January 17th, 2023

Definition of Christendom: “the part of the world in which Christianity prevails.”

Our deacon gave a homily (the Catholic word for sermon) at Mass a couple weeks ago. He talked about the need for evangelization. Evangelization is an essential part of Christianity. The deacon mentioned the “Great Commission” of Jesus to his followers from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19/20

The mission seems pretty clear cut. However, over the last two millennia, there has been a variety of opinions about how to make disciples. Sometimes, coercion has been used to evangelize non-Christians (e.g., the forced conversion and expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492). Often, preaching and persuasive arguments were used to convert others. Once in a while, Christians simply evangelized by setting a good example. St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.”

During his homily, the deacon mentioned that “Christendom no longer exists”. That seemed like an odd statement to me. It also seemed like he was pointing out the obvious. Christendom is a medieval word, and it sounds archaic to people of our times. He meant “Christendom” in the sense of a culture or society based on Christian values that are universally held. Europe before the Reformation might have qualified as Christendom, but that was a long time ago. Certainly now, in the United States, there is no such thing. Some people here still argue that America is a Christian nation, but the evidence points to the contrary.

The deacon spoke about Christendom in order to differentiate between two styles of evangelism: Christendom evangelism and apostolic evangelism. Christendom evangelism is what has traditionally been used to proselytize to the members of a society that is at least superficially Christian. Apostolic evangelism is the method used to convert members of a society that is pagan or secular. St. Paul is the classic example of an apostolic evangelist. He preached in ancient Rome, and he would feel right at home in 21st Century America.

Okay, so the deacon wants to attract more people to the Catholic Church. The pews are rather empty. He especially wants to young people to be part of the community. Most of the folks in church are old. That does not bode well for the future.

How to attract new people to Christianity, or bring back folks who have left the Church?

One method of evangelizing used by many Protestants, in particular the Evangelicals, is to depend on the Bible to attract and persuade nonbelievers. That technique works just swell in a Christendom environment where everyone has at least a passing knowledge of Holy Scripture. We don’t live in that world. Large numbers of people in America are biblically illiterate, and they have no appreciation for the Bible. They don’t think that the Bible is sacred, and they don’t even think it is relevant in modern society. To them the Bible is just another book, and not necessarily a very well-written one. The only people that will be persuaded by the contents of the Bible are those who already believe in the Bible.

Being Americans, we would probably use the methods of the corporate world to push Christianity. Maybe start a slick marketing campaign or make the liturgy more up to date. We would sell Jesus like we were selling an iPhone or a refrigerator. After all, religion in our country, especially with the advent of the Internet, is part of the free market. There are a lot of different spiritual traditions to choose from. Christianity is just another brand name.

“See how these Christians love one another”. – Tertullian, 2nd Century Roman

Tertullian, a Christian apologist in ancient Rome, struck upon the real reason that Christianity was attractive in his culture. It all boiled down to love. The pagans saw that Christians loved and cared for each other, and they longed to have that kind of community too. The early Christians did not need to sell Jesus to others. They embodied Jesus and his message. Love came first, theology second.

How does Christianity look in our culture? Do outsiders see how we love one another?


As a Catholic, I sometimes don’t see or feel the love. During my lifetime, I have often experienced more compassion and concern from Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists than I have from my fellow coreligionists. I have never seen any qualitative difference between the morality of Christians and that of non-believers. Love is the litmus test. If Christians are just like everyone else, then why would anybody want to convert?

Evangelism is not about talking about Jesus. It is about showing Jesus to others, being Jesus to others.

That is what matters.

Story Time

January 25th, 2023

Story time at the library doesn’t seem much different than it was thirty years ago when our kids were little. Granted, the technology is updated. The storyteller now uses a laptop computer to put images and words on a screen. However, the toddlers are the same as they were in the previous generation. Some of them sit and listen to the stories, while some of them have nervous energy that keeps them constantly in motion. Some of kids sing along with Miss Amanda. Some cling to their mothers for dear life. Our little grandson, Asher, mostly observes the scene from a distance. He stands quietly with his hands behind his back, taking it all in.

I can remember when our children were in the Waldorf School kindergarten. Their teacher, Mrs. Rose, had a story time for the kids each day. Things were different with Mrs. Rose. She had a way of soothing the children and getting them to settle down. She had a ritual for that. She would softly sing a song to them, and she would light a candle. By the time she was ready to tell her story, the little ones were silent and still with anticipation. It was a wonder to behold.

The Waldorf School was built on stories. Everything in the curriculum (reading, writing, art, playacting, math) was somehow based on a story. Every grade had a theme to it. For instance, third grade was all about stories from the Old Testament. The biblical narratives were not taught at a form of catechesis, but rather as myths that matched closely to the development of the child.

