Archive for May, 2017

It so happens I’ve been reading William Kent Krueger’s much-acclaimed 2013 novel Ordinary Grace.

The story is about two brothers growing up in small-town Minnesota in 1961.

Bremen, Minn., is the kind of small town I grew up in myself in Texas (I turned 11 in 1961), a town where everybody knows everybody and open secrets are as common as closely guarded secrets.

Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his stuttering little brother are the sons of the Methodist preacher. He was a captain in World War II and gives free lodging to a war buddy who lives in the church basement when he’s not drinking with other vets who are haunted, to varying degrees, by memories of war.

The boys’ mom is a bit of a rebellious preacher’s wife–the preacher man was a law-school student when they married–who smokes and drinks but does make beautiful music with the couple’s talented daughter at the church on Sundays.

In a short time, all hell breaks out in this peaceful riverside hamlet as a series of tragic and mysterious deaths occur.

Against this backdrop of mystery and suspense, young Frank Drum and his little brother are big time eavesdroppers who learn that their father did something in the war that resulted in a lot of soldiers getting killed.

This is a smart and eloquent novel by one of our best mystery writers; it’s been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, Stand By Me and other great coming of age stories.

I’m halfway through it, but I can tell you it has a superb plot and subplots that, as the book’s blurb says, raise all kinds of moral questions: What secrets will destroy us? How do we deal with grief? And what solace is there in the ordinary grace of the world?

Among other things, it’s a powerful reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that ordinary Americans made for our freedoms in wars that haunt the warriors and their loved ones long after wars cease.

Order or learn more about Ordinary Grace here at Amazon.

“Youth Rising,” at the American Cemetery in Normandy.

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Mrs. Trump rocked the fashion world with a $51,000 jacket–MADE IN ITALY.

According to the Forbes 2017 list, the Walton family–S. Robson, Jim and Alice Walton–have aggregate wealth of 102 billion dollars.

Meanwhile, the Waltons keep their employees working part-time for slave wages AND living on food stamps.

Trump’s proposed budget would essentially destroy the food stamp program (and would also slash Medicaid help for the poor among us).*

As a New York Times editorial noted, food stamps would be reduced by 25 percent — $193 billion over 10 years — much of which would be achieved by shifting costs to the states.

The states can’t afford the payments, so the states will cut food aid.

Team Trump claims food stamps discourage work.

So tell that to all those Walmart employees who work their butts off every day and rely on government aid to survive.

By the way, did you see that $51,000 jacket Mrs. Trump sported in Sicily?

She looked mahvelous, dahling.

BY THE WAY, this ad for the Italian fashion house generated controversy when it ran. I can’t imagine why.

*The Times editorial notes: “The proposed cuts have little chance of enactment, but they are still dangerous. Extreme proposals are a way to make less extreme proposals seem acceptable.”
Here’s a little excerpt from by book The View From Down in Poordom: Reflections on Scriptures Addressing Poverty:

    A troubling aspect of acrimony over who should provide for the poor is that poor and struggling people inevitably are scapegoated for the sins of rich and power-hungry politicians whose hypocrisy astounds. In a blatant conflict of interest, some of the very U.S. congressmen who were farmers—thirteen of them—voted in 2012 to slash funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

    (The program is commonly known now as SNAP, and what were once called “food stamps” are now called SNAP benefits.) While cutting those benefits for Americans in need, the thirteen farmers in Congress voted to extend funding in the same massive Farm Bill legislation that provided them millions in federal farm subsidies for years to come.

    One of those congressmen, who had received $70,000 in direct cash payments from Uncle Sam in his 2012 subsidies alone, quoted the Bible in arguing for the extension. He noted that Paul said “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” It brings to mind the words of another biblical figure who said repeatedly, “Woe to you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:23–28 NRSV).

    The damaging results of those SNAP cuts to 47 million Americans quickly showed up at food banks where the poor turned to make up for their lost aid. Food banks nationwide ran out of food and reduced the amounts of food they distributed due to the shortages. The subsidies that the congressional farmers gave themselves were presumably awarded to them without a hitch.

