Archive for October, 2007

The two sides of my son

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The first pic below is of my three-year-old son on picture day. He picked out the tie, not because he wanted to look good for photos, but because he thought his girlfriend at preschool would like it. The one on the right is his Halloween photo. If you don’t recognize the character, he’s Gene Simmons, bassist and singer from the “Hottest Band in the Land,” KISS. He’s a big fan. He and his friend, Vaughan, like to sing along to “Rock and Roll All Night” although they have adapted the lyrics as follows:

“I wanna rock and roll all night, and part of every day…”

What can I say, he’s walking to his own drumbeat.

Meaning what you say isn’t always easy

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Meaning what you say isn’t always easy

I have a brilliant friend who, by the time he was about 30, was teaching graduate-level classes and was on track to become a full-fledged professor. Though he hadn’t yet finished his dissertation and didn’t have his doctoral degree, the school hired him with the understanding that he would complete the doctoral work within a certain time.

Pressed with the demands of academic research as well as those of his job and growing family, he had to push forward with his graduate work. He struggled with the dissertation, but believed he did not have time to start a new project.

Finally, he completed the document, and as he delivered it to the committee, promptly sank his own ship before it had a chance to leave the harbor: “Here,” he said, laying the massive tome before them, “I don’t believe a word of it, but it’s finished.”

In relatively short succession, his dissertation was rejected, his Ph.D. was left incomplete and he lost his teaching position for lack of credentials.

As someone who makes a living in large part by having something worthwhile to say on a regular basis, I can identify with the pressure of regularly pulling together meaningful material. My wife, who preaches nearly every week, relates as well. Though I don’t think either of us would preface something we presented in print at a pulpit with the claim that we don’t believe a word of it, there are times when you feel less confident than others to stand behind the claims you’re making.

Each of us has been in a situation where we feel forced into offering words when we’re less than inspired. Maybe we’re visiting relatives with whom we have little or nothing in common. It can happen when someone comes to us in crisis, seeking comfort or answers.

One hard lesson I’ve had to learn in my first seven years of marriage is that sometimes there are no appropriate words. Sometimes, it’s best just to shut up and listen. Often, our very presence and attention can be more comforting than any words we can muster, particularly those that fall back on old cliches or sentiments that sound nice, but that we don’t really mean.

In Romans 8, Paul assures that the Spirit intercedes, even when we can offer nothing more than “sighs too deep for words.” In some instances, the best thing we can do, rather than trying to fix the problem, is to sigh, struggle or mourn alongside someone. It’s a lot harder than offering a trite phrase or poorly timed humor, but those moments of presence and compassion can go a long way toward healing.

In those instances when we feel compelled or forced to use words, the wisdom of Theodor Geisel – aka Dr. Seuss – comes to mind. One of my favorite books from childhood was “Horton Hears a Who,” about an earnest elephant that cares for a small community of creatures no one else even seems to notice.

The Whos are understandably guarded about his offer to help, not only because of his tremendous size and power, but also because they are so used to being overlooked. Horton’s response is simple. He says, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.”

Meaning what we say, and saying what we mean, may seem easy enough. But too often it’s more efficient to say what sounds good rather than something with real meaning. Sometimes, in those weeks when nothing I feel I can stand behind has come and my deadline is fast approaching, I start with a prayer. Instead of staying in “author” mode, I think of myself as a vessel, often laden with sighs too deep for words.

Eventually, the words come, not always on command, but so far, so good.

Why Al Gore shouldn’t run

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Why Al Gore shouldn’t run

Former Vice President Al Gore has hit his popular stride. In the last year, he has won both an Oscar and an Emmy, and now he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Millions have heeded his warnings about imminent climate change, and he has won support from both major political parties who now acknowledge we’re a big part of the problem.

Gore’s visibility and popularity likely will never be stronger than they are now. More than 150,000 people have signed a petition to urge him to again run for the office of president. So far, he has refused, much to the relief of the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

Why would a career politician waste an opportunity such as this to jump into the fray? After all, if he’s truly a champion of stemming or reversing global climate change, couldn’t he do the most good in the most powerful position in government?