Let me make a comment about myths. One definition of a myth is: “Something that never happened but is true nonetheless.” A myth may or may not have a basis in historical fact. That is not really of any importance. A myth is a story that touches the deepest part of the human experience. The famous scholar, Joseph Campbell, researched myths for almost his entire life. He found that there were certain fundamental stories that were told in every culture throughout history. These stories are universal and timeless. They are part of the collective human DNA.

Campbell distinguished the difference between fairy tales and myths. He said,

“A fairy tale is the child’s myth. There are proper myths for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need a sturdier mythology.”

Campbell was convinced that people need myths to make sense of an apparently irrational world. The myths help each of us to find his or her path through life.

When our youngest son, Stefan, was in fourth grade, his class studied the Norse myths. As part of their education, they performed a play based on the story of “The Fettering of Fenris”. In Norse mythology Fenris (or Fenrir) was a fierce wolf who was always hungry. The more Fenris ate, the more he grew and the hungrier he became. Eventually, he threatened to devour the entire world. The gods needed to stop him before he destroyed all things. The gods tried twice to restrain the beast. The rest if the story goes like this:

“Being a wolf of remarkable size and strength that he was, both attempts to restrain Fenrir/Fenris were unsuccessful. Despite the high-quality materials that they were made of, the two chains (called Leyding and Dormi, respectively) proved to be good for nothing when it came to holding back Fenris. Each time he broke the chains far more easily than the gods had imagined him to.

Gods ordered dwarves to forge a chain that would be able to keep Fenrir captive. The dwarves’ work was a bit unexpected; a thin and soft ribbon named Gleipnir. However, it was not an ordinary ribbon but a magical one made out of various ingredients.  

Gleipnir is believed to be enchanted as it consisted of six unusual elements. These were:

  • the roots of a mountain
  • the beard of a woman
  • the sinews of a bear
  • the breath of fish
  • the sound of a cat’s footsteps
  • the spittle of a bird

When the chain was brought in front of Fenrir, he grew suspicious and refused to be tethered with it unless one of the gods or goddesses would stick their hand in his mouth as a gesture of good faith. 

Since the higher entities knew that they would get their hand ripped off by complying with Fenrir’s condition, they were hesitant to agree. None of the gods were brave enough to do that, except Tyr, the god of war, the only one that had to courage to feed the giant wolf when he was caged.

Fenrir tried to break free from Gleipnir but the magical ribbon was very strong, and the giant wolf could not manage to escape. As his revenge Fenrir bit and ripped off Tyr’s arm. 

Gods chained Fenrir to a rock named Gioll one mile beneath the surface of the earth.” – excerpt taken from the website:

The members of Stefan’s class performed the story of Fenris on stage. Stefan played the role of Fenris. He was the perfect choice for that. Stefan was surprisingly ferocious and spoke his lines with a wicked grin on his face. It was a bit unnerving to watch him. The other child actors were also quite good. They all got into their roles.

What was the point of performing this play? The Norse tale is a myth in that it is relevant to our own time. Fenris is a symbol of insatiable greed. Think of the unbridled consumerism in our culture. Think about how we humans are devouring the goods of the earth without giving a thought to the future. Fenris roams among us, and howls for more of everything. Tyr is a model for courage and self-sacrifice. In the story his is willing to give up his arm in order to save others. The story contains themes that have been important, and they always will be.

Our children need a story time. We all do.


January 20th, 2023

Definition of a mercenary: “professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army”.

I have been reading articles about the Wagner Group, the semi-private army that fights for Putin in Ukraine. The news media make the members of this organization sound rather brutal and money hungry. I suppose they are. Apparently, the Wagner Group is searching for prospective mercenaries in the Russian prisons. That indicates that this organization isn’t very fussy about who it gets. I guess a felony rap doesn’t disqualify a new recruit. It might even be a requirement to join up.

I was in the U.S. Army, as was my eldest son. We were soldiers, but not mercenaries. We both had economic reasons for joining, but those were not the only reasons why we entered the military service. I never met anyone who joined the military to get rich. I’ve met people who enlisted to escape poverty, but nobody signs up expecting to make a bunch of money.

All this has made me think about a friend of mine who worked with me years ago at a trucking company. I was a supervisor there. Scott was a senior over-the-road driver. Scott was a Marine and proud it. We had several Marines working as drivers at our facility, and they had this unique camaraderie. Scott was of Vietnam vintage, but I don’t know if he ever fought over there. When I knew him, he was heavy set and going grey. He had a home and a family. As a senior driver, he was making really good money.

