holds arm at about waist length), and I was this many years old (raises arm a bit higher), and that works all right. Because as soon Jim would start getting on my nerves, I’d just sorta look at him with that stern face that says “I’m really talking to you now!” And I’d say, “Jim, if you have an emotional attachment to sunshine, you better get out of my face!” (laughter and applause)

And Jim would say, “I’m sorry,” and he would back out of the room. That worked fine! But then he had to go and blow it. Jim discovered alliances. I don’t know if he got it at school, or where he got it. But the youngest always figures out, the number one ally is Mom.

Jim would start getting on my… and I would say “Jim, if you have an emotional attachment to…” I’d get to about right there, and all of a sudden he’d start going “Mah-ahm! Mah-ahm!”

She’d come flittin’ down the hallway. “What’s the matter, darling?”

Jim’d start in: “Tom did this. Tom did that! Tom did that other thing!”

My mother’d look at me, and she’d say, “Go to your room!”

I’d say, “Mom, aren’t I entitled to a trial by jury of my peers?”

She’d say, “Tom, if you have an emotional attachment to sunshine….” (laughter and applause)

You see, that’s when I learned to talk like an elder brother! I’m in my room “got an emotional attachment, hmph! I tell you what… when’s the last time he cleared the table? I can’t remember! Does he take out the trash? No, [sir,] he plays sick every time, ‘I hurt my foot.’ No, I’m the one doing it, but that’s all right, take care of him. Give him a party, I don’t care!”

That went on too long! I spent most of my sophomore year in my room! Talking like an elder brother. Occasionally looking in the mirror, trying to make an ugly face…. It wasn’t real hard.

(Leans over pulpit) … But I got him back! (cheers and applause)

I got him back, man! We were visiting my grandmother. She lived in South Carolina. She announced that she and my mother were going to go shopping, and they would be right back.

Now one of things you need to understand, my grandmother and my mother went shopping, they’re not gonna be right back.

And the other thing she said is, “Tom, you are supposed to take care of Jim while we’re gone.”

“No problem! I’m gonna take care of him real good, Grandmama!”

Jim was out in the back yard. I went out and I said, “Jim you are filthy. You are sweaty. You smell bad. Go take a bath!”

He said, “But I don’t want to!”

I said, “Jim, I am in charge. Go take a bath!”

So he trudged it upstairs. My grandmother had one of those bathtubs with the feet on it, you know… different kind of experience, that was all right. Jim got in there, kinda sudsin’ up and everything, and then I yelled through the door. “Jim, I’m going next door. I’ll be gone for, oh, an hour.” Then I walked downstairs and I go out the front door. (sound of door shutting)

I wait about ten minutes. And then I open the front door. “Creee-eeak!” It’s quiet upstairs!

Jim goes, “Tom? Tom, is that you?”

(whispers) I didn’t say anything! (cheers and applause)

Jim says, “Tom, you’d better tell me that’s you. I’m gonna tell Momma if you don’t tell me that’s you!”

(silence)

My grandmother had this lamp that sat by the end of the sofa, it had these little bells hanging on it, when you turn it on and off. I went over there and I turned it off! (cha-ching!)

It got real quiet upstairs! (laughter)

She has this china cabinet in the living room. You have to walk through there…. I think Columbus must brought that thing over, or something, because if you walked through the living room, the whole thing went (rattle-rattle-rattle), like that?

So I walked through the living room. (rattle-rattle-rattle)

Jim says, (sounding even more scared now) “Tom, is that you? Tom, I promise I won’t tell Momma if you just please tell me that’s you!”

(whispers) I didn’t say nothing!

I start going up the steps. The third step from the top creaked. I’m standing on the fourth one. I’m looking there at the bathroom right in front of me. There’s not a sound… I think Jim had his finger in the faucet to keep the drips from coming down. There is no sound coming outta there! I’m standing there, looking at the door… standing on that fourth step, and I step on number three. (Cree-eeak!)

Water started moving, man! I’m telling you, that boy was on the move, now! I go up to the door, I start going… scratching on the door, you know?

And all of a sudden it gets real quiet. Well, the lock on the door hasn’t worked since my daddy was in high school, you know, so I just sort of… push it open, and step in there and I go (leaps out with a boogeyman sound)!

