Speaking His Truth

November 6th, 2017

Recently, my wife received the following email from the leader of her prayer network:

“Dear Prayer Network Ministers,  

Please pray for those who are in, or support sexuality contrary to our church’s teaching. Let us be solid in our understanding of God’s law and have the courage to lovingly speak His truth.

Please pray for faith filled family members struggling with deep sorrow in regard to its widespread acceptance.”

Okay…that is not a typical prayer request. Most of the of the time, people ask for more mundane and non-controversial sorts of things. People ask for prayers so that they might find a job, or that a friend will have a successful surgery, or that a family member may pass away peacefully while in hospice. Generally, the prayer requests are no-brainers. It usually comes down to: “Somebody is suffering, please pray for them.”

On the face of it, this particular request would seem to be referring to gays and trans persons. But, maybe not. The rules of the Catholic Church concerning sexuality are far-reaching. This prayer request might also be speaking to people who are divorced and remarried (without the benefit of an annulment), or it could be talking about folks that are living together, but are unmarried. The point is that there is a very large percentage of the population that is not following the precepts of the Church with regards to sexuality.

So, for what exactly are we supposed to be praying?

Are we supposed to be praying that people who are not following the teachings of the Catholic Church get their act together? I am uneasy with that. I know gay couples who are in loving and monogamous relationships. They are following Christ to the best of their abilities. I find to difficult to see the problem with the way they are living their lives. I know couples who are divorced and remarried. They seem to be good people, living good lives. I know a lot of younger people who cohabitate, and they are doing just fine. I also know couples who are following all of the Church’s rules, and their relationships suck.

I struggle to reconcile the teachings of the Church on sexuality with what I see with my own eyes. If the Church could show me what harm is being done by people who are not in Church-approved relationships, then I would take the teaching far more seriously. The arguments that are based on the Bible or the Tradition of the Church don’t cut it. If people are in relationships that are wrong, I want to know why these interactions are wrong.

The phrase “lovingly speak His truth” irks me. If Jesus has any truth, it is that love is everything. Whatever we do in this world that increases love is good. Rules that create more love are good. Rules that cause suffering and hate are not from Christ. Maybe I just don’t understand, and perhaps the teachings of the Church on sexuality actually do bring about more love. If they do, I don’t see how.

Somebody needs to explain it to me.

 

 

 

Why Americans Can’t Prevent Mass Shootings

November 7th, 2017

(This short letter from me showed up on the Chicago Tribune site “Voice of the People”. Occasionally the Tribune posts my words.)

“People seemed shocked by the massacre at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I don’t understand why they are. We have frequent mass killings in this country. Hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn’t fire up a group of people. That is the American way.

Liberals cry out for tighter gun control. Some conservatives say that we actually need more guns in the hands of churchgoers. I don’t think that the number of guns available matters that much. The issue goes much deeper than that.

The fact is that we, as Americans, truly believe that violence solves problems. This shows up domestically, and it is an integral part of our nation’s foreign policy. We somehow have come to the conclusion that a bullet or a bomb will make the correct and final decision for us in any given situation.

It is irrelevant how many firearms there are if we believe that killing others makes sense.”

— Francis Pauc, Oak Creek, Wis.

 

Boxing

November 5, 2017

“At West Point, All Cadets Learn to Take a Punch”

That’s the title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It first appeared in the WSJ on October 28th. I saw it online today on MSN. I read the article. It was short and to the point. Boxing has been a mandatory class at West Point for close to one hundred years, so that is not news. It is news that now women cadets are required to box. I guess that qualifies as progress in a way.

The article was of particular interest to me because, as a graduate of USMA (Class of 1980), I have rather intense memories of boxing. I was in the boxing ring forty years ago, and that experience still takes me deep. I have to admit that the essay in the WSJ does not entirely match up with my memories. It could be that my memories are faulty. It could be that things have changed over the years. It could be that the author of the article didn’t have all the facts.

I have to take issue with the title of the article. It misses the whole point of the boxing program. The author states that “all cadets learn to take a punch”. That’s true, but that is not why plebes are required to box.  It would be better said that “all cadets learn to give a punch”.

I remember the very first day of plebe boxing. The instructor, who was an Army major, sat us all down, and he proceeded to explain to us what we would learn in the class. He stated that boxing would be the most important class we took while at West Point. At the time, I thought that comment was absurd. Now, many years later, I agree with the man. Boxing was crucial in a way.

