Monday, March 21, 2011

Why do we do what we do

I was watching the telly the other night. Either a baseball show or a Hawaii Five-O rerun; you can't go wrong either way. In the midst of the entertainment it came time for the networks to pay the bills- commercial time. Trucks? Damn you, Bob Seger, I haven't been able to listen to Like A Rock for years. "Feminine stuff"? My daughter is eight, I don't have to worry about that yet. Outback Steakhouse? Yeah, I can deal with this.

Outback Steakhouse supports the troops! Well, tell me something I don't know. Everyone "supports the troops" these days. But Outback Steakhouse is different. If you order from the Red, White and Bloomin' menu they will use the proceeds to support the troops. Nobel cause? Possibly. But wait, there's more. In the midst of the grandstanding and back-patting, five seconds of tiny type appeared at the bottom of the screen. Thank you, DVR, you give me the ability to finally read the fine print. "5% of the proceeds of food items ordered from the Red, White and Bloomin' menu between (date 1) and (date 2) will go to (some vet group)."

What the hell?

Am I the only one who sees through this empty gesture? If a family of four decides that Uncle Jackov in Afghanistan needs their help, and therefore they will order that night's dinner from the local Outback to the tune of $80, Private Jackov and his buddies see $4. And Outback will pocket $76. Noble gesture? More like a way to prey on the country's emotions to improve their profit margin.

It gets worse. Apparently some Facebook genius has decided that it would be a fine idea to start a campaign. Facebook campaigns are a dime a dozen these days, but this one has a familiar ring- wear red on Fridays to show that "we support our troops". And to facilitate the support, companies are already marketing "support the troops" red t-shirts for the occasion. For the low price of $22, you too can show the rest of your community that you care!

Two thoughts here. One, guys in red shirts have traditionally been the ones to die first. When has Star Trek steered me wrong? This campaign wasn't thought through very well. And second…


Seriously. How? I'll let you think about it for a moment.

OK, ready for the answer?

It doesn't. But it does make the shirt wearer appear to be caring, and that seems to be the whole point. We don't have to do anything to support the troops, as long as it looks like we do. If someone thinks we're supporting them, that's all that matters.

"But at least I'm doing something. It raises awareness."

No, you aren't doing anything! Don't you see? Wearing a red shirt does not comfort a soldier not sleeping in the desert in the dead of night because they're missing their girl. It doesn't mow the lawn of a military wife who busy with three children and one on the way. It doesn't give a hug to the seven-year-old child who is thinking "I don't give a flying rat's ass about your red shirt, my daddy promised to take me fishing and I've been waiting for two and a half years!"

And let's talk about awareness for a moment. Umm, awareness has been raised. I can't take three steps outside my house without hearing about how I need to thank the troops. I can't watch tv without hearing Gary Sinise tell me how Golden Corral is serving our troops… by giving them a free meal. When a soldier dies overseas and his/her funeral is held, the whole town comes out to be seen, err, "show support". I think we're aware.

Awareness. We substitute our Facebook profile picture for one of a Japanese flag. For awareness. We post the places we like to do the dance with no pants… err.. the places we "put our purse". For breast cancer awareness. We wear blue jeans every other Wednesday. For prostate cancer awareness. Oh wait… no, we don't. Prostate cancer doesn't have its own publicity firm. You guys with prostate cancer? You can just go sit in the corner and die. Just shove the one in a hundred male breast cancer victims out of the way.

If you aren't aware that there was a tragic earthquake in Japan… if you aren't aware that breast cancer claims… well, umm… "too damn many" lives… if you aren't aware that men die of prostate cancer and yes, even from breast cancer… then you just don't care. Wake up from your slumber and pay attention. You can't not be aware. There isn't anyone in this country who isn't aware.

Boy, I am one cold, uncaring bastard, aren't I?

Not even close.

I am the type of person who looks like he is always in a hurry. When I'm eating, I'm eating fast. When I walk, I'm walking fast, even if I'm not really headed anywhere. So when people are at the store taking a survey, or taking up a collection, I walk right on by. I have learned that if you don't meet their eye, more often than not they will leave you alone.

But there is always an exception to the rule.

I am one of the least patriotic people you are going to meet. I didn't fly a flag on Sept. 10, 2001, and I didn't suddenly "find religion" the next day. I felt like it would be hypocritical of me to start flying one just because everyone else was, even though I had no feelings for it. I support our troops- guys like Ehren Watada and Bradley Manning who had the stones to confront a corrupt regime absolutely deserve our support.