There’s no Jim! (laughter)

Everything in there’s just… there’s not even much water in the bathtub. There’s a lot coming on the walls, down the… way, there. I thought, “Where’d he go?” I thought, first, he soaped up, and went down the drain, you know?

And then… then I saw the curtains flapping.

We’re on the second floor! There’s nothing below that but just this little awning. I thought “Great day! He’s jumped out! He’s killed himself! I’m going be in my room until I finish college, man!” (thunderous applause)

I go running down the steps… I opened the front door… There’s my brother hanging off that awning! (cheers)

He’s not wearing anything but Mr. Bubble! (more laughter)

I start laughing so hard, I can’t hardly stand up, you know? And I’m bending over, like this (doubled over), and I get about right here… and I see my momma coming down the driveway! (laughter)

I don’t even think she stopped the car! She just got out! And she started coming up the sidewalk!

She looked at me, and she said, “Go to your room!”

She walked right by my brother. He’s going, “Mom! A little help here, please! A little help, Mom!”

She comes in my room… she comes in my room…. She says, “Do you…. do you want to tell me… what your brother is doing… NAKED AS A JAYBIRD… hanging off the front of the house where we hang the star at Christmastime?” (Cheers from audience)

You remember the other night when I told you about those questions that aren’t really questions?

I said, “Well, ma…” and she said, “Hush!”

She was too mad to punish me. Instead she was gonna give me “the talking to.” (ominous sounds from audience) You ever had that? Man, I would rather be whipped, tied to a tree, left in the forest for the weekend than get the talking to!

She said, “Why…?” It always started that way, you know? “Why… do you treat your brother like that?”

I thought that was self-evident.

She said, “Tom, you are the eldest.” I thought that was self-evident, too. She said, “You’re supposed to be the light shining in the darkness. The city set on the hill. You know he looks up to you…”

I said, “Of course he does, Momma, he’s down here!” (laughter)

She said, “You’re supposed to live in a way that he can look up to and know how to make it in this world!”

And then it got bad. She said, “Tom, you know you really like Jim.”

I said, “Mother, are you talking about the Jim that lives with us?”

She said, “You know you really love Jim.”

I said, “Mother, have you met the Jim that lives with us?”

I said, “Mother, tell me one reason… it doesn’t have to be a big one! Tell me one reason, why you think I love that boy.”

She said, “Because he’s your brother!”

I said, “Bingo, Momma! That’s what I’ve been trying to…. That’s the reason I don’t like the man! You know, for eight years, he’s been hanging around my business. Ever since he’s old enough not to drool at the table, he’s been getting on my nerves!”

Jim’s standing out in the hall, taking notes…. They do that, too.

Jim comes walking in the room… He walks in the room… He doesn’t look particularly mad… He doesn’t look particularly dry… He looks at me, and he says, “Tom. Jesus loves me. So can you.”

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Fighting injustice

Yesterday, the California state legislature passed a measure that would increase California's minimum wage, which currently stands at $6.75. It would go to a minimum of $7.75 over the next two years. [note: the link works as of 9/8/05, but the LA Times site tends to require a paid membership to reach it's archives.]

However, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has already suggested that he is likely to veto this measure, as he has already done on a similar measure.

At the current minimum wage, a worker who works full-time will earn $14,040 a year. That works out to $1170 a month. The Federal Government defines "affordable" housing as not costing more than 30% of a worker's income. (This definition comes from the PDF file dated July 2001 put out by the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, which also contains many other useful statistics) There are very few one-person studio apartments to be had in California for $351 a month (30% of $1170), where the housing market is often extremely tight. Now imagine that this worker has to support a family! In the Los Angeles area (which does not have a minimum wage any higher than the CA state minimum in most cases, although the city of LA itself does have a slightly higher minimum), it is difficult to find a two bedroom apartment for less than $900 a month, which is well above what our hypothetical worker can afford, even if the spouse also has a full-time minimum wage job.

And this situation hasn't even addressed what is being done with the kids when both parents are working! And many low-wage earners are supporting single parent (usually the mother) households, either having to work multiple jobs or trying to find better wages, both of which are often difficult when trying to take care of the kids. And it goes without saying that minimum wage jobs tend not to provide child care.