We’re hearing it all again–that Paul said “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (I have a whole chapter in the book about that quote); that churches and outreach agencies like food banks can be the safety nets.

Trump and company are waging a war on the poor and Lord help us, that war can’t possibly have any kind of great outcome.

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Abra Kadabra. I’m not sure if this is some kind of magical Peace Ball or Trump having his fortune told. Whatever: it’s plenty strange.

Ardent Trump supporters are singing the praises of Trump’s speech about Islam in Saudi Arabia.

But author and blogger Rod Dreher at The American Conservative–not exactly the last bastion of flaming liberalism in America–wins the prize for zinging it.

Trump said this in his (now famous or infamous?) speech to the Saudis yesterday:

    Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World. This groundbreaking new center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization, and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.

Wrote Dreher:

    “This is like celebrating the Philip Morris Center for Lung Health, or the Miley Cyrus Finishing School for Young Ladies. Saudi Arabia is the world center of extremist ideology — and behind oil, that is the country’s leading export.”

Indeed, the whole speech was breathtaking in its hypocrisies, inconsistencies and absurdities.

Dreher’s response was part of his own response to Daniel Larison, one of of his colleagues at The American Conservative, who sliced and diced the speech in such a way that he exposed the utter god-awful truth about Saudi Arabia’s own brand of terrorism.

Here are excerpts (with my italics for emphasis), or
read the whole thing here:

    Trump’s Riyadh speech was as shamelessly pro-Saudi as could be. He began by praising King Salman and the “magnificent” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and followed it with a speech that could very easily have been written by their own propaganda office. He boasted about the massive $110 billion arms deal that he and Salman signed, and promised that he would help the Saudis get a “good deal” from our weapons manufacturers. (Because at least some of the weapons that will be sold are likely to be used in committing war crimes in Yemen, the American Bar Association’s human rights section warned that the agreement may violate U.S. law.)

Indeed, many and very many people in the know are saying that the deal is probably against the law.

Of course, Trump (the “law and order” President) and his supporters in D.C. won’t give a damn. They love the law, except when it gets in their way.

And by the way, Saudi war crimes (i.e., acts of terrorism) in Yemen are well documented. See here for the response from the venerable Amnesty International American chief–the same Amnesty International that Trump quoted when he discovered that Syria gassed innocent babies.

More from Larison:

    At one point, Trump referred to the region’s “humanitarian and security disaster,” but he wasn’t talking about the nightmare being created by his hosts in neighboring Yemen. On the contrary, he saluted the Saudis and their coalition for their “strong action” in Yemen and had nothing to say about the famine and outbreaks of disease that their intervention has done so much to cause. The huge weapons deal that he made with the Saudis will help them to continue battering and starving their neighbors, and he has the gall to congratulate them for their crimes and dress them up as having something to do with peace and stability. The speech hypocritically combined stern moralistic language with complete indifference to the evils being perpetrated by our regional clients with our help. Trump dubbed his approach “principled realism,” but one looks in vain for any consistent principle here other than “our despotic clients are always right.” That isn’t realism as I understand it, and it requires the routine violation of many other principles at the expense of U.S. interests.

As I said, the whole speech was so inconsistent as to take away the breath of anybody who pays attention to world affairs.

Larison wraps up with this:

    The final part of the speech consisted of Trump’s expression of his well-known hostility towards Iran. Since Iran’s voters had just delivered a sharp rebuke to their own hard-liners, it was especially unfortunate that Trump insisted on casting Iran as the main villain in the region while letting our despotic clients off the hook entirely…

    Near the end of the speech, Trump asked rhetorically, “Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?” Judging from his total silence on the evil being done to the people of Yemen by his Saudi hosts with our government’s help, Trump has answered his own question with a resounding yes.

Kudos to Larison for speaking truth to power.

    “Where I found truth, there found I my God, who is the truth itself.”