A gentleman had a table set up outside Giant Eagle recently and he was taking donations for the Lorain County Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. I decided to talk to the guy, and after a few minutes of conversation I put a $5 bill in his jar. He thanked me and asked if I would like one of the assortment of flags or bumper stickers he had on the table. I declined. I explained to him that I didn't want to show off patriotism (I didn't explain that I didn't have any). I said that I was glad that he made it back alive, and I could see a wistful look in his eyes as he stared away, just for a second, and then thanked me. My groceries and I proceeded on the journey home, with the little paper flower I bought from a World War II veteran several months ago still wrapped around my rear view mirror. The elderly man who sold me the paper flower, who had to point to the enclosed explanation because he couldn't talk, is probably close to death now and wondering why Johnny bought it on the muddy battlefields of Europe and he survived.

I know a couple whose lives have been irreparably altered by breast cancer. I wear a t-shirt with a pink ribbon on it because I love these people, but not only because I care about them and their daughters, but because I've thrown a couple hundred dollars their way and they gave me one. More than one, actually, but I'm a fat pig and can't fit in an XL shirt anymore. Had they not given me a shirt, would I have withheld the funds? Hell no. It was never about the shirt. It was about the cure. It was real support, not a phony "hey-look-at-me-I-have-American-flag-underwear-don't-I-care?" attention-grabbing scheme.

If my dining-room table has a short leg, I don't put a shirt on with a picture of a dining-room table prominently displayed. I put a book under it, to support it. I don't talk about it, I do it.

Think about it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Grandpa Mac

I had just gotten back from a record store. Had to pick up a CD box set I had been waiting on for a long time. Drove on out to Strongsville in the morning, so I could get back in time to have some messing around time before I headed to my second-shift job. When I got back to the house, I was informed that my grandfather had died the night before. March 13, 1996.

Grandpa Mac. He was Dr. A. Stanley MacNair to a great many people, but he was Grandpa Mac to me. Never Doctor, never Stan. He was Grandpa Mac, and I was Sean. Not hey you, not get out of here I have a doctorate and I have better things to do, never anything like that. Grandpa Mac.

Grandparents have a mythical reputation in the eyes of the grandchild. After all, who else can make your parents do what they say? Who else can make your parents feel guilty? Maybe my experience is a little more idealistic than most, but it's the only experience I know. I loved Grandpa Mac, and he loved me.

He wrote a book! When I was young, I thought that was very cool. When I got old enough to understand the book, I bought up every copy I could find, from Ebay, from Amazon, from Alibris, just so I could say "You know, the author of this book was my grandfather." Yeah, I name-dropped, and yeah, no one really cared. Except one.

He was a Baptist minister, but if you think you know what he was like just by my saying "Baptist minister", you don't know squat. Fire and brimstone was not his style. He was a man of words, but not wordy. And he never let you know how much "book learning" he had.

My father and I took a trip to visit my grandparents in California in 1993. We spent three days on a Greyhound bus, which I don't recommend. But we got to see my father's family, we got to eat great chinese food, I got to visit Alcatraz and see an honest-to-god Berkeley liberal protest, and I got to watch Grandpa Mac, my Aunt Helen, and my father engage in epic Scrabble battles. But one night, my father went to bed early due to catching pneumonia on the bus; my grandmother went to bed; all of the visitors went home; and there was only two. I sat in one recliner, and Grandpa Mac sat in "his chair". And we talked. We talked about religion, we talked about church history, and he listened to me. Dr. A. Stanley MacNair Jr., with a doctorate from UCLA and numerous pastorates under his belt, a man on the board of trustees of an Oklahoman college, listened. He certainly had more knowledge of church history than me, and had more life experience with different church bodies in order to place beliefs in some sort of context, but he cared about my beliefs and my church experiences. After an hour or so of discussion, he got up slowly from his chair, walked past me, but before disappearing down the hallway he laid a hand on my shoulder and cast a wordless glance that spoke volumes.

I had no idea that this visit would be the last time I saw Grandpa Mac in person. As we went back into the bus station, he looked at me and said "You came here a child, but you're leaving a man!" Of course I was a man, I was 27 years old. But until then the relationship between my California family and myself had always been child-grandparent (or aunt). That day in 1993 it became one adult to another.

1995 was my "hell year", one of many, but one in which I didn't give a whole lot of thought to writing letters to anyone. But my grandparents were never far from my mind. In January of 1996 I wrote my grandparents a long letter, explaining that I hated my job, I hated my lack of social life, and the results of that hatred put me in a psych ward for three days. Sorry, Grandma and Grandpa, I didn't have time for you. I knew Grandpa's health was failing, and his ability and/or desire to speak was declining; I knew Grandma treated thank-you notes at Christmas as if they were the Holy Grail; I just didn't make the time, selfish ass that I was.

