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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Slaughter of Our Innocence

     While 2010 was the year of the mall flash mob, 2012 seems to be the year of the mall shooter. Both are planned but also impulsive acts intended to startle and amaze. Only with radically different motives and outcomes. One is about joy and the other terror; one delivers hallelujahs, the other a hail of pain and grief. One is an exercise in disdain and defiance; the other a symphony of harmony and concord. This impulse to interrupt, or disrupt, custom and convention seems to be firmly embedded in our cultural genome. How do we encourage the one tendency that is about affirmation and communion, and discourage and disarm the other which is about rejection and division?
     The question presses more urgently with yesterday’s news of the carnage in Connecticut where a gunman ended the lives of 20 children under age ten and seven adults, before taking his own life, a scenario that mirrors so many other mass attacks, including last Tuesday’s shooting spree in a Portland, Oregon mall. This slaughter of the innocents compounds and confirms the slaughter of our innocence. Bewildered by the incongruence of gunfire in a suburban mall, or school, or temple, everyone joins the chorus asking why? A question not easily answered, and one which may be unanswerable for any one of these senseless acts.
     In 2007 Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life. Cho had been diagnosed as suffering from anxiety disorder, and accused of stalking fellow VT students. And yet was able to purchase two semi automatic pistols. In his rambling 1800 word manifesto he mailed to media outlets between his two assaults at Virginia Tech, Cho claimed to have been forced into a corner and crucified, leaving him only one option.
     Less than a year later, another torrent of bullets at another college campus, by another unbalanced student taking a number of lives including his own. In this case Northern Illinois University in DeKalb where Stephen Kazmierczak killed five students and faculty before turning his gun on himself. When he entered the lecture hall where an oceanography course was in session, Kazmierczak was wearing a black T shirt emblazoned with the word Terrorist superimposed on the image of an assault rifle, and brandishing three semiautomatic pistols, a knife, and a 12 gauge Remington Sportsman shotgun concealed in a guitar case. 
     A 2006 graduate of NIU, Kazmierczak was described by NIU police as a “fairly normal” and “unstressed person,” at least during his time as an undergraduate student. A month before the shootings, Kazmiereczak enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Illinois at Urban Champaign’s school of social work.  And in the weeks that followed he stopped taking the medication for his depression. Mystified by his actions, his girlfriend told reporters that “he was anything but a monster” and said she found him to be “probably the nicest, most caring person ever.”
     Just four days before the killing of the innocents in Connecticut,  Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, released his demons in the Clackamas Town Center mall in Happy Valley, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, through the barrel of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. A hospice nurse, and a small business owner died, another woman was seriously injured.  Not surprisingly, everyone was shocked that such a normal person could commit such senseless acts.  A friend described him as “a very loved individual,” one who appeared to have “great intentions and a heart of gold.”
     Using a semiautomatic handgun, Wade Michael Page this past August killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, before being wounded by police and taking his own life.  A former U.S. Army psychological operations specialist, Page was involved in the white supremacist movement and was active in several Neo-Nazi bands. Though no one mentioned him having a heart of gold, a neighbor of Page’s in Cudahy, Wisconsin, said he was “stunned” by the news, and though noting Page was upset over a recent breakup with his girlfriend, he did not seem angry, said the neighbor.
     Then there was last July when James Eagan Holmes entered an Aurora, Colorado theater and allegedly  killed 12 people and injured 58 others during a premiere of the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.  The guns used in the shooting included a 12 gauge Remington Express tactical shotgun, a Smith and Wesson M&P15 semiautomatic pistol, and a Glock22 semiautomatic pistol. The 24-year old former graduate student in the University of Colorado’s neuroscience program surrendered to the police behind the cinema, reportedly claiming to be “the Joker.”  His attorneys have stated he is suffering from mental illness.

