Category Archives: Commenting on the Heart

Cheated of Cheesecake?

Today was one of those good days when my employer fed me lunch on their dime. A guest speaker, Joshua Neufeld, the artist behind such graphic creations as The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media or A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon Graphic Library), a graphic account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had given a lecture. We gave him a luncheon (and presumably a wad of money).

As I sat down to the table, I found the usual fare, including glasses of water and tea. We’re swanky at JCCC! But then I saw the precise slice of dessert pictured here lurking just past my super-healthy grilled chicken salad. Not only were they tempting me with cheesecake, but they’d drizzled caramel or somesuch all over it. I knew that, given my October Resolve to control my eating, I could not indulge in this delicacy. It would be colossally hard!

That’s what I told Penny when I got home. “It was hard.” Then I thought about it for a moment and realized that not eating that marvelous confection really had not been that hard. I looked at it. I saw Beth to my left eat about half of hers. Maureen to my right ate most if not all of hers. Mine never moved.

That’s when I found myself reminded that resisting temptation is not the incredibly difficult thing that we make it out to be. Temptation came my way not by the hand of Satan but my the hand of JCCC Food Service. The desire for it might have been nudged forward by Satan, but for me to truly be tempted, to find it hard, I would have to turn that desire over in my mind.

James 1:13-15 describes the process by which temptation develops. It starts with an idea, but it only moves from desire to sin to death when I allow myself to be “drawn away and enticed by [my] own evil desire.” It’s not the cheesecake’s desire. It’s not Satan’s desire. It wasn’t the desire of Beth or Maureen. It was mine. All I had to do to win the moment was not to feed–either literally or figuratively–that desire.

Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.

A 4th of July Blow Up

This is for my grandson, Ira, who asked, with something of a sneer in his voice, “What is Fourth of July supposed to be for?”

There’s a strain of thought in our society that cynically dismisses the United States as the source all the evils in the world. These people, some of whom I’m sure Ira has heard talk, point rightfully to a host of things that this nation has gotten wrong in the past 241 years.

As a nation, we’ve been pretty awful in several respects: slavery, the displacement of Native Americans, a successful war of conquest in Mexico and an unsuccessful invasion (or two) of Canada. Then there are more recent things that aren’t exactly the stuff to put into the scrapbook.

But here’s the deal. When the fifty-six delegates signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they weren’t claiming to be perfect. Read through the document and you won’t find anywhere where it saysthat we wouldn’t mess up. What Jefferson and company did claim wasthe right to determine their own destinies. In soaring language, theysaid that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

Sure, we’ve been figuring out over those years exactly what all people being equal means, but let’s recognize that even the very limited idea–allwhite men (not women) were equal–was revolutionary in the nations of their day. Sure, the wags of the Enlightenment talked in those terms, but nobody actually tried to act on it.

Our forebears acted on it. We did it imperfectly, but we did it. On July 4, 1776, a teetering little nation reared its head against the greatest power on earth and said, “Enough! We’re in charge of our own destiny!”

July 4 commemorates a revolution that stuck. We didn’t, like France a few years later, start guillotining everyone in sight. We didn’t, like Russia in 1917 and beyond, begin murdering hundreds before moving on to thousands and then millions.We move through parties and philosophies and presidents and problems, usually without resorting to bloodshed. And when 620,000 lives were extinguished in an effort to maintain the union and end slavery, when at the very moment of triumph the president was murdered, our level of retribution was exceptionally measured. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis died of natural causes, a free man in New Orleans.

So those who hate the country that gives them a constitutionally guaranteed right to put on Guy Fawkes masks and chant whatever they’re chanting today can have their say. I say they’re ignorant and childish, but I’ll stand to defend their right to be ignorant and childish. I’d ask them to return the favor.

The Fourth of July? It’s not about the United States of America being a perfect place. It’s about it being a place where people are allowed to make their best efforts to succeed or fail. It’s about us continuing to listen to and learn from one another. It’s about a place on earth where people can worship or not worship how they please. It’s about a nation that seems capable of surviving its own worst sins, coming out breathing onthe other side.

That, Ira, is what Fourth of July is all about. Isn’t it appropriate that we celebrate it by blowing things up?

Got Life?

Milk Bottle MotivationAbottle of milk has an expiration date. That doesn’t mean that the milk will magically turn into cottage cheese at midnight the day after the “Use By” date. Maybe it will go bad sooner; maybe later? But eventually it will go bad.

Life, like that bottle of milk, will expire as well. We are all destined to die. But just as you don’t leave your milk sitting out in on a hot counter, you should take pains to keep your life from expiring any sooner than it needs to.

Got life? Yes. Then take care of it.

I Can’t Look! You’re Gonna Fall!

Afraid of HeightsI have, among other slight psychological disorders, something that I call, Vicarious Acrophobia Syndrome. VAS (which is not included in the the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5, is a very real problem. It means that you have fear of heights for someone else. Just to be clear, I have very real fear of heights for myself. Only in recent years have I gotten to where I can scale a ladder and get onto my own roof, but watching somebody, like this fool sitting on the edge of oblivion in the photo, makes me crazy.

I first recognized my struggle with VAS back at Boy Scout camp a number of years back. As an adult, I had been enlisted to help out with an evening’s adventure, guiding boys to scramble up a challenging but not terribly dangerous rock formation. I say that it was not terribly dangerous, but the top of the formation was also the top of a 60-foot cliff.

The guys in charge of the outing had me go up the rocks first. “Just keep everyone from going crazy up there,” they told me.

To me, the way that you keep from going crazy at the top of a cliff is to hold onto a tree–or better yet lash yourself to said tree–30 or 40 yards away from the edge. Instead, these boys would walk up to the brinkof the cliff and stare down into the void. I thought I would die.

My rational mind knows that a 12-year-old boy can stand on the edge of something–a rug, for example–look down, and not totter over onto the floor. Why shouldn’t he be able to stand on the edge of a cliff? That’s my rational mind, but my VAS-afflicted, emotional mind was going crazy.

Why am I thinking about this today? That’s probably fodder for another entry, should I ever get around to it, but thinking about my lifelong struggles with VAS leave me wondering about a struggle I don’t have.

Every day, I see people who are standing on the brink of an eternity in hell just as surely as those Boy Scouts were standing on the brink of the cliff. And while those Boy Scouts were not about to suddenly plunge to their deaths, these unsaved peoplewill someday face death and plunge into that doom unless something brings them to Christ.

Why do I, the VAS-obsessed guy, not have a similar dread of their very real fate? Why is a highly-unlikely physical risk so much more frightening to me than a completely-certain spiritual risk? I wish I could answer that. More importantly, I wish I could generate the sort of empathy for those standing on the brink of hell that I have for those standing on the brink of a cliff.