In February of 1996 I received a phone call. My grandmother was on the other line, but she only held the phone to tell me that my grandfather had something to say to me. And the voice of my grandfather, my beloved Grandpa Mac, the voice that had been faltering progressively over the past several months, that voice spoke loudly and clearly.

"I'm not able to speak well these days. But I just wanted to tell you that I love you."

And a month later he was gone, dying at night, without family around to watch him slip away.

He picked some great last words for me to remember him by. "I just wanted to tell you that I love you."

But even without those words, I already knew.

Friday, March 11, 2011


On a mission start to doubt here we go
Kicking back, read these words we need to know
Living high, living good, living long
Take a minute, bust a prayer
And you're good to go

That's why we pray
ah, yeah, pray
We need to pray
Just to make it today
---MC Hammer, "Pray"

(Jesus Walks)
God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down
(Jesus Walks with me)
The only thing that that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now
(Jesus Walks)
And I don't think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs
(Jesus Walks with me)
I want to talk to God but I'm afraid because we ain't spoke in so long
---Kanye West, "Jesus Walks"

hey, jesus, it's me
i'm the one who talked to you yesterday
and i asked you please, please for a favor
but my baby's gone away, went away anyway
and i don't really think it's fair
you've got the power to make us all believe in you
and then we call you in our despair
and you don't come through...

i'm not gonna call on you any more
i'm sure you've got a million things to do
all i was trying to do was to get through to you
because when i die and i get up to your doors
i don't even know if you're gonna let me in the place
how come i gotta die to get a chance to talk to you face to face?
---Indigo Girls, "Hey Jesus"

It happens every time there is a tragedy. Earthquakes. Shootings. 9/11. The response is the same, regardless of place in society- "Our prayers are with the people of Japan." "We pray for the people of New York." A child dies in a small town, the news appears on a website, and the comments are all very similar- "I'm so sorry! I'm praying for you."

I don't. I know, I know, I'm a Christian, I shouldn't be a heartless bastard. Prayer should be the first thing I should offer.

But I just can't.

Why do we pray? In times of tragedy everyone says that they'll pray for you, but what's the point? Is God listening? If God is listening, why doesn't he answer? I've had people say to me that "sometimes God answers yes, and sometimes no, and sometimes wait", and my response to that is that it's a load of crap. If God (supposedly) answers no or wait, then he didn't answer. Ignore my son's autism for a moment. Let's say that I ask him to take the garbage out on Wednesday night, because the trash collector comes Thursday morning. He takes it out Thursday night. Did he answer my request? No, he did not. It doesn't matter that he did the job, the job needed to be done at a certain time and he didn't do it. Same with praying to God. If someone is down on their luck and prays to God for a job, a request born not out of selfishness but out of necessity, and they do what needs to be done to seek a job, and said job doesn't come for a year and a half, then God didn't answer that prayer. Or at best you can say that the evidence is inconclusive.

How about prayers for healing? Why do we have to pray over and over again for someone to be healed of cancer, for instance? What's the point? Doesn't God hear you the first time? And suppose you pray and pray, and the person dies anyway? Your prayers are wasted. Already I can hear people saying "but the person did get healed…they aren't in pain anymore…they received the ultimate healing…" blah blah blah. My answer is no, they did not get healed and God did not answer the prayer. To answer any other way is to dance around the issue. You're playing semantics. God then becomes a divine Bill Clinton who dances around the obvious meaning of a word. (See the word "is".) If I pray for someone to be healed, my intention is obvious. I want them healed in this life. Any other twist on the statement is just making excuses for God.

I have made numerous trips to Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital with my son. While there I've seen small children in wheelchairs in what seems to be a catatonic state, the same expression seemingly frozen on their faces for all eternity. They don't care about LeBron James… or maybe they do; Charlie Sheen is the last thing on their mind… or maybe not; we don't know. They don't communicate other than to stare. For some people their first response would be to offer their prayers. My first thought?


How am I supposed to pray here? First off, I shouldn't even have to pray for healing. If God can't see that this kid needs healing… it's obvious to anyone with eyes and half a brain. Do I pray for the parents to have peace of mind? Do I pray for the doctors to have wisdom? I mean, come on!

And yet throughout the Bible we are exhorted to pray. Jesus says "WHEN you pray," not IF, and then gives instructions. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Paul says "Pray without ceasing." So my struggle is this- I know that I need to pray, yet I have issues with praying for things, because there doesn't seem to be much of a point. You pray for healings, but for as many people that do get healed, more people suffer and die. Or they get healed in a year, although in the natural process of things they would have been healed anyway. You pray for people that genuinely need certain things, and they don't get them. I just don't get it.