     We as a society seem to be suffering from some form of mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, or at least a denial that we are seriously disordered. Seven mass shootings in five years across the country is not the rare exception of a sound society, nor simply the expected cost of a society reshuffling its economy and socio-political order.  Something is seriously amiss, and it is getting worse, not better.
     In the aftermath of the gunfire, the gurneys and the memorials, we keep asking why, not so much as a question as an exclamation. With a tragedy this horrifying and far-reaching, who can answer such a plea other than God? And what would or could God say that would suffice?
     When a tsunami snuffs out over 200,000 lives around the Pacific basin, the epic scope of the loss implores us to question how God could allow such destruction to occur. But we don’t question the causes or motives of the event as those are quite clear, the subduction of tectonic plates, or the collision of warm and cold fronts. The question we pose to God is not why or how it happened, but why God let it happen.
We ask that too when the social compact is torn or shattered by acts of violence, but too often leave it at that, knowing this query into theodicy is unanswerable.
     Answers are available though, if we reword the question, turning it away from God and focusing it on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our institutions. We may not know what mix of reason and delusion drove these disturbed individuals to pull the trigger, reload, and keep on pulling. But we can discover and define the conditions that set them on this course.
     Are we needing better monitoring of persons with mental health disorders? Probably. Could our efforts at treating mental health disorders benefit from more research and funding? Definitely. Should we be doing more to address racism and hate crimes? Very much so. Would better security provisions at schools and public venues help? Probably. Could our regulations on selling and licensing firearms be strengthened? Ideally, yes.
     But something more fundamental needs addressing: how we understand, or fail to understand, ourselves as interdependent and mutually responsible members of civil society. We have so much work to do in this regard.
      Alienation and polarization are infecting nearly every level of our political discourse, and undermining our civic and familial relationships. Cooperation and compromise are disregarded by our governors and legislators in favor of brinkmanship and self-righteousness, ostensibly in defense of a greater good, but in actuality the good is less about principle than principality. What began 400 years ago on the shores of Virginia and Massachusetts as a covenant community has become an association of independent contractors, beholden not to a common wealth but to their own self interests.
     In a culture forged out of the violent assertion of human rights and liberty, the qualities of courage, self-reliance and sacrifice have mutated through the dissolution of various social compacts to the point that what we herald and express are corruptions of these principles.  Antipathy, egocentrism, intolerance, and narcissism are really what are playing out in our boardrooms, our dorm rooms, our playrooms and our bedrooms.
     On almost every level of our social intercourse, good will has been supplanted by self will, both by accident and design. And the cost incurred is fists and bullets flying not only on Chicago street corners or in Colorado movie theaters, but along expressways with outraged drivers, at checkout counters, health clinics, church services, and far too often our living rooms and bedrooms.
     Before Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed himself in the Chiefs training facility parking lot, he shot and killed his girlfriend at their Kansas City home. Before Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook elementary school, it appears he shot and killed his mother at her Newtown home. Before we can solve the shortcomings in security processes and firearms control, we need to address the shortcomings in how we understand and support healthy relationship. Equal attention must also be given to our reverence and appetite for violence, institutionally and interpersonally. For every Wounded Knee and Thibodaux, there are a thousand counterparts on our playgrounds, in our classrooms, in our meeting rooms, on campaign platforms, in food courts and video arcades, around our kitchen tables and inside our bedrooms. H. Rap Brown famously declared during the 60’s race riots and police actions “that violence is as American as cherry pie.” But that doesn’t mean we have no recourse to continue eating that pie. We can choose an alternative.
      Dr. Drew Pinsky, the well known addiction specialist who operates the Pasadena Recovery Center, gave his diagnosis to CNN yesterday:  “Someone going purposefully and killing small children., This is the world we live in. This has got to change. Our culture is sick.”
     We are sick, and have been sick for a quite a while. Before this week, before Oak Creek, before Columbine, we suffered, and never really acknowledged the psychological, spiritual, and moral deformation afflicting our relationships at every level—familial, collegial, social, professional, political. And as every 12 stepper knows, the first movement towards rehabilitation and recovery is recognition that we have a problem and need help.
Yes, we need to light candles, assemble memorials, and ask the unanswerable. But we need to summon the courage to tackle the questions that can be answered, and truly commit to our healing, as a society and people of God. Starting today.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Disaster Dopamine