Let me say up front that I sucked at boxing. I was terrible. I nearly failed the course. I am not sure why. I was good at wrestling, but boxing was a different animal. The author of the article says that “Students are matched by size, skill and experience.” That’s not how I remember it. In my class we were matched up by weight, just like in wrestling. I am a short, stocky guy. I went into the ring with young men who were tall and lean, and who had a reach far in excess of my own. That meant when I jabbed, I hit thin air. When my opponents jabbed, they moved my nose closer to my left ear.

I found it difficult to be adequately aggressive when I kept getting nose bleeds. The instructors kept urging me, “Get inside him! Get inside him!” The only way to get inside the reach of somebody who has longer arms is to get hit. I honestly wasn’t very interested in that option. Actually, I didn’t want to be in the ring at all. Some guys like to fight. I never did. I still don’t.

This brings me to the point of my essay. Plebes are required to box so that learn they how to hit somebody else without the slightest hesitation or regret. The instructors would put roommates together in the ring. Why? So that two young men, who have no personal animosity, and perhaps even like each other, will learn to beat the shit out of one another. The whole idea is to get comfortable with violence, with the act of hurting another human being.

This should come as a shock to no one. Cadets are soldiers, and soldiers hurt people. That’s their job description. I took another mandatory class, Military Science. In that course, the job of a military officer was defined as being “an expert in the management of violence”. When I graduated from West Point, I was supposed to be an expert in using violence, an agent of destruction and chaos. Even now, that sounds pretty twisted.

Young people show up at West Point for a variety of reasons. For me it was to get a good education, and to make my father proud of me. Others show up because of patriotism. Some want to prove themselves in a challenging environment. Some just like the military. Some arrive not being familiar with violence. Every graduate leaves that school being comfortable with it. Every one of them.

That’s why boxing is important. If West Point didn’t force people to box, it would have some other type of training to bring out the killer instinct. Somehow, the cadets would learn how to fight and how to inflict pain. It’s a necessary part of the process.

 

We’re in America

November 1st, 2017

 

We were waiting to get into Room 515 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Victor and I were sitting on a wooden bench in the hall outside of the courtroom door. The corridor was long, and hushed voices echoed through it. The walls had the look of marble veneer, and the ceilings were vaulted with large globe lights hanging from them. The benches were like church pews, and probably designed to be uncomfortable. People sat around, looking forlornly at their phones, and waiting. Everybody was waiting…and waiting. That hallway was a preview of purgatory.

At last, the sheriff’s deputy opened the door to the courtroom, and people slowly wandered in. A courtroom is one of those places where nobody wants to be. However, almost everybody there has to be there. I don’t think that the lawyers want to be there any more than the defendants. It’s like everybody who walks into the room is expecting to get a colonoscopy. I was one of the few people who were in the courtroom voluntarily, and even I felt that vibe which screamed, “God, just get this shit done! Let’s get out of here!”

Victor was there for a traffic offense. I was with him because he needed somebody to ride shotgun. Victor is a Latino, and he doesn’t have a drivers license at this juncture in time. I’m not sure why that is, and I really don’t care. Javier from Voces de la Frontera set me up to drive Victor to the courthouse, and to be his white friend during the court appearance. I know that sounds racist as hell, but that’s exactly what I did. I did nothing for Victor other than to be with him. I didn’t translate for him (because I can’t), and he already had a lawyer. I was there to keep him safe, somehow. The whole thing sounds a little crazy, but then we live in crazy times.

The courtroom had that old school, 1930’s vintage, WPA artwork look. Lots of wood paneling, and heavy wooden furniture. There were carved wooden eagles at the top of columns along the walls. It was actually a beautifully appointed government office.  The problem is that nothing beautiful happened in that room. It was all haggling between lawyers and the judge’s lackeys. Lots of lives were being adjusted, bent, and twisted. Most of the people in the room, at least the defendants, were people of color. I’m not entirely sure that justice is blind.

Victor was in and out of there quickly. He had to attend some classes, and return to the court at a later date. He would have to pay some heavy fines, but that’s the best he could do by playing the system. Overall, he seemed relieved with the outcome of his appearance. Despite his limited English (un poquito de ingles), and my nearly non-existent Spanish (un poquito de espanol), we still managed to have some good conversations. I’m glad that I was there for him.

