Friday, September 29, 2006

The freshman and the homecoming queen

A tale of the Anchor Bay experience

Part one: Prologue

Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime
We’ll take the best, forget the rest
And someday we’ll find these are the best of times
These are the best of times
---Styx, “The Best of Times”

I’ve always been the kind of person to do a lot of reminiscing. I tend to remember the most insignificant details about ordinary events. I also remember people- friends and enemies- and I wonder what became of the people that I knew all those years ago. Are they married? Are they in politics? Are they homeless? Are they dead?

Let’s jump in Mr. Peabody’s time machine and see what we find.

The year was 1978. My family had moved to New Baltimore, Michigan the year before, where I had started sixth grade at Dean A. Naldrett Elementary School. But it was 1978 now- a whole different animal. I wasn’t going to Naldrett anymore.

I was going to Anchor Bay Junior High.

I can remember the bus ride. Every large building we passed I was convinced was the junior high. Eventually we stopped at one and they herded us in. The adventure had just begun. Two weeks later someone egged my locker. Great. This was going to turn out to be fun.

Let’s tour the school, shall we? Over here on our right we have Mr. Wagner’s class. Mr. Wagner was the journalism teacher and his class produced the school newspaper. I had him when I was in eighth grade, where I published such articles as “the top 10 girls who look the best in shorts.” And they printed it. Seriously. Later that year someone explored the supply closet and found a book of male sex fantasies. Seriously.

On up ahead is Mr. Nebel’s class. Mr. Nebel taught Social Studies and was a rabid Notre Dame fan. He preached the gospel of Notre Dame at every opportunity. We used to kid him about missing school whenever Notre Dame lost.

Mr. Hamet and Mr. Fallucca were the Abbott and Costello of the school. They both taught social studies and they had classrooms right next to each other, so they often did joint projects with their classes. Mr. Hamet was tall, Mr. Fallucca was shorter; Mr Hamet was the straight man, and Mr. Fallucca was the jokester. But you never wanted to cross him. Mr. Fallucca could be your best friend or your worst enemy. He chaperoned a trip to Cedar Point for the eighth grade class, and when two girls were late getting to the bus at closing time, he lit into them. But all of the students liked him, and they all wanted to be in his class.

Thomas Reggio. Whoa, nelly. What can I say about Thomas Reggio? He was flamboyant, he liked disco long after disco lost the hip factor, and he liked to take groups of male students to dinner and plays at the theatre. Of all the teachers I’ve had, he’s the one that I often wonder whatever happened to.

1979 was the year that I met my best friend (at that time), Billy Bowen. Since we were the only two kids we knew that liked the rock group Kiss, we became buddies. He had one of those “cool dads” who listened to Black Sabbath. In May of 1979 we had a choice- go to see the Village People in concert or go see our heroes, the hottest band in the world, KISS!!! Well, there wasn’t much of a choice. His dad bought us two tickets for the July 13th, 1979 show at the Pontiac Silverdome, drove us there, dropped us off, and left. Two 12-year-olds alone at a rock concert. You would never see that happen today. It was a great show, but a strange time in the parking lot afterwards as Billy and I got separated. I got my first up close look at people who were drunk and high. I was terrified. But who cared? It was an awesome show.

To a real sweet and different kid. I hope you go far in life. Maybe you will make it big drawing pictures? I don’t know. Be tough and have a good time, and make the best of yourself.
Good luck,

Junior high was a new world, where you changed classes and changed into gym clothes, where a guy’s voice changed and the girls bodies did too. I was a typical teenager- I noticed these things. Man, was I a dork in junior high. (For the people that immediately said “Was?”- no comments from the peanut gallery.) I was not big on hygiene and had perpetually greasy hair, thereby earning me the nickname of “greaseball.” The guys wanted to beat me and the girls wanted to flee me.

Eighth grade was also the season of my first crush, and I certainly didn’t start out small. No sirree Bob, I went right to the top of the social ladder and fell in love with one Kim Resil. Blonde, blue eyes, with looks that could stop a clock. She was way out of my league, but I still managed to catch Wandering Eye Syndrome whenever she was around. Take a look at my eighth grade yearbook sometime. At least eight entries have some form of the phrase “good luck with Kim Resil.”

I decided that I needed a hook, an attention grabber. I wanted other people to know who I was. Well, besides the bullies Keith Meredith and Jimmy DeGrandchamp, who beat me up on a regular basis and called me gay. In junior high being called gay was the ultimate insult. What can I say? Junior high boys were/are idiots. Myself included. Anyway, in eighth grade I found my gimmick. Lots of kids doodle in class. Not many of them draw pornography. Yep, I was the dirty picture king, complete with the names of all the pretty girls. Did it get me attention? Oh yeah. Not necessarily the best kind, but attention nonetheless. Take a look at my eighth grade yearbook sometime. At least 16 entries contained the phrases “dirty mind” or “dirty pictures.”

To a nice guy who has got some weird ideas. Good luck.
Robin Tighe

As James Taylor once sang, “the secret of life is in the passage of time,” and junior high passed quickly. Soon it was time for the next step in my evolution. It was time to begin my freshman year at Anchor Bay High School.

Part two- The year of living dangerously

We don't need no education
We don’ need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.
---Pink Floyd, “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2”

Ah, 1980. A great year. George Brett made hemorrhoids a household word, almost overshadowing his quest to hit .400. Some great rock albums hit the scene in 1980- Queen’s The Game, Styx’s Paradise Theater, REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, The River by Bruce Springsteen, The Wall by Pink Floyd, and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. 1980 was my freshman year in high school. And oh, what a year it was.