   The 9.0 temblor that fractured roads and railways and reservoirs, and delivered a wall of seawater that swept away lives and livelihoods in northeast Japan has become a media experience that is crossing from news into entertainment, moreso than the first online disaster, the South Asia tsunami that killed over 200,000 in December 2004.
   Clicking on the video links for the first few days of the crisis was mainly about seeing and believing, and hopefully responding. But the posting and promotion of video clips, be it on Yahoo or YouTube, a week or weeks after the event seems more oriented to serving up vicarious thrills than deepening our understanding of the consequences of the tragedy still unfolding in Japan.
   When I click on the new tsunami video link on Yahoo, or MSNBC, or CNN, or search the YouTube channels for tsunami, am I looking to learn more or to enjoy the thrill of seeing mayhem unleashed on fellow but far removed inhabitants of our planet? I think we claim the first and deny and suppress the second. 
   Take your pick: Japan Tsunami at full height from the ground level (360,000 views); Japan tsunami earthquake Best Japanese Films Sorry (1.27 million views); Japan tsunami destroys town (609,571 views). One even has a music compilation. This is beyond information. This is disaster porn.
   It appeals to our thrill seeking side, the one that straps us into roller coaster rides, parks us in the cineplex velour for Scream 4, or nudges us off the canyon rim at the end of a bungee cord. It is what fills the seats at NASCAR tracks and around the ice at hockey arenas. Take away the crashes and the checking and you end up applying the brakes to the dopamine cells, the ones that make thrill seeking, well, such a thrill.
   Nothing against stock cars or hockey--they are contests of skill and judgement as much as they are demolition derbies. But if they or our YouTube channels become mainly channels for pleasure or relief at avoiding someone else's pain, then we have some real soul searching to consider for this Lent.
   Even if it is only OMG, or that facile expression,  "there but for the grace of God," that escapes our lips, we need to question not only what clips we click, but what clicking  on them says about us. Are we engaging in empathy, or exploitation?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Season for Deletion


Let’s delete Christmas. 
That’s the thread that was running through my mind in the closing minutes of the work day today, a day of serial meetings, one flowing into the other, management team into leadership team, noodles in the lunch room which is a sort of meeting, then into convention planning followed by DDB event planning (Diana Butler Bass). This day, Wednesday, was an interruption in the normal work flow. A big interruption in the sense that very little work flowed out of the communication office.

Just two weeks ago Wednesday was a very different day as well, but one not as at odds with the regular rhythm. We met and then we went to liturgy to pray, reflect and receive ashes. Then returned to the business of applying prayer and reflection to effecting mission. It all seemed to fit, to be in concert.

The fact that the days were consistently gray, the snow covering persistent, and the temps traveling in a very narrow wave band could have played a big role in buttressing that rhythm. The sun was out in a major way today, blazing in a blue canopy, and working well past its normal shift of a month ago. That for me was a little disturbing, interrupting as it did my accommodations to an interior season, one more oriented to the interiors of our homes and our minds.

It’s not a season I relish in late September when I am counting the weeks left for green leaves on branches, and blooms in the beds. There’s definite dread in the countdown to a landscape of ashen gray and bare clay. It’s not just about losing color and scent and daily recreation. Or about the ache of witnessing six months of labor undone in two hard freezes. It is knowing that I now have to shift perspective and expectation. Put familiar tools away, and take out others shelved six months previous.

Gardening is about faith, of subscribing to the experience of dying and rising, year after year. Each dying and each rising is a decision, a painful one. We let go of one assumption, one perspective, to take on another, knowing full well it has a pretty short sunset clause. But not so short that we can’t reach accommodation, enter into a new mode of being. Trowel is exchanged for snow shovel; hiking boots for ski boots; porch light for lamp light.