After George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Scott decided to quit his job and work for Haliburton. Everybody at work was surprised by that move. He indicated that he was going to go to Iraq for a year and make a ton of money. Apparently, his pay was going to be in six figures for a year’s work. Scott was going to drive fuel tankers. To me, that sounded just insane. It still sounds insane. I am sure that Scott had armed escorts, but still…driving a tanker is like driving a Molotov cocktail on wheels. Is any amount of money worth that kind of risk?

I used to write snail mail letters to Scott once he deployed. I still have his APO address scribbled on a scrap of paper. He came back safely from Iraq, but I don’t think he never returned to work at our place. I lost contact with him, and I have no idea what he is doing now.

I remember talking with one of Scott’s Marine buddies when Scott was over in Iraq. We discussed his reasons for going there. Scott’s fellow Marine suggested that maybe Scott was fulfilling a mission he never got to do while he was on active duty. We both agreed that it wasn’t all about the money. Scott was very patriotic, and he wanted to serve his country. Maybe he wanted to experience the excitement again. Maybe he wanted to feel young. I don’t know why he deployed. Maybe Scott didn’t really know either. He just did it.

Was Scott a mercenary? No, I don’t think so. Money was involved with his decision to work for Haliburton, but it was more complicated than that. Those kinds of decisions are always complicated, and often illogical.

If I ever see Scott again, I will have to ask him for an explanation. Somehow, I think that there really isn’t one.

Winners and Losers

January 18th, 2023

American culture is based on certain unquestioned assumptions. Some of these beliefs are so deeply imbedded in our national psyche that we don’t even notice their existence. They are like the air we breathe, invisible and always there.

America is the home of a virulent strain of individualism. We don’t often think our ourselves as members of a larger community, and if we do, we see our fellowship in that group as in contrast to outsiders (“I’m not like those people.”). To quote the title of a Beatles song, we think in terms of “I, Me, Mine”. This is obvious in our politics. Was there any thought or mention of the common good during the recent House Speakership debacle? Or was it all about ego? Think about the fact that both anti-vaxxers and abortions rights advocates use the rallying cry of “my body, my choice!”. We are taught from very early age to look out for Number One.

Another almost universal assumption is that life is a ruthless competition with clearly defined winners and losers. Competition may be a common human characteristic, but Americans take it to an extreme. Our economic system is based on competition. It drives everything in corporate America. It is a zero-sum game, and my gain is somebody else’s loss. Capitalism has made our country rich, but it has also made us judgmental and callous. We often despise the poor. We subscribe to the myth that everyone can “win” if only they are smart enough and hardworking enough. The corollary to that idea is that if a person is a “loser”, struggling economically, it is their own damn fault. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not.

The relentless competition between individual Americans bleeds over into other parts of our lives. The culture in the U.S. military is based, by necessity, on ruthless competition. It is life-or-death. I remember memorizing this quote from Douglas MacArthur when I was a cadet at West Point:

“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

The phrase “friendly strife” strikes me as odd. Anybody who has watched a cadet boxing match, or a rugby game, would hesitate to call those competitions “friendly”.

Everything at West Point was about competition. Everything. It is true that teamwork was encouraged, but only as it served to produce more effective competition. I made good friends at West Point, and some of those friendships have lasted for more than four decades. However, the stone-cold truth is that we were always competing with each other. At the end of our time in school, the only thing that mattered was our class rank. That, and only that, determined the trajectory of our future in the Army.

I have even noticed an oversized individualism in religion in the United States. For years, my wife and I participated in a Bible study with Evangelicals. I was often struck by the language they used. It was not uncommon for one of them to talk at length about Jesus being their “personal savior”. The person would then use phrases like “my relationship with the Lord” or “I am saved”. It was all about me and my God. There seemed to be little concern with the salvation of anyone else.

This sort of thing is by no means limited to Evangelicals. For several years I taught RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) for people wanting to become Catholic (yes, there actually are folks that want to be Catholic). I was teaching the class with a friend of mine, Joe. We were discussing the hypothetical possibility that God saves everyone, that in fact hell is empty. This was not just a whim on our part. The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, wrote an entire book on the subject, “Dare We Hope?”

There was a woman in the class who took great offense to our comments. She finally burst out, saying, “If everybody goes to heaven, if everyone gets saved, what’s the point of being good!?”

There was an awkward silence in the room. Joe, who was seldom perturbed, calmly looked at the woman over the top of his spectacles and asked her,

“Do you love your husband?”

She seemed confused by that question, and stammered, “Of course, I do!”

Joe asked her, “Do you do good things for him?”

The woman didn’t understand the point of this query, and she said, “Well, yeah, of course.”

Joe continued, “And why do you do these things?”

