Memorial

I push open these double wooden doors – they’re stained a beautiful dark rosewood. My eye is drawn to the purple carpet that marks the aisle all the way forward to a raised platform. It separates two groups of chairs. There seems to be a decidedly purple and white theme to the flower arrangements. Soon groups of people begin arriving and conversing with one another. Mostly they know each other, they all mean something to the guest of honor, and the guest of honor all mean something to them. This is a celebration.

The guest of honor is the matriarch – an older lady of average height, her short hair has a defiant red tint to it – hence her long-time nickname, “Red.” Her strong personality had developed as she conquered many obstacles in her day. As a result, her relationships could be complicated and no strangers to drama – but today is a good day and there’s no hard feelings. It’s also a miraculous day. Friends that she had long out-lived made an appearance alongside all her relatives.

Memories are being shared – some for the first time, others are being repeated much to Red’s delight. All of her favorite foods and drinks are available should anyone get hungry. I’d like to imagine laughter and delight. Everybody should be celebrated because everyone matters.

But such a celebration can never be. My grandmother has died. We found out on Christmas day that things weren’t looking so good. I asked for some time off the next day – but had to work my shift that evening. Some time in the middle of the night or the next morning – I’m not sure which, she stopped breathing. I’m not at all sure how to process it. Could I have insisted that I couldn’t work my shift so that my family could leave immediately and have a chance of meeting her while she was still alive? My only comfort is knowing that in many cases, despite hours of waiting alongside an ailing relative, they tend to like to pass away when the visiting hours are done and others aren’t around – so says the internet anyway.

I wish I knew where her obituary was – so I could read a little more about her. I wish I had bothered to actually call her every now and then just to talk a little.

For those who know my grandmother, her strong personality made for complicated relationships – it doesn’t mean that we love her any less … it’s just not always an easy kind of love. I grew up watching these kind, sweet grandmothers on TV shows – and my own grandmother was just so different. I wished in so many ways that she was like them – and I didn’t notice that she had her own charms about her. Some of the things I admire most are that fierce independence, that no-nonsense attitude, and she knew what she liked and didn’t hesitate to make it clear.

Her name meant Shining Light, Pride/Fame/Glory, and Blessed. That she most certainly was.

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Stumbling Stewards

Not long ago, a lot of protected land was opened up for potential development. I shook my head in disbelief when the guy said, “You know how to take care of your land.” The whole history of pollution is a testament to how little we have take care of our land.

Centralia, PA – In May of 1962, an underground coal mine has a coal seam that catchs fire from the burning of a trash dump – it’s still burning today.

Picher, OK – a former lead and zinc mining area, lots of toxic remnants were placed in heaps in the area, which in turn has polluted the water table. One study suggested that as many as 1/3 of the children in town were suffering the effects of lead poisoning. The mines themselves also pose a danger – they could collapse and the buildings above would be taken down with them.

Cuyahoga River – perhaps the most famous example; these polluted waters once caught fire.

When pollution is a factor, what comes first? Usually it’s the bottom line, the cheaper disposal method; rather than the proper, more expensive one. When the priority is putting people to work, putting any thought into pollution control seems like you’re trying to put the brakes on progress. Never mind that putting people into pollution control is also creating jobs.

The whole history of pollution shows us that we never have known the best way to take care of our land … because we didn’t do that well, it put human lives on the brink – destroying the health and vitality of some – taking the lives of others. It may be annoying that waste chemicals can’t just be dumped into our water supply or that mine remnants can’t just be dumped in huge piles all around town – that even nuclear waste has to be sealed away in very specific conditions – but it’s far better than the alternative. We might not know how best to take care of our land, but at a very high cost we have learned how not to take care of our land. Sometimes the best thing you can do for some land is to let it be at least a little wild and to leave it alone.

The Undeniable Racism of the English-Only Movement

I’m a cashier. It’s not a glamorous or well-paying job, but it’s the best I can do right now. I’m also multi-lingual, I enjoy learning languages because I’m good at it and I enjoy speaking in other languages whenever I get the chance. I happen to be lucky enough to live where I can use two of the languages I know on a regular basis. So the other night, after I had spoken some Spanish to a Spanish-speaking customer, the next guy in line waited until the Latino was out of earshot and then informed me that while it was cool that I could speak other languages, it was not cool for the Latino to not speak English in America. Actually, he used a couple of racial slurs for Latinos and Arabs that even I will not repeat. My guess is that he was more upset that I was speaking Spanish and giving the Latino one less excuse to not learn English. The Latino though, was a repeat customer and I already knew he could speak English; in fact, his English is probably a lot better than my Spanish which needs all the practice it can get. For some odd reason, bilingualism is a threat to the English-Only Movement’s ideology that only English must be spoken in America and it must be spoken all the time. Sadly, my state is one of many with English-Only laws in effect. One lady even made the news for the racist tirade she went on while waiting in the return line at a mall:

Free speech can be painfully annoying when it grants jerks the right to say vile, hurtful, and racist remarks; but I also have the right to free speech and to speak freely in any language that I happen to speak. Maybe being multilingual has taught be a thing or two about being respectful; something that some English-only advocates could benefit from learning. What really bothers me is that the way these people speak, it’s not about patriotism, but racism. It’s the kind of racism that unfairly targets immigrants that are Arabic, Latino, and Asian while not treating European immigrants as anything dangerous or suspicious. It’s the garden-variety of racism that is skin deep when it comes right down to it. There are no shortage of rants on YouTube similar to the one above. A man interrupting a kindergarten concert to chant: “U.S.A English Only!” A profanity-laced tirade of one guy annoyed that somebody else was having a conversation in Spanish on his cell phone with his Spanish-speaking mother while waiting at the airport to catch their respective flights. Shoppers at Wal-mart insulting other shoppers who happen to speak Spanish to each other in their vicinity. A grandmother at a fast-food joint insulting a lady who speaks English with a noticeable accent. “Speak English or go home!” They all eventually say. Funny. Those were the same words their very own ancestors were screamed at when they first arrived on America’s “welcoming” shores. You know what, I think I’ll go on speaking Spanish and I’ll learn Arabic just because I can.

Learning from the Past

I’m fortunate enough to have a German friend. He spent some time here in the states and got a really good chance to get to know what our culture is like. He did spot one area of concern: patriotism.

He explained to me that modern Germans don’t shy away from their history. They saw the role that patriotism played in Hitler’s rise to power. They pledged to teach their history without hiding the truth. You won’t see many people wave the national flag or sing the national song or saying the pledge of allegiance. The same can’t really be said about us and our relationship with our culture’s history – in particular that of the Civil War.

What I know about the Civil War is this. The northern states wanted to abolish slavery. The southern states – not so much. They seceded into the newly-formed Confederation. The northern states kept the name “Union”. The two fought a terrible, bloody war. The Union won. Abraham Lincoln was president. The fact that I know enough about the Civil War to cover seven short sentences tell you how much I’d forgotten over the years because the odds are it wasn’t just that simple and there was more going on.

As far as family history goes, very little about our involvement in the Civil War has been passed down. In one household, the war split two brothers – one fought for the Union and the other for the Confederacy. In another, the husband tried to stay out of it, but he was captured by Confederates and imprisoned. Eventually he was exchanged and managed to return home. Where he convinced all of his relatives who were also neutral to sign up for the Union. In those times he was away from home, his wife had to hold down the fort, sending her kids into the woods to hide so that when the Confederates visited none of them would be taken away. Somewhere, there’s a statue out there with the name of one of my relatives who fought in the Civil War.

Something that’s noticeable about the South, is that it’s spirit is still as rebellious as ever, even though southerners don’t believe in slavery, they don’t like being told how to live. Movies like Sweet Home Alabama show the pride Southerners have in their homeland.

Just the other day I made a joke at my expense as I’m not a local: “You can’t trust us Yankees.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” an elderly woman nearby said.

To be honest, after serving these people I have come to admire that they’re honest to a fault. They don’t sugar-coat what they think. They are hard-working people who know how to take it easy after working long hours farming the land. Living up North, you can get the impression that at least your predecessors were on the right side – but it shouldn’t be a source of pride or superiority over those originating in the South.

Looking around this county – there is a ton of Civil War history that I never really knew about aside from the historic markers you try to read as you fly by them on the road. Even then, there’s a number of historical reenactments that happen every year – though I’ve never seen one.

I suppose with effort people can erase history, eradicate memorials, and re-write text-books, but even without monuments, the history and the heritage of the south lives on in the people who live here. The trick is learn from it in much the same way as my German friend has come to terms with his.

I guess I thought that the Civil War was ancient history and it had no bearing on what’s going down right here and right now, but I’m only just now realizing that I couldn’t be more wrong.

Rest in Pieces: The Obituary of a Church

Stormcard

Not long after we moved down south, we stumbled across a church that made us moderately happy – for a time. The sermons were decent and best of all, they had contemporary music. We had hoped that it was similar to the non-denominational church that had breathed life into us after a bad church experience up north.

It was a church in the middle of a vast field; but the church itself wasn’t particularly old. Inside, the sanctuary was large and open – it had rows of chairs that could be stacked against the wall to make room for fold-able tables for potlucks and other get-togethers. They also had all the typical offerings – men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups. For a time, it was a nice church home and a good church family.

But behind the scenes, things were a little different. The men in charge were the pastor, the elder, and the deacon. The pastor liked making everyone happy, so more often than not he’d end up siding with the elder unless the deacon could persuade him otherwise. The deacon was the only one who’d offer an alternative opinion to the elder; but he was often away on business, so the elder could get just about anything he wanted done when the deacon wasn’t around to challenge his opinions.

the elder laid the groundwork, slowly he introduced his favorite teachings. Then when the pastor left, the elder carefully chose a replacement, a younger guy, freshly graduated from a seminary, whose theology more closely resembled his own to frame up the structure as they remodeled the spiritual life of the church. He chose well. The new pastor has been preaching on Biblical manhood and Biblical church membership via resources from groups like The Gospel Coalition and 9 Marks among others; something the old pastor never did.