Not necessarily.

In a recent follow-up article to his Time magazine feature about Gore, Eric Pooley explains not only why Gore won’t run for office again, but also why he shouldn’t.

“Running for president is by definition an act of hubris,” says Pooley, “and Gore has spent the past couple of years defying his ego and sublimating himself to a larger goal. Running for president would mean returning to a role he’d already transcended. He’d turn into – again – just another politician, when a lot of people thought he might be something better than that.”

Eight years ago, I wrote a satirical piece about why Groucho Marx was the perfect presidential candidate. Many will recall Marx’s famous quote about how he never would want to be a part of any club that would accept him as a member. Beneath this self-deprecating humor lies an inconvenient truth that can be applied, at the very least, to national politics: The very act of claiming your worthiness for such a powerful office in some ways makes you less desirable for the job.

Gore has been most successful when he has put the cause before the man. This is, by its very nature, impossible when running for president. Though issues and ideas have some importance, you are first and foremost a salesperson for yourself. In Gore’s case, his resonant message about climate change would take a back seat, at least through the end of 2008.

Nelson Mandela’s moments of greatest heroism came from behind bars. Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa shunned political spotlights in exchange for a place among those whom they served. Though the greatest threat Jesus seemed to pose to the Roman government was the potential power to incite rebellion, he always worked beyond the reach of government, all the way to his death.

I expect there always have been those who urged such compelling figures to claim their positions of power in a more official capacity, but there is something to be said for remaining on the perimeter. If, indeed, a cause for which we advocate is of primary importance, then political office may have just the opposite effect.

It would be easy to criticize the modern media machine for adulterating a potentially pure system into a cult of personality. However, from Genghis Khan to Charlemagne, and from the Caesars of Rome to the British monarchy, there always has been a galvanizing figure at the center. While we fancy ourselves people of ideas and principles, we’re ultimately comforted more by a familiar face and a compelling personality.

If Gore wanted to cash in his chips for another run at the White House, there may be no other time in his life when it makes more sense to do so. On the other hand, if the cause for which he currently stands is in fact bigger than he is, it would be in everyone’s best interest if he pursued his agenda as far away from Pennsylvania Avenue as possible.

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning,” and is the music minister at Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado.

A moral question: Who deserves what health care?

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

A moral question: Who deserves what health care?

Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm has taken a bold step in engaging people in discussion around the true substance of health-care reform. While his ideas border on philosophical, the implications are very real.

While presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle struggle to convey their own version of win-win coverage, Lamm hits the issue of health-care entitlements right between the eyes.

Why is his approach an act of bravery? Because in doing so, he raises intensely sensitive implications about who should get what kind of care. Let’s consider a couple of examples.

An 80-year-old woman is diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma that ultimately will be terminal. Without a costly regimen of medications, she will die within weeks. With the drugs, her life expectancy is extended six to 12 months. The medicine will cost $40,000 for a six-month supply, but the woman is on a modest fixed income, dependent upon Medicare for her coverage.

A 5-year-old boy has a congenital heart disease that is causing the faulty organ to shut down. He is a candidate for a transplant, although the odds of surviving more than a few months after the surgery are 50-1. The cost of the surgery is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the transplant organ is available, but the parents of the child are quickly reaching the coverage limits of their company insurance policy, and have no savings to pay for the operation.

Our initial reaction is to say that if the resources are there, we should do everything in our power to save, improve the quality of, or at least extend lives. No one wants to be in charge of telling a family that their parent, child or spouse will not receive care that might save them because of cost. For some, the valuation of life in terms of dollars and cents is callous and wrong. So instead, let’s consider it in more human terms.

The Center for Health Care Policy Research and Analysis reports that 18,000 people die annually in the United States because of inadequate basic health care. Meanwhile, Lamm notes that the sickest 1 percent of Americans account for 27 percent of total health-care costs. At what point do we cry foul, suggesting that just maybe we have our priorities out of order?

Let’s consider the two anecdotes above in another way. The woman facing terminal lymphoma who receives $40,000 worth of meds results in a trade-off, resulting in a lack of prenatal care for half of a dozen young women without insurance.