I went back to Voces de la Frontera that evening to teach the citizenship class. I worked for a while with Sergio. Sergio is an older Latino, who has been in the U.S. on his green card for a long time. Now he wants to become a citizen. He’s an intelligent man, but he can’t write for shit. During his upcoming citizenship interview, he may be required to write (in English) the answers to some simple civics questions. Sergio knows the answers to the questions. He just can’t spell. I know plenty of native Americans who can’t spell, but they aren’t trying to become citizens. Sergio is. He has to be able to spell, at least some words. It doesn’t seem fair, but this is how the game is played. My job is to make sure he can write well enough to pass the damn test.  Sergio is almost there, but not quite yet.

Giselheid walked into Voces. She is an older German lady, in many ways similar to my wife, Karin. Giselheid has lived here for many years as a permanent legal resident, and now she wants to become a citizen. She is from the same general area of Germany as Karin. Freya set me up to work with Giselheid because I am a German speaker. Giselheid and I haven’t actually used German much at all, but it’s there if we need it. Giselheid is definitely an outlier at Voces. Almost everyone else who comes there is Mexican.

We worked on the civics questions for the citizenship interview. There are one hundred standard questions that applicants must be able to answer. Most people preparing for the interview know the book answers. I try to go deeper with the students to ensure that they actually understand the questions and the answers. I am ambitious. I don’t just want these people to become U.S. citizens. I want them to be active citizens. I want people like Giselheid and Sergio to participate in our dysfunctional democracy. I want them to get involved.

I asked Giselheid about the Bill of Rights.

“What is one right found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?”

Giselheid answered in her German accent, “Freedom of Speech.”

“Okay, say that I know nothing of America. Explain ‘freedom of speech’ to me.”

Long pause.

Then she said, “Well, you can say whatever you want.”

I told her, “There are certain limits on freedom of speech. I can’t tell people to riot in the streets. I can’t tell them to kill other people. Other than that, I can say almost anything.”

Giselheid frowned and said, “But it is okay to call people names and say mean things about them?”

“Well, yeah. There is a thing called slander. I cannot say something to hurt somebody else that is false and designed to hurt the other person. However, it is difficult to prove slander. Mostly, people get away with saying bad things about other people.”

“And this is okay?”

“This is something that we put up with. We can’t stop people from saying mean things. If we tell the Neo-Nazis to stop speaking against the Jews and the blacks, then somebody will complain about other people speaking against the Nazis. Eventually, nobody will get to say anything.”

“So, we just put up with it?”

“Yes, we do. We’re in America.”

I went on. “Freedom of speech isn’t always free. I have been in many demonstrations and protests over the years. In the spring I was at an anti-war protest in Nevada. I was involved in civil disobedience. I helped to block the entrance to an Air Force Base. The cops told me to move. I didn’t. I got arrested. I went to jail. I expressed my freedom of speech and I paid for it. Sometimes it works like that.”

“Oh.”

I went on to another question. “What is one responsibility for only American citizens?”

Giselheid said, “To be on a jury.”

I told her, “I have been on two juries.”

Giseleid looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would like to be on a jury and have that responsibility. I might send somebody to jail for life.”

I replied, “That’s true. It is a big responsibility. My experience has been that people rise to the occasion. People that are selected for a jury understand that they can totally change another person’s life. Members of a jury act like adults, and they try to do it right. They really do.”

“I don’t want to be on a jury.”

“Nobody does. Somehow it works, at least most of the time.”

I thought back to Victor and the courtroom. Even with all the haggling and horse-trading, maybe it all really does work out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith, Hope, and Love

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

1 Corinthians 13:13

 

I was talking with Noa at the synagogue. She had asked me how I was, and I told her that I was struggling with recent events in my life.

She said to me, “You know, Frank, sometimes you just have to have faith.”

Faith

That was an interesting comment. Seeing as Noa is an Orthodox Jew, I doubt that she was referring to faith in Jesus. Her words did set some thoughts in motion.

I looked up the definition of faith. There were several available, and most of them had a strong religious connotation. One of the definitions simply stated that faith was “a complete trust in somebody or something”. I can work with that.

I think that humans are meant to have faith. I think that people have a burning need to believe in something. We require some sense of order and purpose. Carl Jung once commented that you could destroy a person if he or she thought that they were just actors “in a tale told by an idiot”. Faith doesn’t need to be religious in nature. It’s a matter of trust. For instance, I don’t know that the sun will rise tomorrow, however I have faith that it will.