    — St. Augustine

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[NOTE: The video from the film “The Tree of Life” that I posted yesterday was apparently viewed by a bigly number of people in various countries. Unfortunately, the USA wasn’t one of them. It’s blocked in America for copyright reasons. Of that I will just say this: bummer.]

Some of my hostesses in Kaifeng in Central China where I spent 10 days in 2010. The woman on the far right owns a thriving tile and paint store with her husband. The two next to her are daughters and the lady in blue was one of my constant guides along with her brother who was out of college and jobless.

When Ian Johnson first went to China as a student three decades ago, he pronounced religion there “dead.”

But Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist now based in Berlin and Beijing, has witnessed a transformation, one he documents in “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao,” published in April.

China is experiencing “one of the great religious revivals of our time,” Johnson writes. “Across China, hundreds of temples, mosques and churches open each year, attracting millions of new worshippers. … Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.

“This is not,” he continues, “the China we used to know.”

— From a story in Religion News Service

I attended mass at a Catholic Church which was next door to a small hotel where I stayed in Beijing seven years ago.

In September 2010 I spent 10 days tramping around Kaifeng, a city of 20 million people in Central China, before flying to Beijing for four more days of sightseeing there. (Kaifeng happened to be the hometown of the Chinese Houston Rockets superstar Yao Ming.)

A new book by Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Ian Johnson examines the explosion of religion these days in China. I met this nun at a Catholic bookstore in Beijing. Unfortunately, unlike many Chinese people today, she spoke no English but did speak Italian, which I don’t.

I decided to make my two-week tour of China after going to a Chinese “chat site” (remember those?) on the internet and befriending a Chinese businessman who had a thriving tiles-and-paint store.

He and his family and friends treated me like royalty, putting me up in a nice hotel and providing me with young friends and family members, who speak better English than I do, as tour guides at my disposal 24-7.

So I was interested in an article, which you can read here, about the explosion of religion in China these days. It’s by Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize at The Wall Street Journal years ago.

A money quote from the article:

    “Chinese people perceive society to be so corrupt and so chaotic, without any center of gravity or morality,” he said. “Religious associations are refuges from the radical secular society they find themselves in.”

    As one person Johnson interviews in the book says: “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.”

I never made it to the Great Wall because my guide and I took a wrong subway trying to get to the train station to catch a ride there and anyway, it was my last day in China and I was so exhausted from climbing steep stairs at temples all over China for two weeks I wasn’t really up to walking the wall.

China has many and very many steep steps, Belize me.

He’s a few more pix from that memorable China visit.

Buddhism is big in China, of course. On the day I visited a kazillion-year-old Buddhist temple compound, it turned out to be a major Buddhist holiday and the many and very many old temples within the compound were packed with thousands of worshipers and monks. And yet there were so many temples–did I mention there were very many, like dozens–that I had no trouble finding a place to sit and observe and take pictures of folks.

In one of the temples, a young monk at study.

The parks in China are massive–and all of them gorgeous.

You’ll see these kinds of signs all over the streets of Beijing.

The Forbidden City. I spent six hours on a hot day walking through and around one ancient palace after another, and saw only a fraction of the city’s palaces. They contain 9,000 rooms.

I was feeling tragic like I was Marlon Brando and getting all excited and this little China Girl said to me… Oh never mind. It’s personal.

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Music from Lacrimosa (Requiem)*, a Latin word meaning crying or weeping), with film from Terence Malick’s masterpiece film The Tree of Life about eternity and the meaning of life, death, evil, suffering and other such issues that actually matter in life.

Longtimers here at the Cult of the Jitterbug know that The Tree of Life is one of my Top 5 favorites films.

So it ain’t an action-figure hero popcorn movie.

That’s one thing so great about it.

It’s an important movie.

And four minutes into this video I’m having goose bumps, every time.

*Lacrimosa dies illa — Full of tears will be that day
Qua resurget ex favilla — When from the ashes shall arise
Judicandus homo reus. — The guilty man to be judged.
Huic ergo parce, Deus: — Therefore spare him, O God,
Pie Jesu Domine, — Merciful Lord Jesus,
Dona eis requiem. Amen. — Grant them eternal rest. Amen.