And that’s why Christmas has to go. It comes too soon, arriving in mid-transition of fall into winter, and working against the score begun in Advent. In Advent we set a rhythm that should run clear and fluid to the shoreline of Easter, expanding in time with the rising arc of the sun. But Christmas juts in with a brassy score, out of tune with the themes of reflection, reconciliation, renewal. It’s a season of celebration at odds with the meteorological season and the spiritual one. For me it’s the shamwow commercial interrupting Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.

And much of it is sheer manufacture:  the shepherds, angel, star, magi etc. The Puritans of Boston did not find much endearing about Christmas, and chose to ban it with a law that stood for 22 years, and custom that lasted into the early 19th century.

. . .it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."  -- the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony May 11, 1659

Granted, there is not much endearing about Puritan perspective. But in the case of Christmas, I think they were on the right track, if not for the right reasons (resentment towards the Church of England). It is just 12 days long but long enough to disrupt the flow, and short-circuit the current that began flowing in First Advent. Epiphany becomes an afterthought, or roundabout for redirection. And instead of one culmination of the church year, Easter, we have a second highest holy day in which to certify our piety. 

Deleting Christmas does not mean deleting the Incarnation. That must be brought back into Advent, its proper birthplace, and woven into the salvation story score. Just get rid of the other trappings, liturgical, ecclesiastical, and most definitely commercial. Otherwise, we just risk perpetuating an abbreviated experience of Christ’s journey to the Passion, reducing it to something like: He’s here! He’s great! He died! He’s alive! See you next Christmas.

How hard can it be, assuming you are not on the Altar Guild or the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music, to forgo assembling Nativity scenes and orchestrating pageants, or to cancel caroling, and lay off the greening and de-greening? Okay, pretty darn hard if you have to face the pleas of your kids or the kids in Sunday School, or an irate music director. But it can be done, and in a way that incorporates all sensibilities.
Imagine four distinct but interwoven seasons: Advent-Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. Each timed to the arc of the sun and the track of the jet stream. With one breath you fall from autumn into winter, and it carries you through to spring. Submerge and reemerge, wade into the Jordan and walk out drowning in the Holy Spirit, anointed with Good News to share on the shores of Galilee.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


A year without a word may seem counterproductive for a product that supposedly has a shelf life measured in minutes, not months. But this production has been stalled at Act Two, Scene One, the better part of a year. Partly by procrastination, at least for the first quarter; and then gradually, and more assuredly, by intent.

Sabbaticals are usually seen as a time to stand apart from the ordinary commerce of your daily life, a time carved out to study, assess, reflect, and refresh. Then return to reengage whatever pastime or responsibility you needed relief from in the first place. Who takes a sabbatical from a virtual wayside on life’s expressway. I guess I do.

Last April at O’Hare I was on standby for a flight to Camp Allen Texas for four hours. An unplanned, and, at first, underappreciated four hours. I spent the first hour trying to cut my idle time to a minimum, and the rest realizing it was more of a pardon than a sentence.

Given a choice, which is more precious: our time (our being) or our status (our standing)? In this era of social media and 24/7, standing apart is easily outshined by standing out. No one on Facebook or My Space or Blogspot or LinkedIn or any other avenue of self-expression is laboring incognito, even under a pseudonym. We want to be noticed. We want to read. We want to be affirmed. And so we post, telling the world—or our tribe—what we plan, what we have done, or what we have lost.

Tagging and tweeting and texting can be lifelines—as we have seen with the world’s response to the cry from Haiti. Or avenues for forming or feeding community. Or just diversions from doing our laundry, or alternatives to living with the stillness, learning to just be.

So for a little over a year I have chosen to be on standby; standing down and standing apart, letting the remnants of last year’s trauma lie fallow, while attending to other fields and avenues. This is not in the footsteps so much of Thomas Merton’s epiphany in blindly picking a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, thou shalt be silent.” It is, though, in concert with the Cistercian principle of avoiding unnecessary speaking, a practice that opens pathways for prayer, and clearings for presence.