Anchor Bay High School at that time was located on Sugarbush Road in New Baltimore, Michigan. It has since been relocated and rebuilt. Don’t believe the rumors- it wasn’t my fault. It was kind of advanced for its time, having numerous vocational programs such as cosmetology and computers. Yes, computers in 1980, with hard drives of 64MB and monitors which only showed one color- green. Remember 5¼ floppy disks? I’m sure those were part of the package too.

When I look at my one and only yearbook from Anchor Bay High School I can remember these people as though it were yesterday. Hey look- there’s Greta Lenhausen! Greta was a legacy at Anchor Bay. She had two sisters there, including one who had been an exchange student, and her mother taught there. She was a cheerleader, she was on student council, she did everything. Standing next to her is Robin Tighe. Robin was my second crush. Also part of the inner circle was the aforementioned Kim Resil and Beth Donovan. Beth was another crush of mine, a very beautiful girl.

As we walk down the hall we see some of the teachers. Mr. Rogers was my Social Studies teacher and a rather stout man. I got in trouble once for calling him the Pillsbury dough boy in his hearing. Next to his class was Mr. Wisdom’s class. The students gave him the nickname “Wedgehead” because, well, he had a head shaped like a wedge. I believe I got in trouble for calling him that.

The lunchroom monitor was Mrs. Ferraro. She has to be dead now because she was pretty old then. The guys at my lunch table once bet me a pile of fries that I wouldn’t go up to her and ask her if she ever thought about using an iron on her wrinkles. Fries being a choice lunchtime food, and me being a classic glutton, I took them up on that bet and asked her if she believed in using irons. She didn’t get it, and thankfully I didn’t get in trouble, but I certainly enjoyed the fries.

Jim Cole was the football coach. He supervised my study hall, and once asked me if I would like to join the football team. I often wondered if my future would have turned out different if I had taken him up on that offer.

It was a big school, although not so big that Keith Meredith and Jimmy DeGrandchamp couldn’t find me and beat me up. I needed to make my mark once again, but the dirty picture thing was passé. It was so 1979. I needed a new hook, a new gimmick. Early on in my freshman year I found it.

Even though you’ve written some “weird” things about me, you’ve been nice to me. Good luck always.

Beth Donovan

To a nice person who I’m glad has changed since- well you know. Good luck with your life.
Shelly Urban

My first suspension from school came as a result of my new gimmick. Instead of drawing dirty pictures, I would write dirty stories, once again starring the prettiest girls in school. And in order to draw their attention to what I was doing, I would drop the stories in their lockers. Yeah, that was bright. 25 years later my literary pornography would have been called sexual harassment. In the pre-Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill days it was just me being an idiot. An idiot who had his work turned over to the assistant principal.

Mr. James Gambino hated me. He gave me my first suspension… and my second one, for fighting… and my third one, for sexual harassment… and my fourth one, for fighting… and my fifth one, for sexual harassment. Suspension became a joke to me. I got three days off, I came back and got to make up the work I missed. Where was the punishment? There was none, so I played the system.

Sometimes the suspensions were ridiculous. Mrs. Becky Marries was my typing teacher. At the time I thought she was a witch. I had a conflict with a buddy one day, so I came back from lunch and typed a three letter euphemism for “backside” on his typewriter. Mrs. Marries saw it and went ballistic, throwing me out of class. I ended up in Mr. Gambino’s office, where he threw me out of school indefinitely and told me I needed professional help. I was out a week that time- my sixth suspension.

The highlight of my life was when James Gambino left Anchor Bay High School. Of course, it didn’t take me long to get to know the other assistant principal, Dr. Barbara Fowler. She meted out my seventh and eighth suspensions, but she was different than Mr. Gambino. She didn’t tell me that she hated me, for one. She tried to help me. She got me set up as the scorekeeper/manager of the freshman baseball team, where the coach, Eldon Teller, took up the task of keeping me on the straight and narrow.

I continued to go to class while controversy swirled around me. One day I was entering my French class, and coming out at the same time was a girl I knew only by picture.

It was Leslie Pesta.

Leslie Pesta was a senior, she was the homecoming queen, she was a cheerleader, she was involved in drama, and she was her class vice-president. Quite frankly, she was a knockout, the most beautiful girl in the school. Yet there she was, standing in front of me, the ninth-grade record holder for suspensions, the Greaseball.

And she said hello to me.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Leslie Pesta said hello to me? Leslie Pesta, the most popular girl in the school? It was a moment that I would remember forever.

And I have.

Part three- Epilogue: Déjà vu all over again

It’s been 25 years since I attended Anchor Bay High School. I never had a real chance to redeem myself. By the time I started straightening out (the change that Shelly Urban saw in me), my dad got the orders and we were moving to Ohio. But that’s another story altogether.

Dr. Barbara Fowler is now the Superintendent of Schools in Troy, Michigan. Greta Lenhausen is now Greta Furlong; Robin Tighe, Robin Miners; Shelly Urban, Michelle Koger. James Gambino, Thomas Reggio, Kim Resil, Beth Donovan, Jim DeGrandchamp and Keith Meredith are missing in action. But there were others, you know. Time doesn’t permit me to talk about Sheri Allard, the girl who stayed my friend throughout the turmoil; Shantel Kahele, the girl who floored me by being friendly after all that went down; and Shelly Glover, the girl that called me a sick freak at every opportunity. Whatever happened to Candida Grammatico, Louie Slater, David Thompson, Cari Nunez, Clay Cosby, Carina Quinn? Where are Cathy Mayne, Bill Rahbine, Ellen Rasmussen, Tracy Provencher, Denise Walters, and Vicki Froh? I may never know.

And what about Leslie Pesta? Where did Leslie go after graduation?

