Category Archives: Journal

Leaving Our Tribe

Whenever we leave a “tribe”—a group of people we’ve been closely associated with for a period of time—we may feel we’ve lost our identity on returning to “normal” society.

One combat veteran who suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested that veterans of combat be sent back together when returning to civilian life. They had formed a unit. Perhaps return to society could be done together. They would confront “normal” life as a unit, just as they faced combat together. (What It Is Like to Go to War; Karl Marlantes)

In Saudi Arabia in 2003, where I served with U.S. embassy and consulate staffs during the second Gulf war against Iraq, we had experienced a prolonged period of increasing danger to Americans. Several terrorist incidents finally led to partial evacuation of staff.

As one of those sent “home,” I experienced a strange sense of loss. My disorientation was hardly worthy of the name when compared with someone returning from combat. Yet the sensation, half of sorrow for no longer having a “tribe” of fellow colleagues facing danger together, was real enough.

I incorporated them into one character’s feelings in Tender Shadows on her return to the States from a similar situation:

“ . . . she remembered last evening in her sterile apartment. Flipping through fifty television channels from sheer loneliness and finding nothing of worth. The country she’d come back to . . . offered twenty-four-hour food service, shop-‘til-you-drop malls, and movies filled with angst and black humor. Washington allowed no ready-made community like her foreign assignments.”

For this fictional character as with others in real life stressful situations, community is the missing ingredient.

Capitalism: Neither God nor Satan

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incisive book, Strangers in Their Own Land, portrays citizens in Louisiana caught between watching the industrialized devastation of their beloved state and their need for jobs. “It’s the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” one says.

Some of us see capitalism as some kind of god that we must serve. One may also worship socialism or money or government. In fact, all, it seems to me, are neutral, capable of either evil or good, depending on the type of allegiance we give them.

A saying of the early Christian missionary, Paul, is often quoted as “money is the root of all evil.” That is not what he said. He said “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” It’s the love of money (or capitalism or government or whatever) that is the problem.

Capitalism is neutral. It can be used for good: money from individuals pooled to form companies and create jobs. Or it can be used for evil: the extraction of maximum profit no matter what ecological or human damage it causes.

Government, I believe is similar. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Rightly used, government protects us from foreign enemies, crime, and economic predators. It can create programs that serve its citizens, like social security, in a way that private industry can’t.

Wrongly used, it can take from workers in order to give to the wealthy. Without adequate oversight, its resources can be wasted or riven with corruption.

Workers, needing jobs, tend to worship capitalism and hate government. Others, seeing only the tragedy of ecological devastation, tend to reverse their worship.

In fact, worship is a poor choice for either. Better is a watchful use of both.

You’re Not From Here, Are You?

As I shopped in a supermarket in my northwest U.S. community, a woman asked me where she might find a certain item. I gave her the information.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she responded.

I admitted my birth and rearing in Nashville, Tennessee. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived all over the United States and in several foreign countries for decades. The accent remains.

I was reminded of my origins when I read an article in The New York Times, “The Passion of Southern Christians” (April 8, 2017) by Margaret Renkl.

One paragraph especially moved me, reading it as I did after returning from a church service a week before Easter. The service had reminded us of Jesus’ disciple, Peter, and his actions following the arrest of Jesus by the authorities.

Fearful of consequences if he was seen as a Jesus person, Peter denied all connection with him. One person thought Peter had to be a follower, though, because his Galilean accent betrayed him.

Renkl wrote: “I have a lot of sympathy for Peter these days. Here it is nearly Easter, and for the first time in my life I don’t want anyone to know I’m a believer. To many, ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with angry white voters in red hats, personally responsible for handcuffing all those mothers and wrenching them out of their sobbing children’s arms.”

Yes, I’m a Southerner, still following Jesus, the person I first learned about in a church in Nashville, Tennessee. So it’s not just my accent but my religious persuasion that may mark me as “not from here.”

Despite the accent and the religion, I didn’t vote for Trump. As Renkl writes, “Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart.”

On the other hand, with Renkl, I believe in resurrection. The accent matters no more in the Christian faith than those early differences between Jew and Gentile.

So What’s Wrong with Doubt?

In a thought provoking article, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, spoke with a Christian pastor, Timothy Keller: ( “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” December 23, 2016).

Keller makes the argument that faith and skepticism are not necessarily opposites. Reasoning can, and probably should be, a part of faith. He also answers in the affirmative that he and most people of faith struggle with doubt at times.

Keller says, “Neither statement—‘There is no supernatural reality beyond this world’ and ‘There is a transcendent reality beyond this material world’—can be proved empirically, nor is either self-evident to most people. So they both entail faith.”

Useless wars, religious and otherwise, have been fought between groups, each certain of their reasons for killing the other. The author Ron Hansen was quoted as saying, “the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Mystics, whom we hold to be especially close to God, have nevertheless spoken of a “dark night of the soul,” a moment of despair that they must work through.