All that change has come at a cost; the church I knew is no longer the same. The people are mostly the same, but the teaching is so different. I guess we left because we saw it coming; an environment with a “it’s my completely Biblical way or the highway” mentality. We knew that we would always be the project, the heretics in the bunch who just refuse to listen to God’s word as interpreted by God’s shepherds overseeing the stubborn and dumb sheep who just won’t listen. We knew that we didn’t really belong in that kind of a church.

Still, it’s sad to watch a church fall for another gospel, choosing legalism over the legacy that was handed down to them, becoming something else entirely. I know it’s probably advertised as being more biblically-minded, more true to the gospel message, more faithful and winsome to the sound biblical teaching of the gospel known as the doctrines of grace. It’s the same pain every Arminianian has felt when their southern baptist church choose to go whole hog into that new kind of Calvinism because the church that used to accept you and worship side-by-side with you now rejects everything you believe – and by extension – you and how your beliefs make you who you are. Now that the church is being spiritually remodeled; it’s out with the old and in with the new; the building itself will always look the same, but it’ll never feel like home again.

Living Another Life

The other night, I overheard an older man giving some advice to a young couple who were about to be married. Basically, it was to start having children right away because if they wait until they’re older, they won’t have as much energy or the ability to bounce back as quickly when they get older. Some of the other people around nodded, saying things like the fact that they had regretted waiting too long. But this is a different world from the way that things used to be, and so it doesn’t follow that their advice applies as the best advice. No two couples are the same and they shouldn’t be made to live one way as if it were a cure-all to prevent any ills or woes happening in the course of everyday life.

I was thinking about that – how it’s true that most people will prefer to have the best of both worlds, there are usually some instances where they wouldn’t want to give up some of the good things about the path that they travelled. The more experiences you’re willing to erase from your life, the more aspects of who you are you are willing to let go. Then you end up becoming somebody else with some other life altogether.

What makes each of us who we are is the sum of everything that we’ve gone through and everyone who has impacted our lives. So much of our identity comes from where we’re from, who are friends are, who we work with, who we call family, where we live, what things we like. And sure, we’ll always make mistakes or decisions that we might wish to do-over; but odds are we wouldn’t want to give up whole sectors of our lives.

I was thinking about how this worked in Its a Wonderful Life; we only got a glimpse of the terrible fate that befell Mary without having fallen in love with George. She would have had to further her education, get a job, establish her own friends, her own place in the community, set her own goals; who knows, perhaps if George never existed she might have fallen in love with somebody else and lived her life differently – no better and no worse, just not the same. Yep, that’s the worst thing that could have happened without George; but it’s not really so bad, is it?

For me and so many others, we’ve been told that good things come to those who wait. As patient and we’ve been, we know that there’s bound to be a whole lot of good things in store – in due time. Perhaps our lives would have been different had we lived them differently, but then we would be different people, too. You know what, I rather like the person that I am and I’m glad that I’m not somebody else. I might not have followed the beaten path, but I’ve enjoyed the scenic route’s charming view.

Quito

Save a Life

Just the other day, I was handed a dollar bill with this message stamped in red on it: “Don’t vaccinate! Save a life!” People certainly do write the strangest things on money these days, don’t they?

One of the books I had read as a kid was The Velveteen Rabbit. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get so sick my parents would have to remove all my clothes, toys, books – everything I own and burn them. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Then I remember accounts of old men and women whose childhood was plaged by a very real and dangerous threat – Polio. It left in it’s wake death and paralysis. One of our former president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had contracted it and it left him paralyzed; not that he ever let him stop him from achieving great success or let on in the public consciousness. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

History also records of the Spanish Flu, a deadly epidemic that killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Scarlet Fever, Polio, and a great many other diseases have been known to mankind for thousands of years; history tells us that they’re very good at wrecking and destroying the human body and our natural immunity isn’t nearly strong enough on it’s own to win. We live in a world that has found a way to fight back and prevent epidemics before they even begin; but it’s an all-or-nothing solution. Anyone who doesn’t get a vaccine undoes the efforts of those who take them. That’s why diseases that were thought to be gone had a resurgence in recent years. The point is – not having vaccines didn’t save lives; it just made it that much easier for lives to be lost – and greater numbers of them to be affected by the after-effects of surviving a terrible disease.

I’m told that when an apartment in New York City is fumigated, the cockroaches simply up and relocate themselves to another apartment in the same building that isn’t being fumigated. The only way to eradicate the creatures from the whole building is to see to it that there’s nowhere else for them to go; and similarly, that there’s no one else for these diseases to find safe harbor inside. I don’t know who stamped that message on the dollar bill; but saving lives starts with taking vaccinations; if anyone doubts that, there are a great many third world countries where there’s little to no access to vaccines that are the front lines where all kinds of diseases still takes a heavy toll every single day.