Leslie Ann Pesta is now Dr. Leslie Ann Kaye. She received her doctorate from the University of Southern California where she was a Presidential Fellow of the Leadership Institute. She completed her internship at McGill's Montreal General Hospital, and her fellowship at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital.

By all accounts she is doing much more with her life than I. She is still the queen, and I am still the freshman. But I never forgot the day that she said hello to me, and thanks to the magic that is, I recently sent her an e-mail and told her the whole story, about how I was smitten with her, and how her “hello” was the highlight of my year.

And she wrote me back.

The circle of life always comes back around.

(Feel free to visit Leslie's website at

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Happy Birthday to Boo

Monday is my daughter's birthday. She will be four years old. I expect to see a few cards coming in the mail in the next few days. I didn't expect to see a card arrive from Harvest Ridge Assembly of God church in North Ridgeville.

Perhaps an explanation is in order. My wife and I joined Harvest Ridge in April of last year. We left in September of last year, my personal shortest stay in any church. And quite frankly, if I never darken the doors of the place again that will be just fine by me. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the pastor, Kevin Crow, had decided that the Bible had numerous errors in it; a conclusion he reached in one of his seminary classes. The prof said it, he believed it and that settled it, I guess. It may have something to do with the fact that when my wife and I were having fairly serious marriage troubles he suggested to her that she leave me. He said in a sermon that men don't need love, they need respect. Instead of suggesting to me that I needed to get my spiritual act together, he said that I needed to get a job first before the church would help us.

He was probably the most immature pastor I've ever had.

But the one event that still leaves me dumbfounded every time I think of it, and which my wife and I still joke about today, is his illustration of the covenant. In the Old Testament the priests would take the offering and cut it into two pieces, and walk between the pieces. There is spreading, and there is bleeding. That was part of the ritual of entering into a covenant. Now, what happens when a man and a woman enter into a covenant? I swear, I am not making this up. In front of a Sunday morning crowd he talked about how that when a man and a woman enter the covenant of marriage there is spreading, and there is bleeding. Seriously. That's what he said. And then he justified his crassness with a comment about people being too religious to talk about those kinds of things. It wasn't long after that my wife and I resigned.

Apparently the people at Harvest Ridge are lousy at paperwork, or they genuinely don't realize that we are gone. Getting that card in the mail made me wonder whether the bureaucracy can get in the way sometimes. I've had enough experience with church to know that it does.

So in my best Jimmy Durante voice I say, "Goodnight Pastor Kevin Crow, where-e-vah you ahhh...." Thanks for the card for my daughter. Maybe I'll see you in church on Sunday.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Oh, and by the way

Have you ever given food in a canned food drive? You know, the guy comes to the door and you check around to see if you have any 5-year-old cans of lima beans or beets lying around? Let me tell you something from the perspective of someone who has been the recipient of canned food drive contributions. If you don't like it, what makes you think that a person down on his luck is going to like it any more? Hey, I was glad that people cared enough to help us, but we still have beans and white potatoes in our cupboard that are three years old. Cough up the Chunky Soup every once in a while, and by doing so you too may entertain angels unaware.

The first week of school went off without a hitch. I have to learn how to type the real way now. I am officially as slow of a typer as my wife now :)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

One foot in front of the other

I have a confession to make. The theological whizkid that you see in these pages, the voice that's full of bravado- it's a sham. A deception. A fabrication.

Behind the keyboard, behind the 39-year-0ld fat guy typing these words, is a scared little kid, a child seeking approval.

I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. I take Zoloft and Welbutrin for chronic depression, but when the panic attacks hit, the medicine doesn't help. These panic attacks generally manifest themselves with shaking and crying fits. and usually happen when I'm about to undergo a major change in things. Before I've started new jobs I've had panic attacks. There have been times when I've gotten so scared of what was going to happen the next day, so scared of not meeting the approval of supervisors and co-workers, that I just never showed up. I made up excuses to the H.R. department or the temp agency, different excuses to my family, and then lived with the knowledge that I just deceived the people I love.

I worked in a warehouse for 6 years, and was let go in 2000 in a restructuring move. I stayed unemployed for nine months before I found another job. The night before I cried myself to sleep, if you can call it sleep; it was about 2 hours worth at best. They let me go after a year. I then spent 18 months on the unemployment line, although I did have the aforementioned temp jobs offered to me.

Finally I was given a part-time job in an office, and I loved it. It was the best job I've ever had. I did so well that they promoted me after six months, to full time, and then the trouble began. I was quickly in over my head. The more I tried the more mistakes I made, and the more frantic I became. I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

The death of my grandmother sent me over the edge. I just couldn't handle life. After being back at work for two days (after my grandmother's memorial service), I decided that I just couldn't do this. I was making too many mistakes and I feared that they were going to fire me anyway, so I asked them to give me something else. Unfortunately there was nothing else to do, so I was out of a job again.

I've been out of a job since May of 2004. Two and a half years. And now I have the chance to change the course of things. I've been given a free ride to the local vocational school for the next year to study accounting. The end result will be a better job than I've ever had.

And I am scared to freaking death.

I'm not going to quit this; I have too many people holding my feet to the fire on this. And after the first couple of days I will be fine. So if you think about it, if anyone actually reads this blog for some reason other than to dig up dirt on the Hyles family, then say a prayer for me. Maybe two or three.

There are eight million stories in the naked city. Now you know mine.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

1987- The Winds of Change

1987. A young Mark McGwire set the rookie record for home runs in a season with 49. The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons for the 1987-88 NBA championship. The Washington Redskins were the NFL champions of the 1987 season. "Scarecrow" Ray Bolger was the last of the main Wizard of Oz cast to pass away. The world stock market crashed in October.