She thought that was a remarkably stupid question, and said, “Because I love him!”

Joe stood up, smiled, and said, “Aha! And that is why we do good things for God! We are good because we love Him!”

I couldn’t read the woman’s mind, but I suspect that part of her upset was due to the notion that even in the spiritual world, there have to be winners and losers. What’s the point of going to heaven if all the losers go there too?

There are dissenters to the prevalent viewpoints in our country. For years now I have been spending time with a group of Zen Buddhists. Their beliefs are completely countercultural.

A practitioner of Zen meditation will often focus on a koan or a mantra while sitting on the cushion. It is a common practice to concentrate on breathing. The person meditating will sometimes on the inbreath silently ask,

“What am I?”

On the outbreath the person says, “Don’t know.”

There is a significance to that answer. The person does not say, “I don’t know.” They simply say, “Don’t know”, because there is no I that is not knowing. Students of Zen assume that there is no unique individual meditating. For me, there would be no “Frank” involved in the process, because my identity as Frank is only a mental construct.

So, what am I? Certainly, in a physical sense, I am a creature who is constantly changing, as transient as a wave lapping on the beach or a flickering candle flame. I am not the same person that I was ten years ago, or even five minutes ago. In a few short years, I won’t exist in this world at all. I will be at best a dim memory for those who survive me.

I cling to the idea that I have an immortal soul. Honestly, I don’t know what that even means. What remains of me after death? However, if there is no I, then there is no competition. There are no winners or losers.

Maybe that’s not so bad.


January 13th, 2023

My youngest son, Stefan, is a journeyman in the Ironworkers Union. It is likely that he will become a certified welding instructor in the spring. In the meantime, he works at various jobsites, erecting the steel frames for buildings. Sometimes, he welds. Sometimes, he does grunt work. Sometimes, the work is tedious, and sometimes it more interesting than it needs to be. 

Stefan occasionally visits our house after his shift is done. He usually looks dead tired. If he’s had an exciting day, he’ll say something like, 

“Yeah, we did some fucking sketchy shit today.”

I always ask him to elaborate on that because I can tell he is just aching to tell his story. 

He generally has a good story. “Sketchy” is a euphemism for “dangerous”. In his line of work, it is common for him to be doing things that are dangerous. Ironworkers often get hurt. He has a friend who was injured in a welding accident and wound up with third degree burns. So far, Stefan has been lucky. Stefan is careful and safety conscious, but he is required to do work that most rational people would avoid. He walks on steel beams fifty feet in the air. He stands in a swaying lift and tries to weld metal to metal. He catches sections of steel that some crane operator is flying toward him. He is often in harm’s way, and he seems to prefer it like that. 

On rare occasions, Stefan provides me with photographic evidence of his sketchy activities. Recently, he was working at a jobsite in downtown Milwaukee, when it was brutally cold outside. He was welding on some steel pillars that were part of a framework for a new skyscraper. Here are the pictures:

What he was doing on the jobsite was clearly nuts. On the other hand, when I was his age, I was an Army aviator flying Back Hawks for a living. His work seems to be age appropriate.

I admire Stefan’s courage. He is a brave man. I have heard people say that he is “fearless”. That is incorrect. He has plenty of fear. Only a fool would not be afraid, and Stefan is not a fool. A courageous person is afraid, but he or she does what needs to be done despite that fear. They keep going.  

Anybody with military experience knows what it is like to do sketchy shit. We all did things that were objectively crazy, but still needed to be done. There are plenty of people in professions that require sketchy work: police, firefighters, nurses, mine workers, the social workers in CPS, the folks who repair power lines. Not everyone works in a cubicle. Thank God for that. 

I admire courage. Courage comes in a variety of forms. Not everybody needs to risk life and limb. I know a young woman who is battling an addiction. She is the bravest person I have ever met. I know a couple who are caring an elderly parent whose health is failing. What they are doing is nothing short of heroic. I have a brother who just turned sixty. He and his wife recently adopted a four-year-old boy. That’s a bold move.  

A brave person is not a braggart. He or she simply finds the strength within themselves to do the right thing. 

Even when it’s sketchy shit. 

I Miss War

January 9th, 2023

My son, Hans, went to war in July of 2011. His unit was deployed to Iraq and was stationed near Baghdad. Hans got hurt while he was in Iraq, and he hurt a number of other people during his stay. Hans is a combat vet. For Hans the war sometimes seems like it was a lifetime ago. Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday. 

A couple days ago, Hans shot me some texts. Apparently, Iraq seemed very close when he sent them to me.

He wrote, 

“I don’t know why I watch war documentaries. They always make me cry out of anger, just because we put ourselves in the shit and no one’s actually cared since WWII.”