I cannot point to any profound epiphanies during this recess from Tidings. That should not be surprising since the point is to leave a place fallow, untended, untilled. And it was a limited sabbatical. My keyboard was quite active on other accounts.

Everything that needed to be said in our loss of our companions, Suki and Milo, was said a year ago. More is being written in the embrace of new companions, Shiro and Misty.

It’s time once more to stand up. We are cleared for takeoff.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, William Butler Yeats

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Our hearts are shattered. At half past noon on the last day of 2008 we whispered our final prayers for Milo and wrapped him in our last embrace as the overdose of anesthetic drug traveled through the tube that for five days had been his lifeline.

Nineteen days ago my wife Joanne and I drove him home from western New York where he had been in the care of a rescue organization, and three days later we were in an examining room at the Animal Emergency and Treatment Center in Grayslake, Illinois. He was losing weight and refusing to eat, no matter what we proffered—raw hamburger, tuna, chicken, and Gerbers augmented with chicken broth. At 35 pounds when we picked him up he was small for an American Eskimo and Samoyed mix, and getting smaller. Depression response, so we thought, and with fluids, Pepcid, and anti-nausea meds he might come around. But he didn’t, and back it was to Grayslake for a three-day stay with more fluids and monitoring. The day after Christmas he was back again, having still not eaten, and the next day an ultrasound revealed the problem: an obstruction in his stomach and small intestine. The surgeons found four perforations of the bowel along a critical stretch of the intestine between the pancreas and the bile duct. The culprit was a small towel or washcloth that had worked against its purpose, puncturing his intestinal tract and fouling his abdominal cavity. That section was removed and Milo seemed to be recovering better than anyone expected. But 36 hours later he had fluid build-up and a fever, and we faced the decision to authorize a second surgery that promised at best a 30 percent chance of success.

Be it a sliver of hope, or a prayer of a chance, we are not inclined to surrender a soul companion to dire odds or cost-benefit analysis. So we said yes, proceed with surgery. It went well, as before. Milo, for all he has been through, beginning with his first year of life in a puppy mill, does not give up. He showed us an enormous need to be companion and be companioned, but he could not defeat the odds or the infection. At the same point as before, the early hours of the second morning post surgery, the fever returned, he vomited, and the culture confirmed our fears, the repair was leaking into the cavity again. Not enough space was left of good tissue to give any chance for another surgery. So we made that ultimate decision to remove Milo from any more pain, any more invasions, and any more life. It was peaceful, and sacramental as we surrendered him to God’s boundless grace.

The night before, a dinner plate I was heating in the microwave popped, and a chunk was broken off the rim. A signal of what was coming that morning? All I know is life is fractured by the heat of our transactions with one another. We beckon, we bind, and sometimes despite our best efforts and intentions, we break apart, for what we have done or left undone, or we simply are undone by actions beyond our agency or authority. Solace proves elusive in the roundabout of grief and regret.

We scrape up the broken bits, and reassemble what we can of our confidence and convictions, much as we did a month before in the loss of our first rescue, Suki. Healing, we know, is at the threshold, and somewhere not too distant the breath of hope. As we heard last Sunday in John: “What has come into being in him was life; and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Season for Addition

Advent tends to be a season of subtraction, or at least that is the theme of the lessons. Two Sundays ago we heard John the Baptist quoting Isaiah to the Levites: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” the subtext being clear out the clutter, remove all impediments to God’s action in the world. And what action it will be: delivery of the Word incarnate.

In southern Wisconsin our household has been removing impediments, namely snow, lots of snow, in making our driveway straight for the important but more prosaic deliveries from USPS and UPS. And that has meant a lot of subtraction through heavy lifting.

But Advent for us has been more about addition than subtraction. Meet Milo, a two year and three month American Eskimo with some possible Samoyed genes, who was raised in an Amish puppy mill (yes, we also had a double take).

He spent his first year there and was on the kill list when Joyful Rescues out of Cuba, New York picked him up and nurtured him, until we arrived December 12. A harrowing 600 miles later through lake-effect snow most of the way we were back in southern Wisconsin with our new addition.

