Tag Archives: reason

Neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular: The Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

martin luther king jr

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On a weekend where we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our President-Elect stoop to a Twitter tirade against Representative John Lewis, a true hero of the Civil Rights movement because Lewis dared to question his legitimacy. A true statesman would have either ignored it or simply making the comment that Lewis is entitled to his opinion. But our President-Elect has incapable of such behavior. When he was at Liberty University last year on Martin Luther King Day, he only mentioned Dr. King in regard to the fact that he had set a record for attendance at Liberty.

Even longstanding conservatives bastions in Congress who have worked with Mr. Lewis, and conservative media titans were  shocked by President-Trump’s action and many rightly commented that the only person that Donald Trump has not attacked is Vladimir Putin.

Like a lot of people it seems it seems that our soon to be President seeks to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King may important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history, but the President-Elect seems not even to care about that. It is a sad spectacle where the man who was elected to be all of our President dismisses such an important man in our history.

So now more than ever it is important for all Americans remember and act upon the legacy of Dr. King.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of many of our leaders, especially the President-Elect, however, it is also true of most of us as well. I hate to admit it is regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right thing, but to shrink in cowardice, and appeal to the cold calculations of being politic, or choosing to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that in 2017 we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity.

Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it. As a result I fully expect we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it.

In spite of that it is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, popular, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands. If we don’t we deserve what we get. I’m sure that Dr. King would agree.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, culture, ethics, History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Terrible Danger of Unreason and Demagoguery

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As the inauguration of Donald Trump as President draws near it is important to remember the words of the late Adlai Stevenson who once wrote:

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.”

I have traveled to a lot of places, in this country and around the world where reason has been a scarce commodity and to me that has always been a frightening specter; a world where reason is all too often sacrificed on the altar of political, ideological or religious expediency. Over the past year, and more frighteningly over the past few weeks what was once a specter is beginning to look like reality.

But reason does matter, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril as Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” History shows us in times like this, where reason is tossed as primordial urges rise, that people all too often fall back on old hatreds and myth rather than seeking answers; instead of trying to figure out what is really important; instead of studying the details of the great questions; that frustrated people become intellectually lazy and gravitate towards angry demagogues who play to their often legitimate anger and frustration. As such we have entered an era where Facebook and Twitter memes with little truth but much emotion form the basic thoughts of many people.

But populist demagogues with authoritarian leanings like the President Elect do not need to appeal to reason. Instead they appeal to something more primal; they appeal to fear, anger, and the need of desperate people to find someone to blame.

Appealing to fear and loathing is so much easier than using reason. To call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or imperialist, unbeliever, heretic or even a racist; and then connect them to the evil we want to demonize them is far easier than it is to actually engage them in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context.

Too often we allow people of little learning but whose great charm and salesmanship ability, to sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum. That is a tragedy for all of us no matter what our political, ideological, or religious views.

Such salesmanship may comfort the true believer in whatever cause may be, and it may even make them feel superior to those that disagree with them. But it blinds them to reality and ensures that they never become aware of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The untruths they believe serve as protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them.  John F Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Thus we are inundated with fake news, fake history, outright lies and propaganda that go unchallenged by people who should know better.

In times like ours, it is most important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology.  As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.

Reason, it is important, and the dangers that we face as a nation, society, and world demand that we return to it, no-matter what our occupation or station in life. If we do not stand for truth and the freedom of thought maintained in reason and objectivity we will see freedom die. George Orwell wrote something that we should not forget: “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

Reason is not the Subversion but the Salvation of Freedom

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Adlai Stevenson once wrote:

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.”

I have traveled to a lot of places, in this country and around the world where reason has been a scarce commodity and to me that has always been a frightening specter; a world where reason is all too often sacrificed on the altar of political, ideological or religious expediency.