The cost of the young boy’s high-risk transplant means that a clinic in downtown Chicago will not be funded, resulting in hundreds of homeless people not receiving basic checkups and preventive health care. The long-term costs of hospitalization and other care for the health problems that could have been avoided escalate into the millions over the next 10 years.

Where does the moral social responsibility lie? At what point do we put our foot down and say this life deserves care and that one does not? Given this context, is it any wonder so few political incumbents or challengers want to tread into this moral quagmire?

Lamm has his finger on the pulse of a systemic issue that will have to be addressed before any substantive reform can take place.

As a society, we must come to terms with what is more important in the health-care service delivery system, drawing clear limits around what is publicly subsidized and what becomes the private responsibility of the affected family. On a case-by-case basis, this will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it will test the mettle of those who proclaim that health care for all is of paramount importance.

In a time when our state is debating the merits of a handful of so-called universal health-care plans, we’re still skirting around this more esoteric, and emotionally charged, gorilla in the middle of the room. One place where such dialogue can and should begin is in our local faith communities. If the preciousness of human life is contemplated any more thoroughly than within the medical profession, it’s arguably within the walls of our churches, mosques and synagogues.

Who would Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha cover?

Looking back on 36 years, and learning to trust

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Looking back on 36 years, and learning to trust

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be 36.

This week, I spent a few days with my good friend, Doug, and his family. We have known each other since junior high school, and we’ve been roommates a few times over the years. We’ve played in rock bands together and we went to the same college.

Given our history, it felt weird to be driving around town in a minivan with our families. How in the world did we get here?

Five years ago, my wife, Amy, and I were living in Fort Worth, Texas, as she entered into her final semesters of seminary. We talked about getting pregnant, and we wondered where we might be called after her graduation, and what our ministry together might look like.

Ten years ago, I was working as an education consultant. I was single and traveled almost constantly. I had no home address, living for months at a time in Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver and Dallas. In my alone time, I was working on a novel that would sit on my shelf for another decade with no other home.

Fifteen years ago, I was studying music and psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton. I had hair down to my belt, and I was singing in night clubs most weekends. I had bold aspirations to become a rock star. I was working for the university, but soon I would take a job with a major record label, a step that I was sure would take me toward that coveted stardom.

Twenty years ago, I was completing what would be my final year at a private school in Dallas before my parents’ divorce and subsequent family upheaval. After much therapy and struggle, I landed at an arts magnet school in downtown Dallas, where I completed high school. Aside from girls, the only other thing on my mind was getting out on my own.

Twenty-five years ago, my father was riding the economic boom of the 1980s that swept through Texas. We were going on expensive trips, driving luxury import cars, and we moved into a gigantic house in an exclusive neighborhood. Though I had a miniature suite to myself in one end of the house, I hated it because none of my friends lived nearby, and it was too far to ride my bike back to my old neighborhood.

Thirty years ago, I was practicing my reading and spelling skills at Helen Vial Elementary in Garland, Texas. My teachers advised my parents that I was too precocious to remain challenged in the public school environment, and that they should look into private schools. Though this new environment would challenge me, we had no idea how it would affect my social relationships with kids in the neighborhood who all went to the same school.

Thirty-five years ago, we were living in a modest apartment in downtown Dallas. My parents didn’t know how to make ends meet from one week to the next. My father met with a man at an employment agency and explained how much he needed to make to survive. Though he would prefer the work was legal, he committed to doing whatever he had to in order to keep food on the table.

How could I have known that each of those steps, as well as so many smaller ones in between, would have led me here? I couldn’t. It’s an exercise in powerlessness to consider how little control we really have. Some believe God has a greater plan for our lives from the beginning, while others trust the winds of chance to blow us from one moment to the next.

Soon, this present moment will be nothing more than the latest step in that meandering path, leading God-only-knows where. Giving up control over life’s greater trajectory is an ongoing struggle, but one that seems to get easier with the benefit of age. For now, my focus is on three things: gaining wisdom from the past; maintaining gratitude for the present; and clinging to hope for the future.

I’ll trust God with the rest. It’s worked out pretty well so far.