According to the Christian New Testament, even Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when he was suffering crucifixion.

Faith that is tested can be a stronger faith for that testing.

What Minority Do You Belong To?

Though hate crimes against American Muslims (or people perceived as such) have increased, recent news has focused on the increasing numbers of hate crimes against American Jews.

David Harris Gershon, a writer for various publications, wrote an article in November, 2015, about American hatred of Muslims from the viewpoint of a Jewish American.

Some of his remarks seem especially prophetic today:

“. . . I have watched the growth of our nation’s post 9/ll Islamophobia with not just heartbreak for Muslim Americans, but with a tinge of fear, knowing this hatred could easily boomerang and hit any group—including Jews—if allowed to continue.”

Gershon wrote after an armed band of men, some masked, stood outside a Muslim center in Dallas. They were there, they said, to protest the Islamization of America, as well as Syrian refugees, and Islam in general. Obviously, any Muslims coming to worship there would be intimidated, which no doubt was their purpose.

Whether against Jews, Muslims, Christians, persons of color, Suni, Shia, Hindus, evangelicals, tea partyers, liberals, conservatives, or any of the thousands of religious and political communities known in the world today, hate is hate.

And every one of us is a member of some minority.

Here is Gershon’s article.

Why We Can’t Sleep at Night

Andrew Sullivan, in New York Magazine (Feb 10, 2017), explores the way politics has dominated American lives since the last presidential election. Then he contrasts normal life in the United States with a dictatorship.

In a dictatorship, people are always anxious, waiting for the unasked next entry of the Great Leader into their lives in whatever unpredictable form he wishes.

By contrast: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. . . . A free society means being free of those who rule over you.”

The dominance of the Trump presidency in the news far exceeds that of past administrations. Its unpredictability keeps us uneasy. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t follow historic precedents and breaks many rules of civility. We retain a watchful uneasiness.

Sullivan compares the situation to a child trapped in a house with an abusive and unpredictable father, “who will brook no reason, respect no counter argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe strikes.”

One answer, Sullivan says, is for the press to fight every lie for what it is.

But much of the responsibility also falls on us, the ordinary citizens, to read widely in reputable media. Discernment between fake news—also called alternate facts—and the truth is our job. We can be careful what we post through social media. We can lower the decibels in our digital discussions. We can show more respect for those with whom we disagree and pay attention to what they say.

We also have congressional representatives and senators. They’re paid to listen to us. (If they won’t hold town halls, then call, write, and email them.) And we can vote in responsible men and women when we have opportunity.

Read Sullivan’s article in full.

Sidney Chambers in The Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie

The Forgiveness of Sins is the fourth book of the Grantchester mystery series. These stories are not suspense stories but quiet mysteries, involving more than solving a crime. They offer insight into problems of evil, sin, and redemption. Critics have compared the series to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.

The main character of the Grantchester series, however, is drawn more fully. He is Sidney Chambers, an Anglican priest. He loves jazz and walking his dog. He constantly worries that his investigative pursuits may keep him from both his priestly duties and, eventually, his family responsibilities.

Single at the beginning of the series, he marries and becomes a father. Many of the mysteries involve close friends. One of his sidekicks in the stories is a policeman friend with whom he enjoys games and drinks in a neighborhood pub.

My enjoyment of the stories springs from the dry, British-understated dialog, as well as occasional inclusion of the political and cultural events of his time. The series begins shortly after World War II, when rationing was in effect. In The Forgiveness of Sins, Sidney and his family are in Florence, Italy in 1966 during the disastrous floods that ravaged the city. A masterpiece stolen during the flood plays into one of the mysteries.

During times of turmoil, such as the one unleashed by recent political events, I find such books as the Grantchester series to be soothing while thoughtful, a rest from some of our dystopian who-done-its.

A reviewer of the series for The Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn, wrote: “Runcie meant these novels to be a commentary on life in post-World War II Britain, and so they are. But the themes of good and evil, temptation and sacrifice, remain as fresh as today’s news feed.”

Success: How Much Depends on You Alone?

Robert H. Frank, in his book Success and Luck, explores the role played by luck in the success or lack of it in a person’s life.

Those of a spiritual nature may prefer the term providence instead of luck, but no matter. Frank suggests the good fortune of a person with talent born in the United States rather than, say, war-ravaged Libya. Or the young girl whose parents care for her rather than the girl abandoned by her father and “raised” by a mother on drugs.

Frank doesn’t downplay the role of hard work. Many people beginning with life against them do succeed. He points out, however, that others with talent and a strong work ethic don’t make it to the top but live mediocre lives.

He includes studies to back his claims as well as the results of differing attitudes. Those who believe that their good fortune is a result only of their own efforts are less likely to favor programs giving the less well off a chance to improve their lives.