But reason does matter, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril as Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” History shows us in times like this, where reason is tossed as primordial urges rise, that people all too often fall back on old hatreds and myth rather than seeking answers; instead of trying to figure out what is really important; instead of studying the details of the great questions; that frustrated people become intellectually lazy and gravitate towards angry demagogues who play to their often legitimate anger and frustration.

But demagogues do not need to appeal to reason, they appeal to something more primal, they appeal to fear, anger, and the need of desperate people to find someone to blame.

Appealing to fear and loathing is so much easier than using reason. To call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or imperialist, unbeliever, heretic or even a racist; and then connect them to the evil we want to demonize them is far easier than it is to actually engage them in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context.

Too often we allow people of little learning but whose great charm and salesmanship ability, to sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum. That is a tragedy for all of us no matter what our political, ideological, or religious views.

Such salesmanship may comfort the true believer in whatever cause may be, and it may even make them feel superior to those that disagree with them. But it blinds them to reality and ensures that they never become aware of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The untruths they believe serve as protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them.  John F Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

In times like ours, it is most important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology.  As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.

Reason, it is important, and the dangers that we face as a nation, society, and world demand that we return to it.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, philosophy, Political Commentary

Wisdom & Empathy: Undoing the Cycle of Folly

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The Author on the Iraq-Syrian Border, December 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been continuing to be a bit reflective and it seems with each day there is something to cause me to reflect on different aspects of life and the human experience. When I am in these reflective times I tend to look back at flawed, yet brilliant men who had unique insights into their times and even the future, but who were often ignored by those who supposedly knew better.

British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“A study of history, past and in the making, seems to suggest that most of mankind’s troubles are man-made, and arise from the compound effect of decisions taken without knowledge, ambitions uncontrolled by wisdom and judgments that lack understanding.  Their ceaseless repetition is the grimmest jest that destiny plays on the human race. Men are helped to authority by their knowledge continually make decisions on questions beyond their knowledge. Ambition to maintain their authority forbids them from admitting the limits of their knowledge and calling upon the knowledge that is available in other men. Ambition to extend the bounds of their authority leads them to a frustration of others opportunity and interference with others’ liberty that, with monotonous persistency, injures themselves or their successors on the rebound.  

The fate of mankind in all ages has been the plaything of petty personal ambitions. The blend of wisdom with knowledge would restrain men from contributing to this endless cycle of folly, but understanding can guide them toward progress.” B.H. Liddell-Hart “Lawrence of Arabia” DeCapo Press, Reprint, originally published as “The Man Behind the Legend” Halcyon House 1937 

Over the past few days I have been thinking about the reaction to the near government shutdown, the latest mass murder in this country, and the latest events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. I have found each of these events troubling in their own way, especially when I see the statements of powerful leaders, political, religious, military, and media about them. With the exception of the response of President Obama to the killings in Roseburg Oregon, I was troubled because it seemed like most commentators had no empathy about any of these events. Power, politics and ideology seem to obscure the pain and suffering of people.

Since I returned from Iraq I have become much more empathic regarding the suffering of others. In some ways this is good, but it also brings about a certain amount of pain as I feel that suffering. Some account that as wisdom and tell me so, though most of the time I feel painfully unwise. Even so I strive to seek wisdom even as I recognize my own limitations, and as such I look to history and the lives of others who seem to have struggled with some of the same issues that trouble me.

The ceaseless repetition of these tragedies and the lack of empathy of so many powerful political, media, and even religious leaders cause me a lot of pain, and sometimes I wish I did not feel so much. That is interesting because until I went to Iraq and came home I was very good at being able to compartmentalize my feelings. But that kind of compartmentalization is now very difficult for me, so I have to try to integrate them with reason and knowledge and act on them, and to do this I turn to books and history for lessons and examples.

The late James Baldwin, a noted African-American author and civil rights activist wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” I can understands that, because when I find myself experiencing such feelings I turn to history, to books and the lives of people much like me.