1987 was also the year that Jim Bakker and the PTL ministry came crashing down, setting events into motion that have transformed the church ever since.

The Set-up
In the years preceding 1987 televangelists had developed a reputation, mostly well deserved, for always asking for money. Preachers would claim that they were on the edge of ruin when in fact they were living lavish lifestyles, while poor and elderly followers were donating their last dimes in search of God's blessing. The top names in the "electronic church" were Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.

In March of 1987 Jim Bakker resigned as the head of the PTL ministry, giving control to Jerry Falwell. What followed was a series of charges and countercharges befitting a soap opera, not the work of the Lord. Jim Bakker had a one night affair with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn and later used ministry money to pay her off. He claimed that Jimmy Swaggart had eyes on his ministry, so he invited Jerry Falwell to take over for a short time. Swaggart denied everything. Falwell claimed that Bakker was involved in homosexuality, and he insisted that he would never be allowed to return to lead the ministry. On and on it went. In the beginning of 1988 Jimmy Swaggart was caught visiting a prostitute. He delivered his tearful "I have sinned" speech for the cameras and the whole sordid mess started all over again.

Christian Music
The contemporary Christian music scene began simply, with young people getting saved utilizing the music they knew well as a means of letting their peers know of the joy they had found. It was a means of ministry. Singers such as Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy and Honeytree, and groups like Love Song, Mustard Seed Faith and Children of the Day released albums and increased in popularity. It took a few years, but eventually it changed from a "scene" to an industry. Deals were signed, more records were produced and sold, and radio stations took notice of this burgeoning phenomenon, but even in the face of increased popularity musicians were concerned about communicating a message of faith, with lyrics based on Scripture and Jesus being mentioned boldly.

Enter 1987.

With the onset of the Bakker and Swaggart scandals Christians took great pains in distancing themselves from the mess. "Sure, we're Christians, " they would say, "but we aren't like that." CCM artists were no different. Albums such as Amy Grant's Lead Me On, Russ Taff's self-titled album, and Michael W. Smith's I (2) eye were less triumphalistic and more introspective and questioning. Which was a good thing. What followed in the next several years, however, was a complete change in the way the CCM musician viewed their "mission", if you could even use that word. For some artists it became just another job. "You can't develop theology from a three-minute pop song," magazine editorials would declare, all the while examining the theology of singers like Carman with excruciating detail.

"Christian music is propaganda, not art," bands started to exclaim. "We just want to create our art without the expectations that Christians have for us." And granted, some good art was created. The whole idea that Christian music wasn't as good, that it was 10 years behind the times, was exposed as complete and utter crap. Bands signed deals with mainstream record companies because they had the talent. Of course, they simply exchanged one set of expectations for another. Instead of being expected to talk about Jesus they were expected not to.

In shying away from "Christian propaganda" they associated themselves with groups and tours which promoted certain political causes. I guess propaganda is in the eyes of the beholder. "Nobody goes to a concert to get preached at," some would say. (Tell that to Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine fans.) Finally the whole "Christian band" vs "Christians in a band" argument exploded, and those people who wanted to be known as musicians first and Christians second became as self-righteous about it as the people they railed against. They didn't want to play Christian gigs but always played Cornerstone; they cried about the "Christian music ghetto" but always kept that channel of distribution open in order to keep their options alive if their mainstream career fell through.

1987- the year the music died.

TV ministries
TV ministries obviously changed during this time. Even if the Bakker and Swaggart events hadn't happened, Oral Roberts plea for money "or God will call me home" ploy would have changed things because of the amount of negative publicity it generated. It wasn't long before mostl of the veterans dropped off the map. Jerry Falwell doesn't have a national show anymore. Rex Humbard retired. Oral Roberts gave things over to his son Richard. Jimmy Swaggart still has a TV show but nowhere near the distribution he used to have. His travelling crusade days are a thing of the past. Pat Robertson is still on the air but devotes himself to politics as much as ministry, and to amassing a personal fortune above all that.

A new breed of TV minister has emerged. Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland simply teach, with a low-key money plea at the end of the show. Rod Parsley has carried on the Swaggart hard-preaching tradition. Begging TV Evangelist jokes are passe; they just don't apply anymore.

1987- the year the TV preacher died.

The Church
If you look at church growth statistics from the 1980's and compare them to today you will notice some striking trends. In 1983 the top ten churches in terms of attendance contained six Baptist churches, five of the independent fundamentalist variety, with one of those being on top (First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana). One charismatic church, one Calvary Chapel, and two independents. The total attendance of the top ten churches equaled 99,432.

Flash forward to 2006. The total attendance at the top ten churches has almost doubled, to 198,257, but the makeup of the top ten has changed dramatically. None of the six Baptist churches in 1983's top 10 are listed in the top ten for 2006; there are only two Baptist churches, neither of which could be considered fundamentalist. We have two Calvary Chapels now, and six which could be considered independent. The church at number one, Lakewood Church, which was Pentecostal in 1983, could best be described as having a "motivational speaker meets pep rally" style now. The next two, Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Church, are of the "seeker sensitive" variety. African-Americans are prominent in the 2006 list, with three of the top ten.

The paradigm for viewing church has definitely changed. It isn't all about preaching, bus ministry and door to door soul winning anymore; it's all about motivational messages and getting your needs met now. Mention holiness and you are accused of being a legalist; mention our responsibilities, what we need to do, and you are said to lack a true understanding of grace. The end result is that quite a few Christians, more than some and less than most, just do whatever they want to do just because they want to do it. If I like goth music then by golly the church better start playing it. If I don't want to go to church then I shroud myself with a super-spiritual reason why church really isn't necessary to be a Christian. The Christian church is part of a subculture, a separatist, ghetto mentality, we're told; what is needed is to take it to the streets, to be all things to all men. What has actually happened is that people have merely traded one subculture for another. Some of them are neutral, but some of them are definitely bad; would anyone care to defend the Christian Boylove Forum? (I'm not linking to it; look it up on Google- it exists.) We have a generation of self-centered Christians. I don't believe that these changes are a coincidence; I definitely believe that the Bakker/Swaggart events set into motion a change in attitude that is still being felt today.

