A Litmus Test

What do you value more? A human being or piece of cloth?

What is more important? The citizens or the symbol of our nation?

What is of greater worth? Your own comfort or a stranger's life?

What would you rather preserve? Privilege or equality?

What bothers you more? Disrespect or injustice?

What are you willing to risk? Admitting when you're wrong or never knowing your faults?

What do you demonstrate when observing challenging behavior? Compassion or disgust?

What do you find most disturbing? People who protest or the reason they protest?

Whose opinion is more valid? The oppressed or the oppressor?

What is more patriotic? Defending or criticizing those who do not share your beliefs?

What should be followed? The letter or the spirit of the law?

For what will you kneel? God or country?

There are no correct answers in this test. Nor are there incorrect answers. However, how you answer these questions reveal your priorities. Your priorities shape how you relate to those you love and how you treat everyone from acquaintances to strangers. It dictates how you react to stress, bad news, and conflict. We must be careful. It is too easy to live with misguided priorities. Consider this a litmus test for your priorities.

image courtesy of Broken Bread Club


People of the Ground

It is a great compliment to say someone is a salt of the earth kind of person. In them we find simplicity and goodness which we admire. We trust them. The phrase is taken from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said to the crowds “You are the salt of the earth.” Back then, salt was used as a preservative more often than a seasoning. Jesus described how we can influence others like salt.

The compliment remains when we say someone is grounded. They are wise, reasonable, reliable. They think practically, are emotionally stable, and serve as a calming force in the lives around them.

Both terms, being grounded and being salt of the earth, are focused on being present. Right here. Right now. Both are about influencing and benefiting other people’s lives. Both make this world a better place. I think there’s more to it though. I believe there is a deeper purpose to being a salt of the earth or grounded person. It’s all about how we relate to people, and it is about how we relate to God.

But first, a biblical history lesson.

The first time we see the Israelites as a nation of people with a sizable population is in Egypt. There, they were slaves. Their treatment was inhumane. When God delivered them, he gave them a set of rules and guidelines to remind them of the lives they left behind. They were free. They would no longer be forced to work every day of their lives, instead they would observe the Sabbath and have a day to rest. No longer would they honor a cruel master and tyrannical ruler, they would honor their mothers and fathers.

They left an empire as slaves and entered a land of milk and honey where they were to become the salt of the earth. God didn’t want His people to become another empire. He wanted them to become a new kind of nation that the world had never seen before. Generations before, God made a promise to Abraham, the forefather of the nation of Israel, that all the nations on the earth would be blessed though his decedents. Now, as the Israelites fled Egypt, they faced the opportunity to fulfill the promise spoken to their ancestor.

God gave them the framework of scripture to make it possible. Built into Jewish law were commands to love their neighbors as they loved their own selves. Orders to not oppress the resident aliens and foreigners in their land. Demands to care for and protect the orphans and widows – the vulnerable populations among them. Instructions to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor would have access to food and grain. God wanted a nation who would build up people, not walls. He wanted a grounded people, a salt of the earth who would be a blessing to everyone.

If Israel had stuck with God’s design, they would have been a revolutionary force, unique among all other nations. No one else had outward priorities, they looked inward. All other nations existed to glorify themselves. They built walls, towers, palaces, temples, and monuments to show their power and wealth. They waged wars to protect their power and wealth. They waged wars to amass more power and wealth.

Eventually, Israel forgot their purpose. They abandoned God’s calling. They wanted to become a nation like the other nations around them. They got a king, and built palaces and temples. They began to worship foreign idols. They stopped welcoming aliens and failed to care for the weak and powerless in their communities. They sought wealth and power. More and more, Israel acted like an empire. They grew to have more in common with Egypt than they did a people of God. Because they were building their own empire instead of following God’s plan, they became a broken people, defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile. Their walls, palaces, and temples were destroyed and left for ruin.

A history forgotten or ignored is a history repeated.

Where are we focused? Is America an empire? Are we like Babylon or Egypt? Or are we a nation that serves to bless all others? So many keep calling us a Christian nation, but I wonder. Do we care for vulnerable populations? How well do we treat foster kids, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor? Do we do enough to make sure they have food, shelter, and clothing? Do we welcome foreigners? Are migrant workers and refugees safe in our cities and neighborhoods? Do we show them kindness and generosity? Or are we focused on building walls to protect our borders and building skyscrapers to demonstrate our superiority? Are we waging or threatening to wage wars to gain or protect wealth and power? Are we grounded? Are we the salt of the earth?

In ancient times, various cultures related to their gods by building monuments, towers, and sculptures. The Sphinx and Great Pyramids. The pyramids of Teotihuacan. The Colossus of Rhodes. Giant Buddhas. The Parthenon. Angkor Wat. They made grand gestures, ornate and complex constructions to inspire awe in all who visited. Their gods were distant and callous. In order to appease their gods, they had to go big. They believed their fertility, to grow crops and offspring were dependent on satisfying these unappeasable gods.