One of my favorite flawed heroes is T.E. Lawrence, or as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia. I think that Lawrence was gifted with profound insights and had a rare sensitivity to humanity, politics, conflict, and even peace than many people before or since. Lawrence wrote, “The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Sadly, all too many of our leaders, and not just American leaders have eyes that are misted and minds warped by ambition for success. But as I mentioned yesterday, nothing that we despise in others is entirely absent from ourselves.

But that is a hallmark of our humanity.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, iraq,afghanistan, philosophy

Critical Thinking & Conscience: Learning from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been taking the time to do some reading and reflecting and yesterday I wrote a short piece about reason, critical thinking and the challenge of unreason and anti-intellectualism in our society. As I did that I was reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he addressed issues prevalent in the 1960s; many of which unfortunately are still with us today.

A lot of people today seek to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King was important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history. Thus we miss so much of what he still teaches us today.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of our leaders. However, it is also true of most of us, for regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right, but to shrink in cowardice, appeal to the calculation of being politic, or choose to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience today. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity. Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it and as a result we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it. It is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, History, Political Commentary

Reason, the Salvation of Freedom

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Adlai Stevenson once wrote

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.”

I have traveled to a lot of places, in this country and around the world where reason has been a scarce commodity and to me that has always been a frightening specter; a world where reason is is all too often sacrificed on the altar of political, ideological or religious expediency.

I had a Church History professor in seminary that was known for his attention to detail and his expectation that his students would master the subject.  His method was quite simple. A fellow student asked him during review for a mid-term exam “what do we need to study for the test?”  His answer was simple “everything.” The student restated his question “what do we really need to know?”  My professor paused and made a comment that did not make the student very happy.  He said something that I paraphrase here “it is the details that enable you to see the big picture, without the details you know nothing.”

A good number of my fellow students did not appreciate the fact that he was deadly serious.  I actually think that GOP Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who flunked out of my seminary, may have been one of them. It was not simply the ability to remember names and dates and events but to be able to connect them and see what was really important.  Many did not take him seriously and when the test came many failed it.  In fact some continued to fail every exam because they could not reconcile that details were important. The attitude of a good number of my classmates was that history, philosophy or even systematic theology was not important especially if they involved study of people or ideas that they did not agree with.

Unfortunately we now live in an age of anti-intellectualism and anti-historicism. As much as some of us would like to try to affix blame, this is not a problem that can be blamed on any one side of the political spectrum. Sadly, it cuts across the spectrum as people return to more primal instincts in an uncertain time, where established political parties and systems of government seem unable to get the job done, where economic systems seem rigged in favor of a small minority of people and where the social and religious underpinnings of society are rocked by change and uncertainty.

But reason does matter, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril as Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” History shows us in times like this, where reason is tossed aside in favor of primordial urges; that instead of seeking answers and instead of trying to figure out what is really important and studying the details of the great questions, that frustrated people become intellectually lazy and gravitate towards people who play to their often legitimate anger and frustration.

People simply fall back on the dogmas presented by the Unholy Trinity of Pundits, Politicians and Preachers that cater to their ideology for reassurance and quite often carry very dangerous demagogues into office with often-tragic results for their nations and the world.  The demagogues of the Unholy Trinity are quite good at taking advantage of frightened and angry people who need scapegoats.

If you listen to talk radio or are a devoted fan of any particular cable news pundit you can see this on display daily and even more so by our political leaders and those seeking political power. For the most part what is presented is at best half-truth sprinkled with deadly venom of hatred to make the half-truth an absolute truth.  In such a world facts are only important if the “true believer” can use them buttress his ideological bias even if he has to take the completely out of context to in order to do so.  The demagogues do not need to appeal to reason, they appeal to something more primal, they appeal to fear, anger, and the need of desperate people to find someone to blame.