1987- a catalyst for change.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why ask why?

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible -- and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence -- a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?
---Pope Benedict XVI, upon his visit to Auschwitz

Why do the babies starve
When there's enough food to feed the world?
Why when there're so many of us
Are there people still alone ?
Why are the missiles called peace keepers
When they're aimed to kill?
Why is a woman still not safe
When she's in her home?
---Tracy Chapman, "Why"

I wrote an interesting blog post last year after Hurricane Katrina hit, entitled "What Would Jesus Flood?" In this post I dared to ask the question "Why?" in the face of the unexplainable.

If you believe that what we need to do now is pray for those flooded out of their homes, I have one word for ya- why? God doesn't know already that whole cities are washed away and under water? Couldn't he have kept this from happening?... At times like this the best answer may be no answer at all. It is likely better to just hang our head and say "I don't know" than to try and jam a response into our predetermined theological structure.

It's a legitimate question, to ask why. It isn't a childish response at all. If by asking why we are admitting that we don't know the answer to a question, then we are at the beginning of faith which is "the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1). The Psalmist asked "why?" and put his trust in God.

The responses to this post ranged from constructive criticism to theological arrogance. Triablogue had this to say:

Now, one can make allowance for dumb, intemperate comments from those who are actually suffering. What one cannot excuse are those who use tragedy as a pretext to take cheap theological shots.Those who wait until disaster strikes to discover the problem of evil merit our contempt. Those whose theology is so paper-thin that it cannot cope with the problem of evil merit our contempt.

And those whose arrogant theology attempts to answer unanswerable questions merit our contempt as well. "Cheap theological shots." A man who doesn't even know me all of a sudden knows my motivation for asking God why something happened.

I have no problems with people who believe. I'm a believer myself. My problem is with the people who have it all figured out, be it fundamental Baptists, Catholic apologists, right-wing conservatives, left-wing liberals, or bloggers. Good God, bloggers seem to be the worst at it. Give a guy a keyboard and a blog and suddenly he's Aquinas, Barth and Carl F.H. Henry all rolled into one, with a dash of Jon Stewart and Jesus Christ.

Triablogue seemed to think that if the people were suffering down there, it was their own fault for living in an area where a flood was destined to happen. They should just pick up and head for higher ground. Once again, a simplistic response to a complex issue. Some people can't just pick up and leave when they want to. Maybe they can't afford it, maybe they are infirm, maybe they have a family member who is. It's pretty easy to stand on the outside and tell people what they should think and do. A whole lot harder when you're actually going through something.

Do Baptists have sex with their clothes on?

My wife attended a wedding recently. I got out of going by the fact that we were told that no kids were invited, although the bride's family was apparently an exception to that rule. Her father is the pastor of the church. Anyway, being a man who is prone to uttering inappropriate comments, every 20 minutes after my wife came home I wondered aloud, "Hmm... I wonder what she and her husband are doing now?", knowing very well what they were likely doing, but wanting to embarrass my wife just the same.

I began to ponder the issue. No, nothing lewd. I just wondered how a woman and a man who have been brought up believing that sex is off limits, having abstinence instilled in them from the very beginning- how do they go about suddenly flipping the switch? Now they're allowed to see each other naked? Now they're allowed to grope and moan? Sex is just not talked about in fundamental Baptist circles. They obviously have it- the plethora of kids running around at the end of every service testifies to that- but do they enjoy it or just tolerate it?

Stay with me here- there's a point to be made. I spent several years as part of a couple of fundamental Baptist churches, and the point was hammered home every other Sunday- we do not live by our experience, we live by the Word of God. Quite often people who enjoyed certain experiences were talked about as if possessed by Lucifer himself. No guitars or drums- can't have that sensual beat enticing our senses. So how do they turn the page when the tie comes off and the bodies go horizontal? Do they know that they're allowed to like it, that it's a good thing?

Experience is woven into the fabric of life. Roses have color and scent. Anchovies have taste. (Oh, do they!) And sex is not merely functional. If it was merely for procreation, then a man could just fill some test tubes and keep them in the freezer. Procreation is obviously a function of sex. But oh, is it so much more. The experience is the key. When you don't have the experience you consider yourself to have failed at it. Men who don't have orgasms take drugs. Women who don't have orgasms read magazines, get therapy and talk to their girlfriends about their dissatisfaction. The orgasm is part of the package, thereby proving that God approves of pleasurable experiences- He created them.

Do Baptists have sex with their clothes on? I wonder. Maybe some Baptists out there can enlighten me.

Jesus...was behind 9/11

Hmm. Interesting title. Makes you think, does it not?

I've spent most of my adult life with a conservative mindset. Don't have it anymore; gave it up for Lent. Now I'm a left-leaning moderate. But as a card-carrying member of the red states, it was part of my creed to disregard anything printed in the media as coming from "the biased liberals." Yep, the liberals were behind every criticism of Presidents Reagan and Bushes Sr. and Jr., they sabotaged Pat Robertson's presidential aspirations, they defend child pornographers, blah, blah, blah. There was always an enemy, always someone or something that we didn't have to engage, didn't have to have a conversation with; the label made the man.

It's easy to hate a label or a concept; it's much harder to hate a woman or a man.