The God of Jewish tradition was different. How did people relate to this God? He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, they shared the same ground as the divine. God appeared as a burning bush to Moses, a plant growing from the earth. He asked Moses to remove his sandals because Moses was standing on holy ground. Then Jesus, the son of this God, called Zacchaeus out of the tree back and down to the ground – to get out of the habit of lifting himself up above others. Jesus invited Peter to step out of the boat and walk on water, a mortal sharing the same surface with the divine. Our God wants His people to commune with Him. To share intimacy. He wants people who are grounded.

I believe that God still wants a nation who will build up people instead of building monuments. I believe in a God who wants us to care for others instead of building walls. I believe in a God who wants His followers to be a blessing to all nations instead of an empire existing for their own benefit.


IT: a review

Let's get the facts clear up front, It is a scary movie. Based on the classic (and long) novel from the master of horror, Stephen King, It follows a group of junior high aged kids as they battle a murderous clown, nightmare fuel named Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

If you have coulrophobia, It is not a film you should watch. But for everyone else, It is easily my favorite film of 2017, and the best I've seen in a long time. Yes, It is terrifying at times, even the trailer was frightening. I've added it to my 'top five scariest movies ever' list. Yet underneath the creeping sense of dread, jump scares, and pervasive foreboding atmosphere is a truly great film.

It aspires to be bigger than a typical horror movie. Even with the tropes of a clever kids versus a monster plot line, It packs in a ton of depth, heart, and humor. It is a scary movie, but It is so much more.

This story succeeds because of the kids It follows. They are not the lifelong friends everybody wishes they had. These kids are underdogs and outcasts, bullied by older and bigger kids, abused by their parental figures, and mostly ignored by every other adult in their lives. They don't track down Pennywise because they're brave or have something to prove. They do it because no one else will.

And who else is better prepared to fend off evil in the form of an extradimensional psychopathic clown than a bunch of kids who are tormented by human evil on a daily basis.

If you don't want to know any details, you should stop reading now. Because there will be spoilers. You've been warned.
image courtesy of New Line Cinema and Warner Bros Pictures

The film follows Bill Denbrough and his three friends (collectively known as The Losers Club) in the summer of 1989. Bill has a stuttering problem which makes him a target for mean classmates. His little brother was Pennywise’s first victim and he feels guilty; Bill was sick and in bed the night Georgie was killed. The loss has strained his relationship with his family and his dad is hostile toward how Bill grieves.

Richie is scrawny, hyperactive, foul mouthed, afraid of clowns, wears oversized glasses, and is a neglected child looking for attention. His sarcastic attitude and vulgar insults often get him and the other boys into trouble. For most of the film, Richie is the comedic relief.

Stan is the germophobic Jewish kid preparing for his bat mitzvah. His father is a rabbi at the local synagogue and is highly critical of his Stan. He is the most reluctant member of The Losers Club, often giving reasons why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.

Eddie is the shortest and weakest of the kids. He is an accident prone hypochondriac afraid of anything that could injure him or cause sickness. He is fed a diet of various pills and placebos by his obese and emotionally abusive mother, who likely has Munchausen by proxy.

The four boys plan to spend their summer break searching for the body of Bill’s younger brother. Along the way, they befriend three other kids who are also harassed by the Bowers Gang, high school thugs led by Henry the son of an abusive cop. These new members of The Losers Club are Mike, the black kid who is homeschooled by his strict authoritarian grandfather after his parents died in a fire; Bev, the girl with a sexually abusive father and is teased as a slut from false rumors; and Ben, the bookworm who faces the cruelest and most violent bullying because of his weight.

One by one, and always when alone, each of the seven Losers are stalked or attacked by Pennywise as he manifests in the form of their greatest fears. A disfigured woman from a painting in Rabbi Uris’s office. Burning hands trying to escape through the butcher’s door. A leper stalking Eddie. A fountain of hair and blood exploding from Bev’s bathroom sink. And the image of Georgie reminds Bill that he could float too.

Daily life for these kids is hell. If the torture they suffer at the hands of bullies and parents weren’t enough, they live in a town that is either oblivious of their presence or bothered by their existence. The librarian is condescending of Ben. The pharmacist leers at Bev. The cops look the other way when the Bowers Gang harasses other kids. City leaders and law enforcement do little to find the murdered children, aside from posting missing signs and instituting a curfew. The Losers Club is trapped between the horrors of a clown trying to kill them, neglectful and abusive guardians, and a trio of bullies that have been given the freedom to do whatever they want. Their only way out is to fight the clown.

To defeat Pennywise, each of the kids must confront their fears. Richie gets trapped in a room full of clowns, Bev fights back against her father, Eddie throws away his pills and inhaler. Collectively, they stand up to the bullies. For a moment, Bill makes his way through a pep talk without stuttering. By the time the Losers confront It in the sewers, there is a moment of wish fulfillment for everyone in the audience who was abused, bullied, or mistreated as a kid. It symbolizes every real evil in our world. While the kids beat back the monster, they remind us that we are all capable of overcoming evil. Even if we are a stutterer, a loudmouth, a hypochondriac, a Jew, an African American, a fat kid, or a girl.