Appealing to fear and loathing is so much easier than using reason. To call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or Imperialist, Unbeliever or Heretic or even a Racist; and then connect them to the evil we want to demonize them is far easier than it is to actually engage them in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context. The same is true when we try to shut them down without even listening to them or giving the chance to air their views, even views that are not supported by the facts or history. Likewise when we use such labels against those that disagree with us we dehumanize our opponents thereby justifying any evil that we use to silence them. That is one reason that on this site I do my best to listen to others, even those who do not agree with me and why I do my best to build bridges and maintain a respectful dialogue. I may disagree with someone’s argument but I will always do my best to treat them with respect, allow them to present their position and unless they are threatening me with death or bodily harm allow their comments to remain on the site. Sadly, I have had some of those threats, notably from known White Supremacists, one of which was so specific in violent intent that I had to report the man to the FBI.

That being said, I have a decent number of people who comment and express their disagreement, sometimes quite strongly, with me who are respectful and who I will never label with any of those often-pejorative terms. In fact there one commentator on this site with who I have often spirited disagreements, but despite that I have come to appreciate him and believe that if we were to spend any amount of time together drinking beer and watching baseball that we could become fast friends. But sadly, I do not think that many people on either side of the political divide could do now. I actually wouldn’t mind spending time with this man. Why? Because despite all of our disagreements; he remains respectful and continues to comment. I think that speaks volumes about his character, which has to be honorable. I think that is what we are supposed to be about in the United States.

Sometimes it seems to me that we presume that if we repeat what we believe enough, even if it what we believe is unsound or erroneous that it will become truth.  As individuals, governments, institutions and businesses we often settle for easy answers that agree with our presuppositions and dismiss opposing views as heresy.  Too often we allow people of little learning but whose great charm and salesmanship ability, to sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum. That is a tragedy for all of us no matter what our political, ideological, or religious views.

I have written on this site about the study of history as well as ways of learning.  The little things do matter, and the study of history, philosophy, theology, the sciences, economics in fact anything of any importance is based on understanding details, and things like precedent and context.  It is not enough to string together a series of quotations or citations if they are taken out of context, altered or intentionally misused to fit our ideology or doctrine, whatever it may be.

Such methods may comfort the true believer in whatever cause and even make them feel superior to those that disagree but such thinking. But it blinds them to reality and ensures that they never become aware of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The “wall of words” that flow so easily from the mouths and pens of the members of the Unholy Trinity that their faithful followers, ensures that they are unable to separate them from reality, truth from fiction, opinion from fact.  This “wall of words” serves as their protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them.  John F Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

In times like this it is most important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology.  As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.

Reason, it is important, and as unreasonable as it sounds there is a prayer that neatly sums up what I desire for me and for our society:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth

From the laziness that is contented with half truth

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

Good Lord, deliver me.

Have a great night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, faith, History, leadership, Political Commentary

The Enduring Mystery of an Encounter with an AIDS Patient

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Last night I wrote about my early experience dealing with AIDS while serving as an Army Medical Service Corps personnel officer in 1987. In the 1990s that experience changed as I began to deal with men and women who were dying of the effects of full blown AIDS while serving as a hospital chaplain. The experiences of being with those men and women, and in some cases with their families, or loved ones was another chapter in my acceptance of Gays as well as other people marginalized and abandoned by my fellow Christians.

This is an account of one of those encounters at Parkland Hospital in Dallas where I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education residency, it is not about the politics of AIDS, instead it is about humanity, connection, faith, mystery and things that I cannot explain. Those who know me or have followed my writings on this site know my struggles with faith and God, belief and unbelief.

Even today thinking about this encounter brings tears to my eyes and makes me wonder about faith, life, reason and mystery. Frankly, it is something that I cannot explain, nor do I care to. I am content to live with the mystery of something that I cannot explain, but then at the same time, I am not.

As Anais Nin wrote: “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

Sometimes death comes unannounced but other times it sounds a warning.  Most of the time we think of such warnings as what our body is saying to us, maybe someone is having chest pains or that we know of a terminal condition which is getting worse and the doctors say that there is nothing else that they can do.  Other times it appears that some people almost have a sixth sense about their impending death and leave notes or say “goodbye” to loved ones in a different way than they would normally do.