My reply: “I hear you.”

Hans responded, “I miss war. If I wasn’t married and had kids, I would probably be in the Ukraine right now fighting for what I believe is right.”

He continued, “Me and my buddies believed we were helping the middle (east) maybe just a little and then they pulled us out and see everything we did disappear WTF.”

“We just left them to rot in the fucked-up situation. We designed (started?) but never finalized and it’s just war again.”

“At least let the mission get finished. Fuck politicians, fuck media, fuck people’s opinions. We should have stayed there until we finished it.”

I told Hans, “Your family is your mission now.”

He answered, “I know.”

Then he went on, “A lot of Vietnam veterans I talk to feel the same.”

“It was just another political war over money.”

I didn’t know what else to say to Hans. I was in the Army, but I was never in a war. 

Why does my son miss war? I’m not sure. Maybe he misses the camaraderie. Maybe he misses the adrenalin rush. Maybe he misses the sense of purpose. Hans is immensely proud of his military service, but he has that nagging feeling that he has been manipulated and used. In any case, he can’t go back there to that time and place. That part of his life is over. 

Raising a family is not the same as fighting a war (usually). However, Hans’ overriding purpose in life is to care for his wife and three small children. That can be a great challenge. Caring for a family is a struggle that requires courage and determination, the same attributes Hans needed in combat. Being a father and a husband is not easy, but it not all work and worry. There are moments of pure joy too. 

Do other vets feel the way Hans does? I am sure of it. Other soldiers in other armies in other times felt like my son does. The German soldiers who fought for their Kaiser in the trenches during WWI felt like Hans does. I know an old man at the synagogue whose son fought with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s. His son is the sole survivor of an IED explosion. The old man always tells me about what a brave soldier his son was. His boy (now my age) still struggles with his wartime experiences. He drinks endlessly to deal with his PTSD. 

Will Hans’ kids go to war? Will they tell Hans the things that Hans tells me?

Why don’t we ever learn?   


January 2nd, 2023

There have been recent rumblings about the possibility of our grandson, Asher, being taken from our home. This is exceedingly unlikely to happen, seeing as my wife and I are his legal guardians, and there is nobody else remotely capable of caring for him at this time. However, it is still a scary thought, one that for me conjures up half-forgotten memories.

My paternal grandfather passed away when I was thirteen. Up until that time, my parents had good, or at least civil, relationships with both sides of the family. That all ended after my grandfather died. Somehow, the family dynamics shifted abruptly, and long simmering resentments boiled up to the surface. There were bitter fights between my father and damn near everyone else. I don’t know what caused the feuding, and I never will. Almost all of the participants are dead now.

The end result of this fighting was the nearly completely isolation of our nuclear family from everyone else. My parents severed ties with all the relatives, except one of my father’s uncles. Suddenly, my brothers and I no longer had access to our grandparents or anybody else in our extended family. This situation went on for years. I come from a tribe that likes to hold a grudge.

Why did my dad turn his back on all of his kin? I don’t know. That’s just the kind of man he was. In the Bible, Ishmael, the son of Abraham is prophesized thus: “And he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.”

That was my dad.

As I said, this separation from our relations lasted for years. Eventually, there was kind of a half-ass reconciliation, but the damage was done. Whatever relationship I had with my remaining grandparents was gone. My maternal grandfather was crippled from Parkinson’s disease. My maternal grandmother cared for him, but she was slowly losing her memory. My paternal grandmother’s mind was sharp as a freshly honed razor, but she was blind and going deaf, and often bedridden. They never saw me, or my brothers grow up. They missed out on most of our childhoods.

I remember my paternal grandmother telling how she would talk on the phone with my other grandma during the time when they had no contact with us. The two grandmothers would ask each other for tidbits of information on how their grandchildren were doing. They usually had nothing to share.

I never really understood how they felt until now. Our grandson, Asher, is two years old. He has been in our care almost all of his life. My wife and I have been watching over the boy 24/7/365. Our connection with Asher is deep, probably deeper than that of most grandparents. I cannot imagine life without Asher in our home. I have sometimes wondered how it would feel, and I have always recoiled from that. It is like staring into a void.

I know that eventually we will be separated from Asher. He will go to school and make friends. He may move away someday. Karin and I will die sooner or later. It is a certainty that we will not always have the close relationship with Asher that we enjoy today.

So, we need to be totally with him today.

Three Cities

January 1st, 2023

“I know I loved you then
I think I love you still
But this prophecy of ours
Has come back dressed to kill
Three stones on a mountain
Three small holes in a field
You’ve given me the big dream
But you can’t make it real

O, wicked world
Just think what could have been
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
All I do is lose, but baby
All I want’s to win
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” – from the band, Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend is a relatively new band. Their music embraces a number of different styles. Many of their songs feature both a male and female vocalist, who play off each other rather well. The lyrics is their compositions are Dylanesque. The words are often obscure, and they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Each listener hears something different and finds a particular meaning from within his or her own soul.