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing
Or my life will be over
---Dixie Chicks, "Not Ready To Make Nice"

A watershed moment for me came in 1997 when I started attending a fundamentalist Baptist church. Up until that time I had a concept of fundamentalists, an image; they spoke in a drawl, were narrow-minded, no fun, maybe even had sex with their clothes on :)

Then I actually met one. And another. And another.

What I discovered is that even though they had pretty rigid beliefs, they also had stories that made them unique individuals. One couple lost two babies to miscarriage and then had at least 8 children by adoption or the old-fashioned method. (Maybe I should ask them about the clothes.) There were kids who excelled in sports, there were parents who liked movies; in many ways my stereotypes began to be shattered. My next pastor had a daughter who died at the age of four after being born with Down's Syndrome and many health problems. This experience led him to get involved in the lives of special-needs children and adults. That's something most "fundies" don't bother with. Or so I thought.

Back to the liberals. I had a shift in political ideology when the Iraq War started. I became disgusted with the glee that Christians, most of whom were conservative, took in seeing Iraqis die. I'm not a dove; war is sometimes necessary, but it should be entered into soberly, not joyfully. So I started reading liberal books, listening to liberal commentators, seeing liberal movies (read: Fahrenheit 9/11). And what I discovered was that liberals were not the personification of the devil himself.

I'm trying to find middle ground now. I actively supported Howard Dean and then John Kerry in 2004, but if John McCain runs? I would think long and hard about that decision. It's important to me to see both sides now and weigh things out. Conservatives are not the personification of the devil himself either (although Ann Coulter sure makes a run at it).

So what's with the title? Do I really think Jesus Christ the Lord sent two planes into the World Trade Center towers? Notice the ellipsis, a journalists best friend. With those three dots a man or a woman can make someone say anything. Everyone has a bias, liberal or conservative. Everyone has a slant. News stations which boast of being fair and balanced are usually neither.

"Jesus...was behind 9/11." The quote could have actually read "Jesus, what kind of sick freak was behind 9/11?". Or "Jesus will send to hell the man who was behind 9/11". Maybe even "Jesus Alou was behind 9/11". Or the quote could have been exactly as it looks like. My point is that knee-jerk reactions usually end with you banging your knee on the bottom of the desk. Knee-jerk reactions are painful, whether your favorite part of the turkey is the right or the left wing. Further investigation should always be pursued in order to arrive at the truth.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Verse of the day

I swear, I just opened my Bible this morning at random and got this:

The Lord is King forever and ever;
Nations have perished from His land.
O Lord, Thou hast heard the desire of the humble;
Thou wilt strengthen their heart, Thou wilt incline Thine ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed
That man who is of the earth may cause terror no more.
---Psalm 10:16-18

Guest blogger

Since I don't do well with nationalistic-themed days such as Sept. 11th, and since plenty of other people will be memorializing the dead and declaring the righteousness of the cause, I'm turning the blog over to my grandfather, Stanley MacNair. This was written prior to the election of 1980, by a man who had been a minister for 40 years up to that point. He passed away in 1996 and not many days go by when I don't think of him.

I love you, Grandpa.

Oct. 15. 1980: Politicians on God's Side

More than in any other election in living memory, this year's campaign is tinged with religion. In the guise of "being on God's side" various Christian leaders-- principally ones with national TV exposure -- seem to be enlisting God on their side. That's a disturbing turn of events.

My disturbance is not because I think religion and politics don't mix. The whole story of Hebrew prophecy contradicts that notion. From Amos onward, the prophets tackled the regimes of their time, raising the basic issues of justice and humanity.

What disturbs me about the present situation is that these Christian brethren select a handful of issues, mostly having to do with personal conduct and morality. These issues are described as if they were very simple (when in fact they are complex and many-faceted). They are set forth in starkest and most extreme terms. They are attacked in Biblical terms as unforgivable violations of God's laws (although Biblical texts can be assembled on almost every side of almost every issue). And, perhaps most damaging of all, to disagree with these people on the uses is to be at odds with God.

Now any official "line" has always been offensive to Baptists. Our tradition is of openness to the leading of the Spirit. To accept the interpretation of some others as a test of fel1owship, or orthodoxy, or our honoring of God, simply will not do. Reducing admittedly difficult questions and problems of our time to simple, right and wrong options may relieve us of hard and painful thought, but it is an attitude far removed from truth-seeking which acknowledges that equally committed, dedicated and knowledgeable Chr1stians often do come to different conclusions.

Beware the report cards or rating systems by which candidates are judged, systems which usually leave unexamined the most pressing and vital questions of public policy. Indeed upon such questions these preacher-politicians seem to be on the side of the powers!

Plenty of political dynamism is to be found in the Bible. "What does the Lord require,” asks Micah, "but that you do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.” “Love God with your whole being, and your neighbor as yourself," Jesus directs us. In her exultant song about the mission of her yet-to-be-born son, Mary cried "he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted them of low degree."

And Jesus again quotes Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue: "( God) has anointed me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed."

Working out the political implications of that is a gigantic and necessary task, part of our true Christian mission to the world. When we go to the polls, as all of us eligibles will, let's do our own thinking and vote our spirit-illuminated convictions.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Coming to grips

When a person grows up, assuming they didn't have a dysfunctional childhood or something, they look at their parents in a variety of ways. As a toddler they are superheroes; as a teen they are fools; and upon they become parents themselves, all of a sudden Ma and Pa knew a lot more than they were letting on. At no point do you want to admit that someday the ride will end, the park will close, the weeds will grow tall in the garden because there will be no one home. We all are born and we all die... except Mom and Dad, of course. They're invincible.