When I see or hear about the sixth sense kind of incident I find that I am intrigued.  As a student of history I have read countless accounts where soldiers know that they will not survive a particular battle and leave things or messages for their friends to give to loved ones.

There have been times when I have had a sixth sense about what was going to happen to someone and the feeling is like you are watching something unfold in slow motion but can do nothing to stop it.

This story is a bit different and took place during an overnight as the “on call” chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency. Parkland is a rather large, at the time of my residency a 940 bed county hospital and Level One Trauma center.  The “on call” chaplain after normal hours was the only chaplain in the hospital to cover all emergencies in the house.  Usually I stationed myself in the ER area as that was the “hottest” place for ministry at any given time.  I would always take a spin around our 9 ICUs sometime in the evening to make sure that nothing was brewing; but unless something was going bad on one of them would always end up back in the ER.

One night I had just finished with a situation involving a violent death in the ER when about Nine PM I got a page from “9 South” our General Medicine Step-Down ward. This was a ward that not much usually happened on, in fact as a critical care and trauma type I considered it and other wards like it as a bit boring as nothing much usually happened there.

The nurse that I talked to when I returned the page told me that I needed to come up right away. She said that she had a patient who was convinced that she was going to die that night.  Intrigued, I told the nurse, that I would be right up and made my way up to the ward.

I got to the ward about 9:15 PM and met the nurse who further explained the situation to me while I reviewed the chart.  The nurse was an RN who had come to the United States from India and she was obviously unnerved by what was going on. She told me about the patient, I reviewed the chart as is my normal procedure and then went in to visit the lady. There was nothing in the chart to indicate any problems, in fact she was listed as improving enough to go home the next day, discharge orders were already in the chart.

The lady was in her mid-30s and she was HIV positive. She was married, and her husband who was also HIV positive and in a more advanced stage of the disease had been discharged from the hospital the day before. She had come in for a few day stay as she had been spiking a fever but that was under control, and she had no other medical issues. She was not at the point of having any of the major opportunistic infections or diseases associated with full blown AIDS, her T-Cell count was good.  Clinically she was stable and expected to do well for a number of years to come.

But despite all the good numbers, stable condition and good prognosis the woman was convinced that she was going to die, this very evening.

Just after the evening shift change the patient had told the nurse that “the Lord was going to take her home tonight.”  This troubled the nurse as it would any normal rational person, so she called the duty Internal Medicine resident physician to come and speak with the lady. The resident could not convince here that she was going to be okay and that she told both of them that she was going to die that evening and “go home and be with Jesus.”

Now for those who have never lived in the south “going home” is not like leaving the office at the end of the day.  Elvis “went home” wherever that was (see “Men in Black”) and if you are talking with someone raised in the South and they start talking about “going home” you better stop and clarify to make sure that they are going home to watch the Braves on television and drink a beer, or if they are planning on dying.

I had a grandmother who told me from the time that I was 5 years old that she was either “going home” or “wasn’t going to be around much longer.” Of course she was convinced that she was going to die, and once I stirred up a hornet’s nest when after she told me that “she wast going to be around much longer  So I asked her “where are you moving to?” Granny was not impressed and gave me an earful. Granny lived to be almost 90 years old when she finally “went home”  when I was 40 after giving me 35 years worth of warning, but I digress…

Now patently I am of the mind that if the numbers say that you will live I believe the numbers.  I’m a baseball guy, God speaks to me through baseball and I play the percentages. It is the rational thing to do, which means that while I believe that God can intervene in situations I don’t bet on that happening. I read the chart. I talk to the nursing staff, and I talk with the physicians.

After talking with the resident and nurse I was convinced that this lady would walk out of the hospital in the morning and probably outlive her husband. Then I met the lady.