I have been intrigued by one song from the group: “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”. It’s not the most melodic of their efforts, but I keep trying to figure out what the significance is of them naming those three locations. I guess part of my curiosity comes from the fact that I have been to all three of those places, and each of those cities has left an indelible mark on my memory.

What do these three cities have in common? All of them have colorful histories. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it’s a fact. Jerusalem has been involved in wars since the time of King David, and probably before that. New York has had a turbulent history, often filled with savagery (see the 2002 film by Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York). 9/11 was the latest example of wanton violence in that city. Berlin suffered almost total destruction at the end of WWII, comparable to the leveling of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the later devastation inflicted by the Romans.

Each of them was or is a focal point in the world. Medieval maps showed Jerusalem as the axis mundi, the center of the world. Jerusalem (Al-Quds القدس in Arabic) has for centuries been a fundamental element in each of the Abrahamic religions. Even today, much of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians concerns the status of Jerusalem. Jerusalem may not be the center of the physical world, but it is still often the center of the world’s imagination.

New York is a financial powerhouse, the home of Wall Street. It is also a center for visual art, for fashion, for music, for literature, and for politics. It is a place where a lifetime isn’t long enough to fully understand it. It is microcosm of the entire world, containing immigrants from nearly every nation. I have a friend who lived in Chicago, which is a little brother to New York. My friend told me that she felt the “oppressive weight of humanity” where she lived. How much more so in New York, where myriad cultures are packed tight next to each other. These various peoples live in tiny enclaves with unofficial but very real boundaries. Another friend of mine grew up in the Bronx. He told me that he could tell when he was in the wrong neighborhood just by the smell of the food cooking.

Berlin was for a brief period of time the focus of all the world’s attention. It was a source of terror. From 1933 to 1945 the city shown with an evil radiance. The energy that Berlin exuded caused endless destruction and misery. The rulers of Berlin murdered millions of people before the rest of the world united to crush them. In April of 1945 the ruins of Berlin burned in hellish fire that eventually turned to ashes.

From my limited experience, I would say that all three cities have (or had) a restlessness and a tension that is omnipresent. I was in Berlin in June of 1983, during the height of the Cold War. I saw the Wall, and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie. I looked at the bullet holes that still decorated the walls of the Reichstag. I saw the libertine chaos of West Berlin, and I wandered through the drab grey paranoia of the East. Both halves of the city had this edginess that was infectious. I never felt at ease.

I was in Jerusalem for a few days in December of 1983. Jerusalem wasn’t quite as scary as Berlin, but it was a close second. The Israeli military was everywhere, and even though I was in the Army then, I wasn’t comfortable with seeing soldiers with Uzis on nearly every street. Jerusalem felt like the capital of a garrison state, a place where violence could occur at any moment. There was always a wariness and a need for constant vigilance.

I visited New York back in the late 1970’s when I was a student at West Point (think about the movie Taxi Driver, once again from Scorsese). I visited the city again a few years ago. New York is fine if a person has an extremely high tolerance for chaos. People and objects are continuously in rapid motion. The action never stops. It is like a city on meth. I found it exhausting after only a couple days there.

A final link between all three cities is Judaism. The religion plays a role in all of them. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the goal of every observant Jew. I have a friend from the synagogue who grew up in Brooklyn. His youthful experiences in New York and his Jewishness are closely interwoven. He told me stories about the Rebbe and about the Chabad. He talked to me about the Crown Heights neighborhood. And Berlin…it is connected with Judaism in a horrible, apocalyptic way.

One more story…

I have another friend at the synagogue. Leonid is an old man, a refugee from Kyiv who came here when Soviet Union collapsed. Leonid’s father was an officer in the Soviet Army during WWII. His father was in Berlin in April of 1945 with the victorious Russian forces. Leonid’s dad stood near the devastated wreckage of the Reichstag. While he was there, he picked up a piece of coal and drew a Star of David on the side of the building.

Jerusalem, New York, Berlin

Rorschach Test

December 29th, 2022

When a person looks at a painting or a photograph, what do they really see?

I have been pondering this question for a couple months now. I have a friend, Suzanne, who is a photographer. She is also a teacher at a local tech school. She is nearing her retirement as a teacher, and she is looking at photography as her second act. So, Suzanne is continuing to take classes to hone her skills. Suzanne has a natural talent for creating striking images with her camera. She sees things that others do not.