This past summer it was discovered that my father needed quadruple bypass surgery. My first thought? Merde Sainte. Or as the Germans might put it- heilige Scheiße. My second thought was fix up the bed, put a blanket on the floor, put some sheets on the barcalounger- I'm coming to Michigan, gas prices be damned.

Later in the week, and especially the night before the operation, I had plenty of time to reflect. If you asked me how I thought things would go I would have said fine. Why should I have thought that anything could go wrong? Why should have even imagined the possibility that he could die? The reason I didn't imagine it is that I just couldn't. This was something that was totally beyond my ability to think of. I felt like I should be prepared for that possibility, I certainly knew it could happen, but my mind completely shut that avenue off. It's a difficult thing to face your own parent's mortality.

We spent the entire day in the waiting room, sleeping, doing Sudoku puzzles, eating horribly overpriced tiny pieces of fish in the cafeteria, and ruminating. I wasn't the only one who was making solemn vows to eat better, avoid the snacks, exercise, and lose weight. Two weeks later I decide that one Mountain Dew in the morning to wake myself up can't be that bad; three weeks later I'm sampling a brand new flavor of barbecue chip; a week after that I weigh myself and realize that I haven't lost one freaking pound. What's that saying- there are no atheists in foxholes? Well there are no fatty food eaters in cardiac unit waiting rooms, I guess.

The good news is that he came through the operation with flying colors. The bad news is... well, what bad news? Is it bad news that he has to avoid the traditional full slab rib meals now? Is it bad news that the local Chinese restaurants have lost their best customer? Maybe to them; not to us. I could give a flying rat's ass if he ever plunks down $400 at the local Japanese steakhouse again. I'd much rather he save the $400 in order that we can sit around and crack bad puns until we're redfaced.

I've seen my parents future, and it shakes out like this. My dad will live to be 95. Upon passing to the Number One Kitchen in the sky, the local sub shop will name a sandwich in his honor- the Rich MacNair; five pounds of chip-chopped ham, with colored toothpicks to hold the meat in (they're cute, but not very functional), a bowl of tapioca with pearl barley, and a side of grape juice in a little tiny cup. The Chinese restaurants will install the Rich MacNair memorial buffet line, composed of ribs and crablegs.

My mother will live to be 113. Her final moment will come when she's out driving and gets cut off, and gets mad for the very first time in her long life; she flips the guy the bird and says "Hey, cut this off!" When she finally passes from the scene they will find 122 cats in her house. The Humane Society will dedicate the neutering table to her.

But until that time comes, no more surgery! There is no health condition that a quart of fried rice can't cure :)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Cats in the cradle

I spent my Labor Day in the traditional manner- I went to the grocery store to buy food and school supplies. There was a day when all you needed to buy your kids was a notebook and a pack of pencils; now they send home a shopping list. One kid needs unpopped popcorn and food coloring; the other needs his favorite snack, plates, plastic cups and napkins. And we still have to pay school fees for the older child. I went to Giant Eagle because they are giving me discount gas when I spend money at their store, and there isn’t anything I like better than someone who gives me gas.

There aren’t many rites of passage for men in our society, not many things that get passed down through the generations like quilts or grandma’s recipes, but for many years my father showed me by example that grocery shopping is a manly art. It’s a science. The grocery cart is not a mere food receptacle but a math equation, a living story problem. Your task is to fit all of your groceries into one cart. Doesn’t matter how many people you are shopping for. You need to think of grocery shopping as Edible Tetris, with your items as blocks that can be turned and manipulated to fit into every available nook and cranny. Even that little space underneath the child seat/bread and eggs shelf can be used for something. Emptiness is not an option.

The first thing I noticed was that for some of the women in the store it could quite literally have been Labor Day. There were an unusual number of pregnant women traipsing the aisles. One woman wore a shirt that barely covered her abdomen, so when she reached up to the top shelf, you got an eyeful of pregnant belly. When she squatted down, same thing. We followed each other around half the aisles, so every time I turned the corner, it was there. It was like a car accident- you dare not watch, but you cannot turn away.

I ran into an old friend there, an old Sunday School teacher named Larry Coleman. We generally run into each other every few months in the post office, but since today was a holiday and the stores were closed…. He regaled me with the story about how family came over and his dog got sick and he had to go shopping today. He went his way and I went mine, with visions of vomiting dogs prancing through my head.

I watched several people trying to manage two carts at once, and I had to smile inside. I could hear my father’s voice echoing throughout the corridors of time- “If I can fit two weeks worth of groceries for a family of six in one cart….” Enough said, father. I bow before your wisdom.

Let’s see. Wings? Well, I really shouldn’t, but my daughter will actually eat them, so… what the heck. In go two bags of wings. Swanson entrees were 10 for $10, so we’ll be eating Mexican food and salisbury steaks this week. TV dinners are great because they stack very nicely in the cart, and you can even turn them sideways. Kool-Aid you have to be careful with, but if you find a box that the Kool-Aid is displayed in, put it in there first. Bags of Lipton rice mixes can be a hassle, but I discovered that you can put them on the top shelf on either side of the eggs or bread, and they are just fat enough that they won’t slip out the sides.

My father taught me one philosophy- maximize the space. I have another one that is unique to myself- you get one pass through the store. When you hit the last aisle, you don’t go back because you forgot something. In and out. Otherwise you could be there all day. I have found most of the things on the school list, but the shaving cream aisle hasn’t appeared. Then I see it from across the room. Cool. But there is one problem-

The quickest way to get to the shaving cream is to pass through THE AISLE.

