Archive for October, 2017

HT: Limping to Jerusalem

That’s all, folks. For now.

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News occurs at such warped speed every day now, you can be forgiven if you missed this small but rather good news story that broke late last week as reported in USA Today.

    U.S.-backed Iraqi forces announced Thursday they have retaken one of the Islamic State’s remaining strongholds after about 1,000 militants surrendered amid fresh signs the terror group is collapsing and unable to defend its territory.

    An Iraqi soldier helps carry a woman who fled from the the fight to oust the Islamic State group from Hawija southeast of Kirkuk, Iraq. (Photo: Marwan Ibrahim, AFP/Getty Images)

    “They’re giving up,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, who commands the coalition task force fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “Their leaders are abandoning them.”*

Wow, we’re talking about ISIS terrorists, who have always fought to the death rather than give up.

But they’re giving up.

Furthermore, after umpteen years of Iraq’s U.S.-backed military failing to stand up and defend itself, Iraq’s military in the last couple of years has actually been standing up and defending itself. While nobody was looking, it evolved — finally! — into a capable and disciplined army.

Maybe in another umpteen years we won’t have to keep propping Iraq up with our military forces and tax dollars.

* * *

That said, I was taken aback by what one of the many ISIS killers prisoners told the New York Times in an interview:

    He said he was from Hawija and had joined the Islamic State because he believed in its cause, because his elder brother had, and because the $100 a month pay was better than anything else around.”

Right. He believed in the cause so much that he just followed his Big Brother’s example and oh by the way — $100 a month was enough pay for him to slit throats.

People stuck in life down in Poordom, anywhere in this big wide world — with no hope whatsoever for an opportunity to make a good, honest living for themselves and their families — will resort to any kind of destructive and self-destructive behavior imaginable.

The only real hell is hell on earth, and poverty has a way of making life a hell for all of us.*

*The full USA Today story is here.
*More on “Life Down in Poordom” here.

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Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.

“It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…

“It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear…

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”

— Paul Tillich

The chief medical examiner for the state of New Hampshire, who has seen so much death from drug abuse, is giving up his first career for a second career in United Methodist ministry. PHOTO BY: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Here is the sort of story that makes you go “Wow!” in a depressing way — and yet “Wow!” in an inspired-by-it way.

The New York Times has a typically wonderful profile today about a medical examiner in New Hampshire — ground zero for the national opioids epidemic — who at age 60 is giving up the morgue to go into United Methodist ministry.

Dr. Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, retired after 20 years last month to enter seminary and seek ordination as a deacon.

An aside: I, like Dr. Andrew, was 60 when I entered seminary as the first step to the grueling journey to ordination as a United Methodist deacon. So I can relate a good bit to something he told The Times.

    After seeing thousands of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths, I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind.”

That’s very much like my own story. I was called to ministry as a second career after years of work as a reporter who saw up-close-and-personal the aftermath of thousands of unexpected deaths, murders, and general mayhem. It became impossible for me also “not to ponder the spiritual dimension” of it all.

Dr. Andrew’s unique story, though, stems from his alarm over the overwhelming, mind-boggling drug overdoses he saw every day in his first career as a pathologist.

It’s hard for me to grasp the cold, hard fact that overdoses, mostly of the drug fentanyl, are now the leading causes of deaths of Americans under age 50. It’s beginning to affect the statistical life expectancy of Americans.

America saw 64,000 such deaths last year alone — a 22 percent spike over the previous years. The crisis is overwhelming the former colleagues of the now-retired Dr. Andrew, according to this excerpt from Times article:

    Some medical examiners, especially in hard-hit Ohio, have had to store their corpses in cold-storage trailers in their parking lots. In Manatee County, Fla., Dr. Russell Vega, the chief medical examiner, said that when he reaches “overflow” conditions, he relies on a private body transport service to store the bodies elsewhere until his office can catch up.

    In Milwaukee, Dr. Brian L. Peterson, the chief medical examiner, said that apart from the “tsunami” of bodies — his autopsy volume is up 12 percent from last year — the national drug crisis has led to staff burnout, drained budgets and threats to the accreditation of many offices because they have to perform more autopsies than industry standards allow.

    At the same time, severe staff shortages unrelated to the drug crisis are crippling the profession, said Dr. Peterson, who is president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, which oversees accreditation. Few people go into forensic pathology in the first place, he said, largely because of low salaries, and as more forensic pathologists retire, fewer are replenishing the supply.

    The result, Dr. Peterson said, is a national crisis that has already cost at least four offices their accreditation, which can undermine public confidence and lead to court challenges over a medical examiner’s findings.

    For Dr. Andrew in New Hampshire, where a backlog of autopsies has put the state at risk of losing accreditation, that prospect is particularly distressing. He spent the first eight of his 20 years here professionalizing the office and earning its accreditation. Despite the caseload, the office has one of the most timely and transparent surveillance and reporting systems in the country.

When I was about 55 years old, in 1995, I was coping with an enormous number of overwhelming personal issues, like watching my mother lying brain dead in a coma from a stroke for two, agonizing weeks before her heart finally stopped.

The doctor had told us after her massive stroke that my mother, who never wanted to be kept alive on life support (nor do I, kids) would be dead in no less than 48 hours. Being in the hospital room looking at her lifeless body with here already dead, but not legally dead, for two full weeks — it felt like two years.

Around the same year 1995 at age 55 I was finding it harder to cope with all the aforementioned violence and mayhem I witnessed as a reporter, one who covered a kazillion violent crimes, criminal court cases, and disasters both natural and not natural.