Nor have we started discussing the rising prices of gasoline, which are nearing $3 a gallon in my area. Having checked my own personal records, only one year ago, it was still below $2 a gallon! How will our hypothetical worker (and spouse) get to their place of employment so they can work at their minimum wage jobs?

Although critics of wage increases often suggest that "low-wage jobs [are] held by part-time workers and teenagers, the budget group's analysis said 59% of people earning less than $7.74 an hour worked at least 35 hours a week and 60% were at least 25 years old." (Quote from the LA Times article linked above. The wage used here reflect all amounts below the proposed increase, and not only the current minimum wage.) Critics often say that raising the minimum wage would cause businesses to cut jobs to save costs, but this conclusion is far from certain. In fact, some studies suggest that this is, in fact, a myth, and that raising the minimum wage does not, in fact, result in such job losses. (See this Wikipedia article for more information, including both supporting and conflicting data. The point is that the results are far from being as clear as wage increase opponents would have you think. Click on the "debate" link if you just want to go straight to the most relevant part.)

The Governor has offered some concessions, but is holding firm against the part of the measure that proposes indexing the minimum wage to inflation, claiming that "it takes away the government's ability to be flexible to the state's economic indicators." Does he really want to claim that it's better to allow the wage to slip further and further backward in actual buying power? Florida, Washington, and Oregon have all successfully indexed their minimum wages to inflation, and all have met or surpassed California's minimum wage, which was once the highest in the nation, as a result. This is despite the fact that California has a higher cost of living than any of those states. (Scroll down to the image entitled "Composite Cost of Living Index" at this link for a graphical representation of cost-of-living for all 50 States in America.) In fact, if we really want to get political, it has been argued that by indexing the minimum wage to inflation, Republicans remove a major issue from the Democratic platform. And then politicians wouldn't have to deal with the far larger (and therefore more impacting upon the businesses Republicans tend to support) increases in the minimum wage that occur when it is raised only every few years. And just think of the time saved by not arguing about minimum wage that politicians could spend on other issues!

But perhaps most important for Governor Schwarzenegger, this kind of measure enjoys widespread popular support. Businesses may not like it, but if Schwarzenegger is truly the kind of "people's governor" that he claims to be, he should pay attention to the outcry of people trying to make ends meet in our state, where the cost of living is truly outrageous. This is a major justice issue, and it is time that it is treated as such.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

An Odd Experience

I had the oddest experience yesterday. While working in my office yesterday, I caught a man wandering the halls. This, in itself, is nothing unusual, as we have quite a few students and people from outside the seminary community who come up here, not knowing where to find the office they're looking for, and we generally try to help them get connected to who they're looking for.

So when this man walked by office, I made eye contact, and as he passed, I was fairly certain that he would poke his head back in within the next few seconds. I was not disappointed. He asked me, in a thick accent that I could not readily identify, what sort of place this was. I told him it was a school of theology. He then starts talking about some revelations he was receiving from God, how the number of the Christ is "888," and how he had discovered that his own personal number is "888." As he continued talking, it became more and more clear that I was not misunderstanding him: this man believed himself to be the second coming of Jesus Christ!

At one point, he showed me a letter he had received addressed to pastoral leaders and "neighbors" of a nearby Southern California community. It detailed political issues of concern to the community, and specifically mentioned injustices that needed to be dealt with. As the second coming of Jesus Christ, this man understood it to be his responsibility to do something about these concerns. He had not, it would seem from the rambling conversation, known about these needs before getting the letter, but since he had gotten a letter, he felt compelled to respond. Not as a Christian. Not as a church leader. But as the Christ!

He also talked about the book of Revelation, and how the Christ is supposed to return from the clouds, and how since he had to come by airplane from his country to the US, this was a fulfillment of that prophecy.

By this, time, my "loony" radar was going off full steam, but I was still trying to be polite. I still wasn't at all clear what the point of all this was about, nor why he was talking to me in particular, a lowly staff person, when there are a lot of better connected people at the seminary to deal with his concerns of erasing injustice from the community. So I eventually asked him. His answer, I'm afraid, was less than illuminating. I wish I could say that it was simply that Jesus didn't deal just with the "important" people, but with those who were "lowly," but the fact is that it rambled too much to get even that clear message. (A conversation with a coworker who had also spoken with him leads me to believe that his original question, which I interpreted as "what sort of place is this," was in fact intended to ask me what office [mine] he was in. As I said, he was hard to understand, but this would at least offer an explanation for why he might have thought I had greater importance than I do!)