On the other hand, those successful people who realize how little they deserve their good fortune tend to be filled with gratitude for the good that has befallen them. They are much more likely to favor helping those who were not favored with such advantages. They wish to pay it ahead.

What’s the Secret of a Literary Masterpiece?

We sat mesmerized while the actors spoke in Elizabethan English and dashed around on a small square stage in the middle of four groupings of folding chairs. How could a three-hour play, William Shakespeare’s Richard III, written five hundred years ago, so capture our twenty-first century audience? An audience accustomed to movie masterpieces with all sorts of special effects?

What made the play speak to us? First of all, superb actors. They created emotions, ambition, and desire that spoke through the often unfamiliar and flowery language. They pulled us into a world of treachery and betrayal and ambition. They acted so well that the sniping, arguing, and name calling in the first act recalled twenty-first century political sparring followed on our mobiles.

Shakespeare’s stories remind us of unbridled ambition, as prevalent today, not only in our politics but in our corporate boardrooms, as in the bard’s England. He portrayed the universal type who sees others as no more than tokens on a chess board to be swept aside to win prizes. The story and the characters were real in a basic sense, despite their sixteenth century trappings.

It isn’t always the suspense of wondering how a story will turn out. Most of us in the audience knew what happened to Richard III. It’s the journey, the how and the why that captivates. Because these stories are repeated through the centuries, and we shiver at their familiarity.

Swords into Plowshares: One Way to Deal with Guns

Michael Martin, a Mennonite from Colorado, turns guns into tools you can garden with. (“Gardening with Guns,” Plough, Autumn 2016.)

Martin and his wife, Hannah, decided to change guns from weapons of destruction to tools for growing food. Their first weapon was an AK-47 assault rifle. They turned it into hand cultivators.

One mother, who had lost her son to gun violence, pounded a handgun removed from Philadelphia streets into a hoe and tilling fork. It was used to plant flowers for gun violence victims.

Another mother, whose son shot several young schoolgirls before committing suicide, took a hammer to the barrel of a gun in a demonstration for Martin’s organization. The mother visits regularly with one of the survivors of the shooting, who is wheelchair bound from the incident.

A military veteran, saved from suicide by a passing stranger, turned his Smith & Wesson .22 into a tool he used for planting a garden.

Anther man, whose father committed suicide with a gun, donated it to the group.

Martin’s group, RAW (WAR turned around) does not take away gun rights. They simply transform guns into instruments for healing and growth.

Meditation After Another Mall Shooting

Last weekend, the news flashed across our digital screens: yet another mass shooting among mall shoppers in our normally quiet corner of northwestern Washington state,

Beyond the rise of gun deaths, which should trouble us all, I pondered the heartache of ordinary people. A carefree outing can vanish in the time it takes for a troubled young man to pull the trigger of a gun a few times.

Five people killed at random, out for innocent Saturday evening fun—shopping, movie watching, perhaps a meal out.

Then I remembered an eighth grade Valentine’s Day party when I was thirteen years old.
It was also the day my father was due to come home from the hospital, An ambulance had taken him there following a sudden heart attack. Now, so medical tests showed, he had recovered well enough to return to us.

Instead, in the middle of the Valentine party, a family friend appeared at the classroom door and took my teacher aside to talk to him. I will always be grateful to that teacher for then leading me outside and so gently telling me that my father had died.

I learned at an impressionable, early adolescent age that good things are not guaranteed to continue.

No matter that mall outings join the list of community spaces where innocent fun can change in an instant to soul numbing tragedies. Yes, we’re called to address the issues that allow people to be killed so easily, but first we must take care of families plunged into tragedy through no fault of their own.

After my father died, we learned the value of friends surrounding us with care. They led us again to believe in purpose. They moved us beyond tragedy, able again to enjoy life’s blessings, of which many more were to come.

Good times may not last, but neither do bad times.

Five Favorite Books

My list of favorite books varies according to what I’m currently reading, but here I list, in no particular order, five books that gave me new insights.

Gary Sick, All Fall Down. Gary Sick was part of Jimmy Carter’s presidential team. He outlines in detail the thinking and events that led to the Iranian student takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Our relationship with Iran since then has been, to say the least, tortured. I referred to this book while researching for my novel, When Winter Comes.

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life. One of the best biographies I have ever read. It won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. It opened up for me a part of twentieth century American history that still influences us today.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This book, published in 1996, describes the author’s perspective on major civilizations in the world today and their differing world views.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. A little book that arose out of Frankl’s experience in the death camps of the Holocaust. He explains not only the philosophy that helped him survive but gave him meaning afterward.

Elizabeth Elliot, A Slow and Certain Light. Elliot was the widow of Jim Elliot, killed while serving as a missionary to the South American Auca tribe. I began reading and rereading this book during a period of purposelessness, a time I thought would never end. It gave me hope until something better arrived.