Part of the answer came when I realized that maybe, just maybe, I needed to change my definition of what prayer is. We come to God with our shopping lists and then don't come back unless we have another list. I realized that if my children only came to me when they wanted something, and no other time, my experience as a parent would be cut short. There are times when my son just crawls up on my lap, curls up against me and watches the game with me. It doesn't matter what game, he has no sense of what constitutes "the big game" as opposed to one between two 1-10 teams; spending time with me is the experience he seeks. And it is that experience that defines the joy of being a parent for me. So should we always present God with our wants? Shouldn't we just crawl up into his lap sometimes and express our love?

A couple of years ago I went to a Catholic charismatic conference and heard a speaker named Ralph Martin. He has been a leader in Catholic renewal since the charismatic movement started in 1967, yet in the last several years he has concentrated on the spirituality of the saints. The talk I heard was on the stages of union with God according to the writings of St. Theresa of Avila, and it was fantastic. It opened my mind to the possibility that I've had it all wrong; that the goal of prayer is union with God, and the presenting of our petitions is peripheral to this central purpose.

Within the same timeframe I was introduced to the teachings of Mike Bickle. Mike has made the focus of his ministry exhorting Christians to seek the face of the Lord and pray what David prayed in Psalm 27:4- " thing I ask, this one thing I seek, that I may behold the beauty of the Lord…." He views the Song of Solomon in an allegorical format popular with the early Church fathers, teaching that the bridegroom represents Jesus and the bride represents the church, and Jesus longs to draw us to himself in a relationship of love. Prayer in this paradigm is not simply airing our requests and grievances, although intercession is certainly a part, but sitting at the feet of Jesus as Mary did while Martha busied herself with the tasks of everyday life.

And then there is Witness Lee. Witness Lee uses the phrase "the economy of God" to stress that God's central plan is to dispense himself into his chosen people, the church. Our goal above all other things is to dwell in our spirit where Christ has made his home, and from that ground all other things have their growth.

So to answer the question "has Sean given up prayer?", the answer is "no, with qualifications." I pray that I would experience and enjoy the love of God in the same way that my son and daughter enjoy my love. I pray that the stages of illumination, purgation and union would be a reality in my own spiritual life and not just a theory to be studied in a textbook. But I haven't gotten through my difficulties with intercession. I try to believe that my requests are heard; at this point I just can't. Of course, if I understood all things, faith wouldn't be necessary.

Just a few thoughts, your mileage may vary.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Who are you, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo

Every time I look at you I don't understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand?...
Don't you get me wrong
I only want to know
---"Superstar", from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar

Do you think Jesus knew what he was starting? Did he have any idea when he was dying on the cross what would happen to his legacy? When he told Simon Peter that he was going to build his church, did he have his fingers crossed behind his back, saying to himself "oh God, please don't let him screw it up?"? When Pat Robertson opens his mouth does Jesus sit up in heaven and think "oh crap, he's at it again"?

Of course he knew what would happen. He's God, right? When God created Adam and Eve he/she/it obviously knew that they would eat the fruit, otherwise he wouldn't be God. So when Jesus made his final instructions to his disciples, telling them to preach the gospel, start Christian rock bands and sing "Kumbayah" a lot, he knew that some of those future disciples would be real a**holes.

Don't you get me wrong- I only want to know.

Christ you know I love you
Did you see I waved?
---"Simon Zealotes", Jesus Christ Superstar

So let's imagine Jesus walking through the sands of time. The church starts, everything is cool, the Romans hate their guts but the believers give a collective middle finger to the Romans and meet anyway. The Romans throw them to lions and find many other ways to separate the believers from their lives, but it doesn't matter. They have a fresh vision of Jesus. Jesus is all that matters to them. Some of them even saw the man face to face. It's all about the man from Galilee.

Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels
So they'll still talk about us when we've died.
---"The Last Supper", Jesus Christ Superstar

Gospels are floating around now. Everybody and their brother put pen to paper and churn out Gospels like network TV churns out reality shows. And even if someone didn't know Jesus personally, they probably knew a friend of a friend who shared the Passover meal with an apostle's cousin, and if they say Jesus would have done something this way, he probably would have.

And so it began.

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
---Matthew 16:13-15"

And the people said, 'Let us make Jesus in our own image, after our own likeness.'" Over the course of time people began to develop interpretations of who Jesus was based on what they wanted him to be. The apostles ordained successors, and so on and so on, and Jesus smiled on the whole chain. Jesus automatically approved of everything the Church did, because after all, he started the thing. Right?