I was eventually saved by a coworker who came by to give me piece of paper telling me how many vacation hours I had accumulated. I quickly took the piece of paper, wrote "security" on it, and gave it back to her. She got the message and went back to her office, and called me up to say, "tell him you have to take this call." I did so, and maintained the impression of a work-related conversation for several moments until he finally left. She did not, ultimately, call security, as we had determined that the man was not an actual threat. He was simply delusional. We were also aware that, with some mentally ill people, they can sometimes become violent when threatened (but not until or unless then), and that security could, in fact, have made matters worse.

These kinds of situations always leave me a bit reflective on my own faith. If Jesus did return today, would I recognize him? Perhaps not. I'm comforted by my knowledge that "888" is not a Biblical paradigm for Jesus (It first appeared in some later strands of Christian tradition. Perhaps I should do a longer explanation of the concept of gematria later....), and that Revelation was being misused. I've also been taught that, unlike Jesus's first coming, which was indeed "hidden" to many people, his second coming will be in glory, and that no one will miss it.

I also leave these encounters feeling that I have somehow failed in my ability to "be Christ" to all those whom I might encounter. No matter how delusional this man was, he is still a person for whom Christ died, and to whom we are to show love and compassion. Although I was able to avoid being directly rude to him, I certainly gave him the "brush off" at the earliest opportunity. Of course, I do not have the resources to deal with mental illness, and don't believe that God will hold me responsible for things that are outside of my ability to deal with. Still, it bears thinking about.

By the way, he tells me that the number of the computer is "666." Do with that what you will....


UPDATE: According to the Wikipedia article on gematria, I probably should have used the word "isopsephy." "Gematria" is numerology using Hebrew letters and words, while "isopsephy" uses Greek. Suffice it to say, the term "isopsephy" is new to me, too.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Now is Not the Time to Panic

Over the course of the long weekend, we learned that Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away, followed by the announcement that formerly announced O'Connor replacement John Roberts has been asked to serve as the new Chief Justice. While I have spoken with many moderate-to-left-leaning friends who are understandably upset that this means that President Bush gets to pick not one, but two Supreme Court Justices in his efforts to bring the court further to the ideological right, not only is this announcement not surprising, but it's actually not such a bad thing.

Consider this: Rehnquist was already a conservative member of the Supreme Court. The only currently serving Justice who actually participated in Roe v. Wade, he voted against it at that time. Rehnquist has also generally voted against affirmative action when such cases have come before the court. Although the appointment of Roberts suggests that this tendency is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, it certainly does not represent any kind of shift further to the right.

Of course, Bush still has to name a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who will continue to serve until her replacement is in place. To some extent, the fact that Roberts is now the Rehnquist replacement means that we will continue to have O'Connor's more moderate position available for just a little while longer. But even here, O'Connor tended to lean more to the right, and a Bush appointment will not represent a dramatic shift away from the status quo, with the obvious exception of a couple of important issues.

In any event, the current situation is actually better than the one represented when only O'Connor was leaving, as it was all but certain that Rehnquist would not last through the remainder of Bush's second term of office, and a more conservative court was virtually guaranteed in the interim. And indeed, it is still possible that Bush may appoint a justice who will be more moderate than expected. If Bush is serious when he says that he will look for candidates who will interpret the constitution fairly, and doesn't actually seek the very kind of judicial activism that he himself claims to deplore (thereby proving that he thinks it's really okay if it comes from the right. It's that "liberal" activism that's bad.), then a balance of conservative and liberal views on the Supreme Court may yet be maintained.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Tales from Tom: Salt on a Bird's Tail

Oddly enough, this story comes from a sermon that focuses largely on the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-36). If you're interested in reading the whole sermon (and finding out how Rev. Tom Are, Jr. can get to here from there!), click on the link on the sidebar to the right and select the August 8 sermon. There are plenty of other humorous bits inside, as well.

I was in the second grade… for a long time, actually. I was in the second grade, and my father told me that to catch a bird, you put salt on its tail. I went to him, I said, “Dad, I wanna catch a bird!”