Like Suki (who passed away November 21) we met Milo on the internet, and lost our hearts to him. Their resemblance is so close it almost is as if Suki is looking at us through Milo’s eyes. But Milo is a very different dog. For one thing, he is more fearful, a common trait among puppy mill dogs. And more anxious about change, which has landed him in the emergency animal hospital in Grayslake (where Suki was treated for lymphoma). Gastroenteritis, mouth ulcers, and a loss of appetite (presumably because it hurts to eat) has put him on IV fluids, and in the intensive care unit for three days. Today we bring him home, and hope and pray the drugs and our love will ease the pain and restore his appetite. Not just for food but for his new family.

The snow is now pouring out of the cloud cover, erasing yesterday’s efforts, and challenging us to locate the path that brought us home, let alone straightening it. It is Christmas eve, and some 2,000 years ago as the story goes, a family left the byways for a shelter, and delivered to us the sum of all our hopes. So let us praise addition.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


She is gone. Suki, our Samoyed-Golden Lab companion, yard monitor, foot warmer, pillow opportunist, and front door herald has exited this stage with lines still waiting to be delivered. At Grayslake Animal Emergency Treatment Center they call her their ‘miracle dog’, a testimony to her resilience as a stage 5B (there is no stage 5C) lymphoma survivor. For five months and 20 some chemo treatments she held off and beat down the renegade cells to the point where she could be recognized, however tentatively, hopefully, as in remission.

Remission is not cure. We knew it would be a matter of time, but not this soon, not this sudden. Cancer doesn’t serve notice with much regard to the commerce of daily life—whether it be a backyard barbecue, a roadtrip for reunion, or in the case last week, the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Chicago. She was clear of tumors in all the vital organs, but the cancer found an opening where blood tests won’t work, her central nervous system.

At Evening Prayer on Friday, perhaps during the Phos Hilaron or Psalm 107, as the voices sanctified the Westin Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, my wife and I were in our room, juggling the consequences of owning or evading the decision to administer the drugs that would take her life and the life of the cells that had betrayed her. There was no doubt what was the right choice—she was unresponsive, her central nervous system totally compromised, and no arsenal of drugs at hand that could fend off or forestall the inevitable. The steroid injection that morning had been the last volley, to little effect. So we said yes, for her and not as much for us.

By saying yes five months ago when she collapsed on our porch and we rushed her to the emergency treatment center, we had given her a fighting chance to beat back the cancer and live. Which she did, a reflection of her tenacity and devotion to life. We had said yes to her five and half years ago when on a whim we stopped at the humane shelter in Pontiac, Illinois and invited her into our life, our home, our hearts.

There is awesome power in that simple word, yes, whether it comes as a signature on an adoption form, or in a phone call authorizing the ultimate intervention. When we drove her home the first day of the New Year 2003 we had some inkling we were acting the part of angels, or angel helpers, and that was occasionally reinforced when she found a way to be snared in the rose bush brambles or caught up in the wire fencing. Last June though we realized with far more trepidation what it means to be the agent for sustaining life.

Any interaction with creation is by nature, at some base level, sacramental, and more so where develops a deep, abiding relationship. That is what we had with Suki. She entered our lives, and purchased a portion of our souls, and we the same. And she and we were changed.

There is a void in our house and about our yard, but not in our hearts. There she still prances to greet us, there she still barks at the neighbor dogs, there she still moans when dinner is late, and there she still nestles at our feet on our patio or on our bed. She did not ask to be saved five and a half years ago, or five days ago. All she said was, yes, let us be.

Standing on the patio now, the beds now filled with the brown and gray bones of a season ended, I find myself still anticipating the pop of the dog door flap and scrape of nails on paving stones. The silence of this season is all pervading. But it will change. Soon our other rescue Samoyed, Christopher, will come out to survey the space, do his business, and maybe even pick up the patrol that Suki would have traced the full perimeter of our yard. For now, I whisper the words and harvest some assurance from the commendation: All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.