I walked into her room. She was sitting up in bed with her Bible open beside her on her mattress. She appeared to be very calm and there was a peaceful sense about her.  She was from Jamaica and very polite and when I introduced myself to her she greeted me warmly with the accent characteristic of that island nation.

“So you are the pastor?” she asked.

I replied that I was the Chaplain and that the nurse and doctor had asked me to spend some time with her.

She then said “Ah yes, they do not believe me because I told them that Jesus told me that he will take me home tonight.”

So I asked her what she believed was going on with her. She then described to me what had occurred that evening to make her think that she was going to die. “You see pastor, the doctors say that I will go to my house tomorrow but I will not.”

She paused and even more curious I nodded for her to go on and said “really? Tell me more.”

She continued “Pastor you see this evening Jesus came to me, he visit me and tell me that I will go and be with him tonight.”

Now I have to admit that I was skeptical. However, she was not acting emotional or even bothered about what she just said. Normally I might ask for a psychiatric consult, but she seemed to be completely rational, and her chart made no mention of any mental illness or psychological issues.

I was fascinated and asked her to tell me more. She then went on a fairly long recitation of her faith journey from the time that she was a young girl. She told me how she frequently would sense God’s presence and hear his voice at different points in her life. She told me how she had gotten HIV from her husband, who had been a drug abuser and how much it meant for her to be right with others and God.

So I asked her about the specifics of “why she thought that she would die tonight?”

Calmly she explained. “The doctors tell me that I will be well and go home tomorrow. They tell me that I am in good condition and that I will live a long time, but that does not matter to me because Jesus told me today that he will take me home to be with him….tonight.” 

The word tonight was said with a confidence that stunned me. She talked as if this was a regular every day occurrence and her face was radiant.  She continued “I love Jesus and know that he will not lie to me so I know that I will be with him tonight.”

Her faith was touching and powerful in its simplicity and the amount of trust that she showed even to a message that she believed to be from Jesus that was completely different than the news of the doctors. After our conversation, which lasted about 30 minutes involved me probing her faith, asking what she understood about her condition and talking about her family. It seemed to me that our visit was a time for her to tie up the loose ends of her life and that I was the person that she was taking the time to share them with.

As we closed she asked me if I would pray with her and give her a blessing which I did.  She thanked me, reached out and asked for a hug. She embraced me weakly and then let go, and she thanked me again.  I was moved by this, still not convinced that Jesus would take her home. I didn’t she was going to die but there was a certain finality in her words and actions that gave me a bit of doubt about the facts and numbers that I trusted in.

When I left her room, I charted my visit, wrapped things up with the resident and the nurse and went back down to ER where more carnage was waiting, shootings, motor vehicle accidents and drug overdoses.

About 2:30 AM my pager went off. It was the nurse’s station on Nine South. I returned the call and the nurse that I had talked with earlier was on the line.

She was nearly frantic and said: “Chaplain, please come quick, I went in to check her vitals and she is dead!”  I put on my best calm voice and said “Who is dead?” 

The nurse nearly in a panic said “The lady that said that God was going to take her home, she died!”  I looked up from the Trauma ER nurses’ station and realized that there was nothing immediate and told the nurse  “Okay I’ll be right up” and went up to the ward as quickly as I could.

When I got to the ward to find the nurse pacing anxiously outside the door of the patient’s room.  I asked if the nurse if she was okay, meaning her and not the now deceased patient. The poor nurse replied that she was upset by the death because the lady should not be dead. She was frightened and that she didn’t understand how the patient could calmly know that she was going to die.  Now the nurse was not a southerner unless it was the south part of the Indian subcontinent.  She was relatively new to Texas and the American South she was not as attuned to some of the religious and cultural aspects of either the South or some of the Caribbean islands, where the lady had come.

After helping the nurse calm down I met the resident who was in the room looking perplexed, when I walked in he said “This women shouldn’t be dead.” 

I couldn’t think of much else to say so I just said to him “sometimes it’s just someone’s time even if the numbers don’t say so.” 