Gone were my younger days when I was an adrenaline junkie and thrived on compartmentalizing the pain — which isn’t to say reporters don’t deeply feel the pain of suffering people — in order to get the story and it by deadline.

So, again, I can relate to this excerpt about why Dr. Andrews was called to ministry:

    Back in the morgue, Dr. Andrew said he had learned to cope in this job, and its full immersion in death, by compartmentalizing what he sees and “locking it away.”

    Every day, he said, a pathologist faces the fleeting nature of mortality. The people on his examining table could have lived a lot longer “but for a few millimeters of cholesterol in the wrong blood vessel, a second of inattention by the driver of a car or the lethal potency of a drug obtained on the street.”

    And after a while, he said, one is bound to ask, “What’s all this about?”

    His plan is to become an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, with two goals: to serve as a chaplain for the Boy Scouts of America, and to join the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy of the United Methodist Church so he can minister to troubled hikers, at least on the 161 miles of the storied trail that cross New Hampshire and its White Mountains.

    Dr. Andrew said he developed an appreciation for the essence of life by seeing its fragility. Most of the nearly 5,800 people he has examined on his stainless steel autopsy table, he said, “woke the day they died oblivious to the fact that it would be their last on earth.”

What’s it all about?

As I see it, it’s all about us who live on filling that empty, God-size hole within each and every one of us. The hole that we all try to fill by all manner of things and idolatries other than God that don’t work: drugs, alcohol, sex, over-consumption, seeking the Almighty Dollar, storing up earthly treasures we can’t take with us, and so on and so forth.

It so happens that I’ve been revisiting the theology of the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, who said that we as free persons misuse and abuse our freedom to create false absolutes. He held up what he called “the Protestant principle,”* which repudiates all the false idols and idolatries we create as finite beings as substitutes for the one true thing that is infinite.

Therefore, we suffer from constant anxiety and fear and all the effects of “existential alienation” which include: self-elevation (hubris), unbelief, sin, irrationality, and concupiscence (i.e., lust and sex in overdrive).*

You may have noticed that these effects — hubris, unbelief, lust, etc. — are driving an enormous amount of alarming news these days.

We have a critical drug-abuse problem that is in the news and it’s mightily alarming, as Dr. Andrew reports.

But as the good doctor and minister-wannabe who will benefit from so much life experience also suggested, we have an underlying, critical problem with alienation from God.

The Lord be with him in spreading the Good News.
*(Here’s the link to the Times article and the Times generally allows a few free reads of articles per month for non-subscribers. I hope you can read it in full.)
*Tillich was as Protestant as any theologian who ever lived, but he’s respected and widely read and studied by Catholic clergy and seminarians.
*By no means am I suggesting that drug and alcohol abusers are special sinners who deserve what they get if they overdose and die, although some people actually believe that. Graceless people believe all kinds of graceless things nowadays.

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For those who don’t follow me on Facebook, here’s my take that I posted there:

I like guns.

I like to shoot.

I want the right to buy a gun for sport or protection and I’m perfectly willing to wait and get checked out as thoroughly as authorities can check me out.

All I oppose is the ability for anybody to so easily build a one-man armory of weapons and ammo and devices made for killing as many people as possible in the shortest time possible.

We won’t ever stop all sick people from obtaining some weapons and finding others ways to kill and terrorize. Not any time soon.

But we don’t have to keeping greasing the wheels for domestic terrorists among us in this great, free country to keep slaughtering innocent Americans with weapons and devices not made for sport or protection.

They aren’t even guns as I see them. They are slaughter machines.

They are weapons and devices of mass destruction.

I refuse to accept this latest atrocity in Vegas as “the price of freedom.”

There’s no such thing as unlimited, unrestricted freedom where people’s safety is concerned.

And the freedom to own a slaughter machine is not a God-given right, as an astounding number of misguided politicians and Christians believe—Christians who are so adamantly “pro-life.”

I’m pro-life too and this is a pro-life issue.

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Lord God be with the victims and their families in Las Vegas and be with us all.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

— Romans 8: 26-27

Thank God the Spirit is at all times praying in us and for us when we feel weak.

Every time another tragedy like the horror in Vegas occurs it’s easy to become discouraged to the point of not knowing how or what to pray — and for hope to falter.

But we can be encouraged in our weakness and doubts by the Spirit’s intercession for us.

We can be encouraged to keep praying for the victims and their loved ones in Las Vegas even if we in our moment of weakness feel our prayer words are inadequate or imperfect.

Our prayers don’t have to be perfect. God doesn’t grade our prayers.

In times like these I pray this a lot:

    Lord, please accept the poverty of these prayers of mine as I grapple for words in the wake of this evil catastrophe.


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The ever cool, calm and collected con man Monty Hall with the wacky Let’s Make a Deal contestants.

What warm and wonderful memories I have of watching Monty Hall — that smooth little con man — with my parents in the cozy den of our little house on Kettler Street in Navasota, Texas.

Who of a certain age doesn’t have wonderful memories of the original Let’s Make a Deal and all those joyous contestants decked out in imaginative costumes and them jumping up and down like they just dropped in from Loony Toonseville while Monty just stood there being Mr. Cool.

Monty has died at age 96 and was vigorous almost all of those years. And oh by the way, what a family man: He was married almost 70 years — married 70 years — to Marilyn Plottel, an Emmy-winning TV producer who died only a few months ago.

They had two daughters, Joanna Gleason, a Tony Award-winning actress, and Sharon Hall, a television executive; a son, Richard, a producer who won an Emmy for “The Amazing Race”; a brother, Robert Hall, a lawyer; and five grandchildren.

May he and she rest in perfect love, perfect peace.

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