John Lennon wrote a song called God. The lyrics of the song are essentially a laundry list  of things which Lennon refuses to believe. It is his testimony to his lack of faith. However near the end of God, Lennon sings these words:” I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.” So, even at his most skeptical moment, Lennon still has faith in somebody. He can’t get away from it.

What kind of faith did Noa mean? I’m not sure. I suspect she was referring to some kind of faith in God, trusting that He has things in hand. I think the assumption here is that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Does the evidence indicate that God is in fact all-loving? Maybe, maybe not. There is an awful lot of suffering going on. On the other hand, who else is there? The problem with monotheism is the lack of alternatives. I trust in God because I see no other options.

Hope

I think that hope is hard-wired into humanity. People are irrationally and exuberantly hopeful even in times of deep crisis. Why is that?

The alternative to hope is death. I don’t necessarily mean immediate death, but it will come. I am aware that we all die anyway, but a lack of hope accelerates the process. No matter what the evidence says, we keep believing that things will work out. We have to do that in order to function. Hope is a virtue, and it’s also a survival technique.

Love

Love is a word that is used in many ways, so that it often has no meaning at all. I define love as a type of self-sacrifice. It means giving up what I want so that somebody else can have what they need. Love is dynamic. It is an action. It is a verb. Love has very little to do with feelings. In my experience, the greatest acts of love have been accompanied by the most frightening or sorrowful feelings. Love is not for the timid.

I would like to think that love is also inherent in human nature. History is full of examples when love was absent, but that is partly because love is not very dramatic or exciting. Love mostly consists of small, personal acts of kindness. For some reason, those types of events don’t make the news.

Faith, hope, and love are all entwined. They cannot be separated. I have faith that, in the end, love prevails. I have hope that it will happen in my life, and in the lives of those I love. All three things are actually one.

 

 

 

A Human Touch

October 28th, 2017

I arrived at the shul quite late. It was after 11:30, and the Shacharit was nearly finished. The synagogue was almost full. This made sense since it was the rabbi’s last Shabbat with this congregation. He and his family are preparing to move to London, England, very soon. They will be starting a new life in a new country. Everybody wanted to give the rabbi a fond farewell.

I found a space in a pew, and took part in the service as best I could. I didn’t plan on bothering the rabbi. It was his big day, and he had many people to meet and greet. Rabbi Andrews is a good man, and he has a big heart. He had helped me in the past when I was hurting. He knows about my struggles. The least I could do was to be present for him. I needed to be there with the rest of the community.

We were all seated during one of the prayers. The rabbi walked past me took put a book away on a shelf. I didn’t notice him again until he sat down right next to me and put his arm around my shoulder.

“How is she?” he asked.

“She’s okay… for now.”

We were both quiet for a moment.

Then the rabbi asked, “And how are you?”

I struggled to speak. “I’m…I’m a mess.”

We were quiet again.

Rabbi Andrews smiled gently, and then he said drily, “That’s understandable.”

He squeezed my shoulder, and then he stood up. He had things to do up front.

It’s strange. I was/am deeply moved by the actions of the rabbi. He didn’t do anything that was extraordinary. He didn’t solve any of my problems. He didn’t have any clever answers or profound insights for me.

He was simply and sincerely human.

I hate it when people ask how I am. Often, a person will ask the question almost unconsciously, as a matter of habit. Somebody will come to me with a smile, and breezily ask, “So, how are you today?”, and then they start talking about themselves before I can say anything. I find that offensive. I would prefer that the person greet me by saying, “I don’t care if you live or die.” At least it would be honest.

I am also uncomfortable when a person asks how I am, and they really do care. That forces me to feel, and I don’t like to do that. If I am hurting, and I tell a person how I really feel, it is like I am bleeding in front of them. I don’t know if I freak out the person asking the question, but I know that I freak myself out. I find it difficult to accept sympathy and compassion. I don’t know what to do with it. It’s somehow scary.

People sometimes feel like they are required to say something to “help”. I do that on occasion. I usually wind up saying something that sounds stupid. Words are clumsy. Often they are all that we have available, but they are still blunt instruments.

I have had people say things to me like: “It’s all part of God’s plan”, or “Look on the bright side”, or “Don’t worry, it will get better.” I understand that they say these things with the best intentions. They want to help.

I nod and smile at the person, but inside I am screaming, “Shut the fuck up!”