Guys, you know what I’m talking about. It is The Aisle That Dare Not Speak Its Name. It is The Aisle that men throughout history have let their wives cross through as they went over to dog food and tried to forget what they had just seen. Roosevelt once said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself- and The Aisle. Kennedy proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country; but ask your wife to go down The Aisle.”

I faced with a dilemma. Women, childbirth may be painful, but this runs a close second. But I had barbecued chips waiting for me at home. So I took a deep breath, walked quickly and thought of England. There. I was at the shaving cream shelf. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Why yes. Yes it was.

Two cans of shaving cream and one jug of milk later, I’m heading for the checkout lanes. Giant Eagle has about 20 of them, but half are self-serve, and when I have a full cart I don’t like to go that route. I want someone to do the work for me. As I waited I looked down, and what I saw was deeply disturbing to me. It filled me with a sense of shame. I felt as though I had let my father down. I saw… empty space. That little spot underneath the child seat had nothing filling it. I envisioned the scene:

FATHER: Son, you are in violation of grocery shopping code 3.02, section 5.03, paragraph A. I must ask you to turn in your Giant Eagle Advantage Card.

ME (with head bowed): Yes, Daddy.

FATHER: Your mother and I had high hopes for you, son….

I made it home and filled the shelves. My children love me, but when they see me with bags in my hand they only think of one thing- “What did Daddy bring me?” I looked down and noticed something that brought a tear to my eye. My autistic son was rearranging his Uno cards so they all faced the same way.

My boy was just like me.

My dad went shopping just the other day,
He entered the store in the usual way
But he had a list, and a cart that squeaks
He had to buy groceries for two long weeks
And as I watched him load the freezer with food that was new
I’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

And the eggs in the carton have a little crack,
Lifting bags of charcoal really kills my back,
To the deli I go walking ‘cause my kids need meat
“Popsicles are for desert, son
You know you gotta eat roast beef.”

My son played Uno just the other day
The yellows and the reds had to face the same way
He has many skills that let him organize
His dominos and Cheerios are all one size
And as I watched him and his sister it occurred to me
My kids were just like me
They’re growing up just like me

And the pregnant woman’s reaching for the charcoal bag
The little boy is trying to hide the swimsuit mag
The mother and the father keep the kids at bay
When you go shopping on Labor Day
I went shopping on Labor Day

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The game of Life

“The taking of an innocent human life is a crime against humanity.”

Who might have possibly made that statement?
A) George W. Bush
B) John Kerry
C) Pat Robertson
D) Jesse Jackson

The answer will appear at the end of this essay.

“Choose life that you may live.” “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” The Bible is saturated with references to life in some form or another. But words can be funny things. What they mean to one person may not be the same meaning that another chooses.

The pro-life movement is almost completely Republican and conservative, and almost completely devoted to one issue- that of abortion. Let me get my position on abortion out in the open right off the bat. I’m opposed to it. Life is full of choices, some bad, some good; some I would make but you might not, and vice-versa. But abortion is a choice that I don’t believe people should have the right to make.

Pro-choice advocates are ready to string me up at this very moment. “How dare you deny a woman the right to choose!” Reproductive freedom is the buzzword, “keep your laws out of my uterus” is the slogan, “a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body” is the mantra. Well I have news for you, Molly Yard and Patricia Ireland- most laws out there have something to do with the freedom or lack of freedom to do what you want with your body. It isn’t good enough to say “my body- my choice.” It’s my body, but I’m not permitted to shoot cocaine into it. I can expose it to use the restroom, but not in front of a child in the middle of a park.

“Well, no (spit), Sherlock- laws are established to protect innocent children against perverts and predators.” As well they should be. But think about what you just said. Laws are in place to protect innocent children. But the very law you defend with your life is the same one that permits 4,000 children a day to go to their graves. When a woman is pregnant it isn’t just her body. It isn’t.

Quite a few Democrats are pro-choice advocates. They are also anti-war, for the most part. Hmm… let’s unpack that for a moment. How does a person oppose measures that take innocent life in Iraq but support measures that take innocent life in the United States? How do you stand up for a criminal about to be put to death, but when a baby is put to death you open wide the door?

My Republican friends are licking their chops now, waiting for me to launch another verbal Scud at the Democratic countryside. Not so fast. It’s your turn now.

Quite a few Republicans are pro-life. They picket abortion clinics, they chain themselves to their doors, the Justice House of Prayer geeks even stand in front of government buildings with orange tape over their mouths that reads “LIFE.” (They do it as a “prophetic declaration”, not to get publicity. Umm, yeah, sure.) Very admirable stances to make. But if these conservative Republicans and conservative Christians and conservative LIFE-tape geeks are that pro-life, why are many of them staunchly in favor of the war in Iraq? Have you seen pictures of Iraqi children with their arms blown off? Aren’t their lives precious to God? Have you seen Baghdad women wailing in the middle of the street? Don’t they love their children too?

When the war in Afghanistan started I remember my pastor at the time praying that the bombs would drop on the right targets. Wha…? Are you kidding? Later, when Sadaam Hussein’s sons were being actively sought, dead or alive, a friend of mine prayed that they would be found dead. Hmm. What would Jesus do?

I am not anti-war. I am anti THIS war, but not war in general. There are times in the life of a nation when it must defend itself, but the decision to enter into war should be made soberly, not joyfully. People should NEVER be happy that someone on the other side in a conflict left the battlefield sans their life.

Back to the question I started out with. The answer is… well, it’s a trick question. All four of them could have made the statement. I’m not here to say that one of them is right and the rest are wrong. What I’m saying is that the issues are slightly more complex than the pundits and spin doctors would have you believe. People across the “life” spectrum need to look long and hard at the positions they take, the hills they defend, and decide whether they are taking a consistent position on this most important of issues, human life.