He said: “Yeah, I know, but this was really freaky because she told me that she was going to die tonight and she did.”

I did concur with this young doctor that what had happened was a bit on the unusual side but that we couldn’t discount what she believed especially since she had been correct. As the resident went to finish up paperwork I looked at the woman. It looked like she had simply fallen asleep. Her Bible was on her lap and opened to the book of Revelation, the 21st chapter. Although I cannot be sure exactly what she was reading can only imagine that it was this verse “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3b-5 NRSV)

This dear woman had passed away, gone home looking forward to a place where whatever tears or sorrows she had experienced would be wiped away. I closed her Bible, gently placed her hands together over it and prayed a prayer of commendation before pulling the bed sheet over her face and body.

On leaving the room I spent a bit more time with the nurse who was beginning to gather herself after this unusual death.  A couple of hours later I would escort the body of this woman to our morgue accompanied by the nurse and a LVN.

If you have never made the walk to a morgue it is always the longest walk you will ever make. At Parkland it seemed that no matter where you were coming from the walk took forever as it is a massive facility, and in the wee hours of the morning while most of the world sleeps, that walk is an eternity.

As we rode the elevator down to the basement where the morgue was located we continued to talk a bit more. When we got to the basement and commenced the walk down the long and empty corridor to the morgue we did so in silence. I unlocked the door and then the door to the walk in refrigerator, which could hold up to eight adult bodies on cold stainless steel gurneys at any given time. Dimly lit and damp the morgue has a truly macabre ambiance which is magnified by the sight of bodies of the deceased wrapped in body bags and covered by white sheets.

Once I had admitted the body and locked the door to the morgue the two nurses left to head back to the 9th floor. I took the chart and other paperwork up to our office where our decedent affairs clerk would complete the death certificate. The daytime duty chaplain would have the responsibility of discharging the woman’s body after an autopsy was conducted and a funeral home came to take her body to her final resting place.

I thought how unusual this case was as I sat for a while in the office. I had heard of similar things but had never seen something like this before where the person in question made such a claim and was right defying the numbers that said she would walk out of the hospital. After a the rest of the evening, or rather the early morning was relatively uneventful and my shift came to an end as the rest of the staff came in for the day. I briefed the chaplain who was taking the pager, did my debriefing with my fellow Pastoral Care residents and went home, wondering what had happened.

Physicist Max Planck who originated Quantum Theory said: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

It is a mystery, so I guess I should leave it there…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Doubt on a Sunday Afternoon

shakethefinger

 

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

Many off my readers as well as people I deal with on a regular basis struggle with faith and doubt. Today I was reading a column in the New York Times that brought up a very interesting article called Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins  by T.M. Luhrmann, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/t-m-luhrmann-where-reason-ends-and-faith-begins.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region&region=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region a professor at Stanford. It talked about the point in different where individuals make a decision of what they chose to believe because it is reasonable and what they chose to believe by faith. I also read an article by Bishop Gene Robinson called Hope When the World’s Gone off the Rails  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/27/hope-when-the-world-s-gone-off-the-rails.html Both were excellent articles because they deal with a reality that many religious people don’t want to deal with. Something that I have struggled with most of my life, but especially after I returned from Iraq in 2008.

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.

Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.
During those dark days, particularly the times where I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth attempting to have enough faith to help others in crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley even though I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied doctrinal suppositions as well as cultural, political and sociological prejudices.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist and as I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light, especially the stories of men and women that we venerate for their faith who doubted and even when they believed often disputed God. The Old Testament is full of their stories and there are even some in the New Testament. Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.”

Thus I find it hard to deal with preachers and others who are so full of certitude that they are full of shit, no matter what their faith tradition. God is too big for that.

I rediscovered faith and life as I anointed that man in our emergency room in December 2009. To my surprise faith returned. I believe again but I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day, it keeps me humble. And for that I’m grateful.

Peace and have a wonderful rest of your weekend,

Padre Steve+

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