A person who is wounded generally does not need somebody to solve an intractable problem for them. The person doesn’t need words that provide a soft, fuzzy, Hallmark kind of solace. A suffering person needs somebody else to listen, and just to be there. That’s it. That’s all. That’s enough.

By the way, hugs really do help.

Rabbi, thanks for the hug.

 

 

 

 

 

Plus or Minus

October 27th, 2017

Hussein greeted me at the door. He’s a sophomore in high school. He looks like any other high school kid. He’s skinny with dark hair. He speaks English with barely any accent. A person would not know that he is a Syrian refugee, not unless he mentioned the fact.

There are eleven kids in Hussein’s family. People are constantly in motion. His mother is perhaps the only one who remains stationary for any length of time. I suspect that she is in a chronic state of exhaustion. Her older children help her to keep track of their younger siblings. I did the same thing with my six younger brothers many years ago. The Syrian family reminds me of my childhood in many ways: the relative poverty, the dumpy old house, the noise and the chaos. Except for the language barrier, it all feels familiar.

I walked into the house and said, “Assalam alaykum”.

Hussein replied, “Wa alaykum assalam.”

Um Hussein nodded to me, and I gathered some of the children to come upstairs and finish their homework. Nada had math to do, so we sat next to each other and tried to solve problems. Yasmin came over to us, and Ibrahim sat on the other side of me.

Nada had to add these numbers: 5+(-13).

I asked her, “So, what should we do here? Plus or minus?”

She looked at the numbers and said, “We add the 5 to 13, and get 18.”

I shook my head, “No, that’s not quite right.”

Ibrahim yelled into my ear, “I know the answer! I can do it!”

I told Ibrahim to quiet down. “I need Nada to do this one.”

Nada’s freckled face frowned. She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“Look at the numbers. The 13 is a negative number. You see the minus sign?”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, so it is a minus number. Then it should be -8!”

“Yeah, that’s right. Try the next one.”

A little boy with sandy hair came up to us. He wanted to see what we were doing.

I asked him, “What is your name?’

“Muhamed.”

“Hi, Muhamed.”

I thought to myself that Muhamed is going to grow up tough. He’s going to catch hell for his name. Nada and Yasmin, they will be able to slide by. Maybe even Ibrahim will be able to blend in with his peer group. Muhamed is going to meet a lot of bigots as he goes through life. People will hate him just because of his name.

Um Hussein came upstairs to find out what we were studying. She brought me a glass of hot, sweet tea. She set it on a metal tray on a chair in front of me.

“Shukran,” I told her.

She replied “Afwan”, and then she went back down the stairs.

Nada was struggling with a problem: 12-(-3).

“Do you see what to do?” I asked her.

Nada shook her head.

“You have two minus signs. Those are like having a plus sign.” I crossed out the two minus signs with a pencil, and I drew a plus sign in their place.

“Oh, I see”, said Nada.

She didn’t see.

We worked on some more problems. Eventually, Nada got the hang of it. She’s a smart young lady. Her siblings are sharp too.

The kids were tired of doing math. I asked them if they wanted to look at a book. I had brought along a book about San Francisco. I had bought it over thirty years ago when Karin and I lived in California. There were plenty of pictures to see.

I showed them the Golden Gate Bridge. One page had a large photo of the strip joints in the Tenderloin. We skipped past that page, and I didn’t attempt to explain what that picture was all about. We found an old photo from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The picture showed damaged buildings, leaning and burning.

Nizar piped up and said, “Like in Suria (Syria)!”

Yeah, I bet. But not because of an earthquake.

We looked at pictures of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. I asked the kids to tell what me they saw in the photos. I tried to explain to them about cable cars. They didn’t understand what I meant. They were impressed with the steepness of the hills in San Francisco. They liked all the bridges.

I asked them, “Do have any other books?”, and I drank some tea.

Nada brought me a book about volcanoes. We struggled through that one. Nada can sound out words, but she didn’t have enough vocabulary to make sense of a lot of the book. Her brothers and sisters tried to read along with us.

The book took us a long time to read. I didn’t mind. Somehow it’s easier to be patient other peoples’ children. I can’t remember any more if I was patient with our own. I kind of doubt it.

It was time to go. I walked downstairs. The rest of the family was eating. There wasn’t enough room around the table, so Hussein was eating near the TV, with a plate on his lap. He looked at me and thanked me for coming. I told him that I would be back the same time on the following Thursday. Um Hussein actually smiled, and she thanked me too. I left.

We will try it again next week.