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It might be said that The View From Down in Poordom is a long meditation on my mother and her story of childhood abandonment and poverty, as the book begins and ends with her story.

My book The View From Down in Poordom is dedicated to the memory of my beloved parents Goldie and Deanie McKay.

Many years before my mom died in 1995, I interviewed her for a family history. She had always been reluctant to talk about her story and why she hated her father so much that she had to leave forgiveness of him to God.

Before I prodded her into sitting down and talking about her growing-up years and how she and my grandmother and aunt and uncle were abandoned, she used to simply say of my grandfather that “he was a dandy little son of a bitch who wore a derby hat and carried a cane.” That’s about all she had to say and that was that.

Her memory of her father wasn’t warm and fuzzy for sure. But then, all those family tales in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, aren’t warm and fuzzy either. Read the stories of deception, betrayal, abandonment and hatred in the patriarchal stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their many wives and children.

Read about His Greatness King David’s god-awful family life in the books of Samuel and Chronicles–especially the end of the old king’s life.

The Bible is not the stuff of a Happy Day Hallmark Card, not all of it anyway. Those awful biblical stories are the stories of us, today and forever, as sin-sick, broken individuals, families and communities.

We’re all trying to get along in a messy, violent world and all in need of the healing power of God’s extravagant grace.

But as for my mother’s story, what I always remembered so distinctly in my interview with her was her saying something about her poverty that became part of the book and the book’s very title.

“We were pretty far down in Poordom for a while,” she told me.


Poordom. Being the language and word lover that I am, I was struck by that word she coined. It was years later, in seminary, that I connected the word to my study of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is very much the Poordom of God, for God so loved the poor, as evidenced on almost every page of the Bible, that we read in the Bible that God said “to know me, know the poor.” (See Jeremiah 22:33-37 and also see my book: I have a whole chapter about that quote.)

My mother survived poverty and lived a good long and happy and healthy life of 84 years, including 40 years with my dad before his sudden death of a heart attack in his sleep at age 70.

But her time in Poordom left marks on her–so much so that she couldn’t stand to see a child go hungry. Her whole 84 years she worried about whether all her family members had eaten, so much so that to this day I and my firstborn daughter and her granddaughter Amy Rodriguez joke when we see or call each other: “Yeaten yet?”

This woman who grew up knowing the pain of hunger and malnourishment constantly had to be reassured that no McKay blood was hungry.

As the old joke goes, I picked great parents.

Happy Mothers Day and may God’s grace be shed upon those grieving sons and daughters and grandchildren mourning the loss of a mom or dad today–it’s always a painful day for many among us who’ve lost a family member in recent weeks, months or years.

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President Trump and his comrades from the USSR having a large time in the White House.

If this isn’t a scary bridge too far what is?

This morning Donald Trump tweeted:

    James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!


The President of the United States is threatening to blackmail the FBI chief that he, the president fired, when the FBI chief’s investigation into the Trump campaign for president was gaining steam. (James Comey had just requested more resources for the FBI’s investigation into TrumpWorld and a grand jury is calling people int to testify in the investigation.)

Now, Trump–ever the blow-hard playground bully–is either bluffing or telling the truth.

If he’s bluffing and just spewing his usual Twitter bile–and he probably is–that’s bad enough. The guy is the leader of the free world and Russia and the free world watches and listens to this stuff with fear and trembling, as do Americans who know he’s unfit to be captain of a Pee Wee football team, much less the leader of the free world and Russia.

But let’s assume he’s telling the truth, that he taped private conversations with James Comey when Comey was his FBI director.

From this day forward, every person who has a private conversation with the POTUS in the White House or anywhere else will have to wonder if the supposedly private dialogue is being taped.

Tricky Dicky Nixon taped people secretly.

This dummy in the White House doesn’t even bother making intentional blackmail a secret!

That’s the kind of story that makes you pucker up with fear and go “Wow!”

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