Pretty soon Martin Luther said "you know, screw this" and broke off, starting a revolution that revolved around the belief that Jesus wouldn't make us do works, it's all about grace. Jesus wouldn't approve of this hierarchy stuff…Jesus would want us to read the Bible for ourselves…Jesus wouldn't baptize infants- what do they know, anyway? And branches continued to fall from the tree.

Look at the artwork. Jesus Christ became a white man from the Middle Ages instead of the man of Middle Eastern descent that he actually was. In the 1700's and 1800's Jesus had no problems with people owning slaves because, well, that's what the people wanted so they projected it onto Jesus. Marcus Garvey said that Jesus was a black man, because he wanted him to be one. To the emerging women's movement Jesus was the first feminist. After all, Mary Magdalene was the first to see him after his resurrection, so to hell with all the tired old white guys running the show- Jesus obviously favored bra burning and reproductive freedom. To the hippies Jesus was the first hippie rebel. He stood up to the man, man! He fought the power! He had long hair and a lot of crazy ideas about love and freedom. "Not so fast," the fundamentalist movement intoned. Jesus didn't have long hair- long hair was a shame to a man. To them Jesus was a short haired Bible thumper- just like them. Jack Hyles even wrote a book entitled "Jesus Had Short Hair." Jesus was the original fightin', feudin' fundamentalist who spoke in King James English. 1611, straight from heaven baby!

There must be over fifty thousand
Screaming love and more for you.
And everyone of fifty thousand
Would do whatever you asked them to.
Keep them yelling their devotion,
But add a touch of hate at Rome.
You will rise to a greater power.
We will win ourselves a home.
You'll get the power and the glory
For ever and ever and ever

---"Simon Zealotes", Jesus Christ Superstar

Along about 1976 Jesus Christ took the form of a peanut farmer from Georgia. Oops, my bad- that was Jimmy Carter. Same initials, though. A born-again in the White House- who woulda thunk it? But he was a Democrat, so he was destined to disappoint the crowd who was quickly seeing Jesus as the first Republican. When the 1980 elections rolled around old J.C. found himself thrown out on his peanut shells. The world had a new savior- old Ronald Wilson Reagan himself, the great white hope.

In 1987 and 1988, when Bakker and Swaggart took a dive, it was no longer cool to say "Jesus Is Lord." Smacked too much of pushy televangelists and an image Christians were trying to get away from. Jesus was your buddy, your friend. He's not going to push anything on you, man! He just wants to share a Budweiser and some smokes with you, maybe shoot a round of pool or go club-hopping. He was straight-edge before Fugazi took their first breath. Jesus was a vegan- he wouldn't have eaten poor, defenseless animals! Lamb of God? Oh , umm, well….

How about the pro-life crowd? "Jesus loves the little children…" they intoned while chaining themselves to abortion mills. Some of them got the idea that it might be kind of cool to kill a few doctors- after all, Jesus did say "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force." Most of that same pro-life crowd are now pleased that we're killing a lot of Iraqis and Afghanis for Christ. After all, George Bush is a man of God, and Jesus told him to invade Iraq. Too bad Jesus didn't tell him where the weapons were.

And now 2011 is here, and the whole thing has just bogged down into a big, giant mess. The Libs have Jesus as a union man, standing for the poor and downtrodden and cool with anything you choose to do, unless you choose to vote Republican, in which case even Jesus will never forgive what you do; the Sweet Neo-cons (thank you, Mick Jagger) view Jesus as an all-American man's man, a cross between John Walton and John McCain, dishing out punishment to unfaithful Demoncrats and serving up tea (although it tastes more like Kool-Aid). And most of the people identifying themselves as Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus People, whatever label they choose in order to disassociate from those they disagree with, they have taken up sides in some unholy spiritual civil war.

Always hear me complain, and you listen in once more,
I know everything your bride's against, but I don't know what she's for,
So, don't mistake my anger for bitterness and strife,
'Cause on bended knee I'm begging you, "Please Jesus, talk to your wife."

---"The Bride Song", Dead Artist Syndrome

A few years ago a fellow blogger challenged me to say who I believed Jesus is. I had every intention of making that an essay, but then I realized that it would be pointless. Nobody really cares who Jesus was, is or shall be. They only care about the carefully crafted image they've made of Jesus.

You want a statement of belief from me? OK. Jesus is Lord. The implications of that statement are still being determined.

If God had a face what would it look like
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe

---"One of Us", Eric Bazilian (performed by Joan Osborne)