During this last semester, Suzanne took a course on portrait photography. One of her assignments was to make an “editorial portrait”, a photograph with a message. That is an interesting concept. Can a picture say something to the person viewing it? Suzanne asked me if she could take my picture to use in her class project. I agreed to that. She told me,

“Your face tells a story. It’s a good story.”

Back in October, Suzanne came to our house and set up her camera and tripod. She asked me to sit at the kitchen table near the patio doors. We talked for an hour. Suzanne asked me about my time in the Army. She asked me about my son, Hans, and his wartime experiences in Iraq. Every so often, she snapped a picture. I don’t know what prompted her to take a particular photo at a particular moment. I don’t know what she saw that was so special. Maybe my facial expression, maybe the lighting, maybe the background. Suzanne seemed to have an instinctive sense of what would look right.

Suzanne and I both belong to a Zen sangha. For years we have practiced Zen meditation. We sat on cushions in silence and tried to empty our minds. In Zen meditation a person tries to reach the mind exists before thinking. That’s hard to do because humans are thinking all the time. However, sometimes a person can get to the point where they are no longer overthinking. A person may be able to tap into their intuition. I think that Suzanne does that with her photography.

After a couple weeks, Suzanne sent me a digital black and white photo. It was my portrait. Generally, I don’t like to look at pictures of myself. Somehow, that bothers me. The photo she chose seemed odd to me. In the portrait I am looking up at the ceiling. What made her use that image?

I sent copies of the portrait to a number of friends to get their input on Suzanne’s work. I took their feedback and gave it to Suzanne. Here are some of their comments:

“Frank! fantastic photo! you look like an Old Testament prophet, or a hermit saint! exactly what you are… Suzanne knows what she is doing.” 

“Yes, mirrors can be strange as we age. I agree with your photographer friend: you do have a story in your face. I think I do too but the difference is that you look concerned, even worried about the ills and troubles in the world, whereas I look like I am ready and willing to add to them! I am getting to play music nearly every week someplace, and it feels right and good. The Longest Walk and Sacred Run events seem very long ago and very far away to me now”


“Sorry I didn’t respond sooner; I had to mull over the photo a bit. I really like it. To those not acquainted with you, I think the photo would show a man who is awake to the complexities of life, who looks for wisdom (maybe has found some), is accepting of life as it is. The knick-knacks on the top shelf suggest diverse interests. You look relaxed in your own skin. “

“To me, an acquaintance who knows something of who you are, the photo does justice to parts of you. I’m thinking of your relationships with the Jewish and the Buddhist communities, and your love of travel, new adventures; the Texas placard on the shelf reminds me of Hans. Of course, you are so much more: your life with Karin and now especially with Asher, your tutoring immigrants, your work on the loading dock with your co-workers, your Catholic faith, your standing up for non-violence, etc. Your story is so interesting, so complex, filled with graces that are sometimes embraced and other times not, characterized by authentic questioning and looking for the path. I love all that about you. It’s so much more than a single photo can capture.”

“This picture speaks to me of a man who has traveled the many miles of life’s pilgrim journey; perhaps there is some strange sort of truth to your photographer’s insistence on the storytelling power of a photograph.  Your hesitation around it notwithstanding, I think it’s a good picture nonetheless.”

 “I have read about Suzanne somewhere in your blog. When you have to tell a story in a glance, photography is a big task. I don’t like to look at pictures of myself either, but I have the advantage of not having a mirror. When I looked at your photo, the first image that came to my mind was Ram-dass. Hahaha!”

“As I was looking at the picture she took of you, I can see the face of good man. a man who is willing to be there for you no matter what. A man who is really loves God. I think not seeing yourself is a mistake. Looking in the mirror could always help you see the reflection of yourself, will help you see the good man.” 

 ” The first word that came to mind seeing your photo…, Tolstoy 😉 Sorry, I just happened to see a photo him not too long ago🙂But I can see what Suzanne is seeing.”

“I love it! It looks like you are thinking about a story you are about to tell. You are a great storyteller. 🙂 P.S. Your face shows suffering too- maybe you are looking at God saying “….really?”

“That is a great photo. But it looks less Zen than Orthodox Christian to me. No matter. Your friend Suzanne is right, a face tells a story and yours has much to say. Does she have a show or some way she plans to publish this picture? Hope so. Thank for sending it.”

Obviously, my friends know me and probably were not terribly objective. I suspect that the folks who did not like the portrait simply remained silent.

What struck me was the fact that each person saw something different. The portrait told a story to each observer, but each person got a story unlike the others. Did they actually see the photo, or did they look into a mirror? Did they see me, or did they see something from within themselves? Was it really a Rorschach test?

What do you see?