To my oldest son

This was you, seven years ago, enjoying a basket of chicken strips and French fries from Red Robin.
We were out celebrating your sixth birthday. You had just started kindergarten and you were convinced that was the year you would learn what your superpowers were. After all, to be a hero, you had to possess some sort of superhuman skill.

Much has changed in the last seven years. Obviously, you're older, taller, smarter, more independent. However, these years have thrown turmoil your direction. Family changes, school changes, friends who have come and gone, bullies (some worse than others), and the natural awkwardness that comes with adolescence. Through it all, I am certain now more than I was when you turned six .... you have superpowers.

You have the power to shape your world. So many times over the last couple years, you have asked me which profession you could enter that would give you the most opportunity to make this world a better place. Along the way, you've pondered accomplishing that goal of improving the lives of others as an inventor, a pastor, or a comedian. You even decided you wanted to attend the University of Wyoming to study political science and pursue a life in politics. Recently, you've determined the best path for your passions, personality, and desire to leave this world better than it was when you arrived is to work as an engineer or scientist.

You, kid, are a world changer already. Whatever the future holds, it will be amazing. Not only do you have the power to shape your world, you have the power to shape your future. If you want to invent a time machine, it might violate all of the laws of physics, but you could do it. If you want to lead a church, you could do it. If you want to stand on a stage and make people laugh, you could do it. If you want to become the president of the USA, not only do I think you can do it, I also believe you would do a much better job than our current president.

And maybe your future is in the sciences. Maybe you will be spending your life in research, academic papers, peer reviews, and government grants. You and I have had countless conversations where you posed a problem, something broken in our world, and asked me how to fix it. Perhaps one day you will engineer a solution to one of those issues. I don't know if it is chemistry, geology, biology, physics, psychology, quantum mechanics, social engineering. Although, I know it won't be astrophysics, you've already nixed that idea. Whatever it is, I'm on your side. I will be cheering you on for as long as I am walking this earth.

Today, that means we're celebrating your thirteenth birthday. We'll see where your dreams and superpowers take you over the next seven years.


Donald's Streisand Effect

Sometimes, I wonder if President Trump has ever heard of the Streisand Effect. I doubt it; his behavior seems to indicate he is not aware of how his words might produce a result contrary to what he desires.

This phenomenon describes an instance where attempts to hide, distort, censor, or deny the existence of an act, deed, or object brings more attention to that act, deed, or object. It is the law of unintended consequence, Newton’s third law of physics in psychological form. Every social action has an equal and opposite social reaction. In the Streisand effect, the action is to suppress knowledge and the reaction is greater publicity than what previously existed.

It was named after the famous singer who filed a $50 million lawsuit to have pictures of her Malibu mansion removed from the internet anyone could see it. Prior to the lawsuit, the photo of Barbra Streisand’s home had only been downloaded four times. It was downloaded two more times by her attorneys. The suit was filed in the courts and became public record. Suddenly, everyone was aware of these pictures Barbra did not want them to see. The result was an additional 420,000 people who downloaded a picture they would have never known existed without someone trying to suppress it.

Every time Donald Trump decries the investigation into Russia’s influence over last year’s election and possible ties between Putin’s government and Trump’s campaign, I think of the Streisand Effect. Every time he tries to discredit the investigators, I believe the news a little more than I did before. The more he tries to bury the story the more I think there is a real story there. If it was all fake news as he frequently claims, he is not doing himself any favors drawing so much attention to it.

Besides, it cannot possibly be all fake news.

There were multiple meetings between Russian government officials, lawyers, and oligarchs and Trump’s kids, advisers, attorneys, and members of his campaign. The details of what was discussed at those meetings may never be known but the meetings did happen. Many from Trump’s inner circle who participated in those meetings also lied about their contact with the Russians. That is not fake news. Several of these people eventually came clean and admitted the contacts they previously denied. This is not fake news. Trump’s organization was trying to obtain permits to construct the world’s tallest building in Moscow while Trump was denying any business dealings in Russia. That is not fake news. Putin had a favorable opinion of Trump during the campaign, and Trump’s policies were overtly pro-Russia. That is not fake news.

When there are so many provable facts reported by mainstream media dismissed as fake news, reasonable and rational people understand the fakest news is the president’s accusations of fake news. At this point, anything Trump calls fake news is something I will consider more credible than if he said nothing about it at all. Whenever Trump refers to the investigation into Russia’s meddling as a witch hunt, I cannot help but think “yes, and you are the witch.”

If there really are no correlations between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s attempt to influence the election, if there was was zero collusion between Trump’s camp and Putin’s regime, then Trump should have kept his mouth shut. He should have let the investigators do their jobs. If there is nothing there, then there would be nothing for the FBI and DOJ to find. They would conclude the investigation with no evidence of wrongdoing. If that is the truth, why would anyone need to work so hard to deny the existence of anything? President Trump, as Shakespeare once wrote, doth protest too much.

The more Trump imitates Frank Drebin “nothing to see here, please disperse,” the more I want to know what IS there. Because it is obvious that there is something there.

President Trump is the Streisand Effect in action. The only thing he will accomplish by working to obstruct, hide, distort, and openly lie about Mueller’s investigation, the more attention he will draw to it. Pretty soon, it will be too big to ignore.