He said, “What?”

I said, “There’re birds all over the back yard. I wanna catch one and keep one.”

Well, that really thrilled my parents, you know? Dad said, “No problem, the way to catch a bird, is you take the salt, and sprinkle it on the [bird’s] tail, and if you get salt on the bird’s tail, he can’t fly! That’s the rules!”

Well, he got considerable joy watching me most of my second grade spring running around the back yard with a salt shaker. I think I killed half the grass out in the back yard. He was counting on my not catching up with the bird. I was counting on catching the bird. Neither one of us counted on my ingenuity.

I built a trap! I got a box, and I put it in the back yard, and I propped it up with this stick. I put, like, a whole loaf of bread in there. A jar of peanut butter. Probably a Twinkee. Some Kool-Aid; I wanted this bird to have a choice of diet, you know? And then, I propped that dude up with a stick, and I tied a string around the stick, and then I went around the garage, and I tied the other end to me, and I watched. And this blue jay flew down there, and he kind of strutted around a while, looking at it, checking it out. And then he went in for his peanut butter sandwich.

I pulled that string, that box came down. That’s the maddest blue jay you ever seen in your life! I had myself a bird, man! And I was excited about it! I put the whole thing on a screen from the window, so I could flip it over. And there’s the box, with the bird in it, and the screen on top, and I’m standing there with a whole box of “when it rains, it pours.”

I got salt on that bird’s tail. I got salt on his head. I got salt on his back. That’s bird was knee-deep in salt! He kept trying to fly around the box, I’m just chasing him, you know, salt everywhere! When I knew he was good and salted, I opened the screen. I pulled up the screen, about that much (holding fingers close together).

My daddy lied to me!

That bird, he barely had room to get out, he flew out so fast, shaking salt on me with every flap!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Call Me a Cynic

Last week, while I was looking up information on Pat Robertson after his infamous statements regarding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (discussed here and here), I came upon this site of quotes attributed to right-wing leader (Warning: the site says right up front that it is run by an atheist, and so Christians should be aware that there may be an "anti-Christian" agenda there that goes beyond my own current "anti-Robertsonism"). A couple of quotes were particularly disturbing:

We have imagined ourselves invulnerable and have been consumed by the pursuit of ... health, wealth, material pleasures and sexuality... It is happening because God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.

-- Pat Robertson, oblivious to the statistical (and obvious) fact that no nation or group of people has ever enjoyed a higher degree of personal, political, or economic safety than the Americans enjoy today, Robertson engages the fearmongering typical of Christian preachers by blaming the Americans' lifestyles for bringing upon themselves the judgement of the God of Everlasting Mercy; this is Robertson's explanation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in a three-page statement released Thursday, September 13, 2001, quoted from AANEWS #958 by American Atheists (September 14, 2001)


But I want to say as surely as I am sitting here today, this is only a foretaste, a little warning, of what is going to happen..

-- Pat Robertson, remarking on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, even after receiving a personal rebuke from the President, quoted from Dick Meyer, "Holy Smoke," CBS News (September 15, 2001)


I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you.

-- Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998

Now, to be fair to Robertson, he has not yet made any statements of this kind in regard to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But given the reputation New Orleans has long had for "less than Christian" behaviors (especially as viewed by the Religious Right), I'm scared to death that I'm going to see such a comment in the near future. I'm scared that I'm going to see someone take the worst natural catastrophe in US history, and say "those sinners in New Orleans brought in upon themselves by disobeying God." This would be a horrible blight upon the reputation of Christianity. But, sadly, it would be entirely consistent with statements such as those Robertson has already made on other occasions.

Lest I be accused of sounding like I think God does not judge, let me say I don't think that at all. But it is irresponsible in the extreme to suggest that this kind of disaster is anything other than a horrible tragedy. To suggest that this disaster is God's judgment does a disservice to the thousands of innocents who have also had their lives destroyed in the past week, even if we somehow wanted to say that God had given up on the non-Christians who lived there, which is another statement I reject.

If anyone has cause to say anything about Christians during this time, let it be that we were among the first to give help where it was needed. That would be a far better testimony to the teachings of Christ than name-calling and blame-laying.

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