Immigration and Cognitive Dissonance

December 23rd, 2022

Currently, there is an enormous outcry concerning the “crisis” at the southern border of the United States. The impression given to us by the politicians and the media is that migrants are streaming into the U.S. unchecked. We are told repeatedly that the situation on the border, especially near El Paso, is out of control.

It probably is. But then this is nothing new. U.S. immigration policy has been out of control for decades.

Back in 2018, I took a 40-hour class on immigration law with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Immigration law is a Byzantine monstrosity, with more exceptions to the rules than there are rules. The course I took was by necessity only an overview of a complex and confusing set of statutes and regulations. I attended the class in order to better assist migrants who were trying to get green cards or American citizenship. Somehow, I passed the final exam with flying colors. However, by the end of the forty hours, I only learned two things: first, that I know next to nothing about immigration law, and second, that I dare not screw up when giving people guidance. When in doubt, I learned to tell people, “Get a lawyer.”

U.S. immigration law has not been overhauled since the 1950’s. Since then, adjustments have been made to the statutes until our national immigration policy has become a patchwork of rules and regulations that seem to have no overriding values or goals. It is a system that defies logic and understanding.

I found out how our immigration policy functions in real life. In October of 2019, I went to the southern border with a group of people from the Milwaukee area. We attended a five-day immersion program (Border Awareness Experience) offered by Annunciation House, a Catholic organization in El Paso that serves migrants, legal or otherwise. We visited with people on both sides of the wall. We had meetings with the U.S. Border Patrol and with representatives of the Mexican government. The program was emotionally intense.

I could see that the situation at the southern border was out of control back in 2019. Nearly everybody we met told us that the policy on the border was confusing and unjust. The chaos in El Paso did not start with Biden. This hot mess is very much bipartisan, and it has been going on for years.

So, why are things so screwed up, and why can’t we fix it?

I think it has to do with conflicting values and goals. It’s a sort of a cognitive dissonance. Americans have had a schizophrenic attitude toward migrants since this country was created. We proudly claim to be a nation of immigrants, and yet we despise the newcomers. Some of this has to do with economics. Some of this has to do with national security. Some of this has to do with xenophobia.

Economically, we have always needed immigrants to do our dirty work. We have always needed the immigrants to fill the jobs that our own citizens refuse to do. That is currently the situation in the United States. The job market is extremely tight. Jobs go begging, although several million working age American men sit at home. To fill the plethora of openings in the workplace, we need these people who are crossing our border. Our economy requires immigrant labor. It would be nice if we could organize a rational system to get them here.

During the recent election, there were many ads on TV concerning the flow of drugs crossing the border. The ads seemed to conflate the flow of migrants with the flow of fentanyl. There was a demand that we secure the border. When I was in El Paso, I asked members of the Border Patrol how much of the drug traffic they were stopping. They replied, “We don’t know.” They had no idea how effective their interdiction efforts were. That amazed me.

It is unlikely that any amount of money and manpower will ever make the southern border completely secure. The War on Drugs is an absolute failure. Why is that so? It’s all about supply and demand. The work of the international drug cartels is capitalism in its purest form. As long as there is a market for drugs in the U.S., there will be fentanyl and cocaine flowing into this country. Once again, this is about economics, as well as national security.

We, as Americans, have usually supported the idea of the free flow of goods, money, and information across our borders. We draw the line at the free flow of human beings. We don’t want the riffraff coming in. We don’t want migrants from those “shithole” countries. I suspect that most citizens of the United States have ancestors who fled from shithole countries. I know that mine did. People will keep coming across our borders from those places. If we can’t stop drugs, we can’t stop migrants.

Historically, we have wanted immigrants to come to our shores because we needed their labor. However, somehow, we have always wanted the newbies to be just like us. It has never worked out like that. The immigrants have always talked differently, dressed differently, prayed differently, and thought differently than the folks who were born in this country. We have always feared these “others”, and sometimes hated them. We have certainly done little to welcome them. We have often used them, and then discarded them.

Perhaps the most recent and egregious example of this strange attitude is the way we are treating Afghan refugees. I have spent over a year trying to befriend and help an Afghan family. The adults in the family worked closely with the Americans until the fall of Kabul. Then they fled, along with thousands of others, to Pakistan. This family never got into the United States. They eventually wound up in Portugal, which is a miracle of sorts. Most of their fellow refugees still languish in Pakistan. The U.S. government has made it nearly impossible for our Afghan allies to get admitted into our country. These are people who trusted us, who believed in America. We used these people who thought we were their friends, and now we ignore them.

We need a complete revision of our immigration laws. I am afraid that won’t happen until we take a hard look at who we are as Americans and what we really value.