Friday, January 28, 2005

Canceling the Bee 

A school in the Northeast cancels the spelling bee because when someone wins, some child is (by definition) left behind.

Please. Does "No Child Left Behind" also now mean that none may run ahead?

Neighborhood Just War 

I usually read discussions about "Just War" with interest, but of course I'm no expert. I don't have much to add to discussions like the one on Amy Welborn's site the other day. But just as I wrote about one of my next-door neighbors a few days back (the one with the maple tree that just won't die), perhaps I'll write about a next-door neighbor who used to live on the other side.

When we first moved into our home, which is just one block from the public grade school and three blocks from a Catholic Grade school, our neighbors were all older and had no children living at home. How nice, then, when a family with two little girls our children's age (9 and 6) moved in right next door. This was a blended family, the two little girls were the children of the couple and the wife brought along two teenage boys from a previous marriage. The happiness of having friends for our children so close soon wore off, though, when the older of the girls started telling different mothers in the neighborhood that her teenage step-brothers had been "at" her, if you don't mind the euphemism, "at."

What to do? Well, several of the mothers on the block, including my better half, got together and asked those parents if this was true. "Well, yes, it is true," said the mother, "but our whole family is in therapy and we're dealing with it."

The neighborhood mothers discussed this among themselves, worried because the parents of those girls both worked and those poor girls were home alone with those boys quite often. And worried, too, of course for all the hundreds of children that lived and walked through the neighborhood to get to school. The women decided to call the welfare department and discuss the situation. This resulted in a visit by the authorities next door and a rather horrible series of confrontations on our doorstep. Suffice to say that our pool, every morning from then on, had dirt clods and garbage thrown in. Suffice to say that our dog was foreverafter treated to stick-poking and thrown rocks when he went outside. Suffice to say that even the little girl who we were trying to protect (along with our own family) threatened to take her father's pistol and blow our brains out.

Over the course of years, the boys were forced by court order to be removed to live with their father (and every time they showed up back home to make neighborhood life horrible we had to call for the authorities) and finally the girls grew up and the family moved away. A new, very nice young family now lives next door.

So what does this have to do with Just War Doctrine? Just assume that our neighbor was Saddam and their house was Iraq. Look at all the times we had to call on the authorities (the United Nations) to enforce the law and protect the neighborhood (the world). What, pray tell, would we have done if the city officials did nothing to enforce the law? What would we have done? Move? Yes, of course, but countries can't move. The United Nations proved toothless, the United States had recently been attacked by Osama Bin Laden (and people today seem totally focused on the World Trade Center attack and seem to forget the people running for their lives from the White House and the Capitol... people seem to forget that the Pentagon itself was attacked, the seat of the defense of our nation, and many died) and many, me included, felt it was high time someone did something about Saddam popping off at our Air Force and flaunting United Nations Resolutions.

I remain thankful that through the intervention of authorities, no Just War was needed with my neighbor. I never found how far I could be pushed before I pushed back. President Bush faced a level of decision I never had to face and it's why he remains in my prayers.

Update: More on Just War Doctrine at the Southern Appeal Blog (via Amy Welborn).

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Wide Awake 

Before M. Night Shyamalan became famous for writing and directing "The Sixth (I see dead people) Sense" and "Signs," with Mel Gibson, he wrote and directed a little film called "Wide Awake" that I happened to catch last night. The story is about a fifth grader who's beloved grandfather dies of bone cancer. The little boy (Joshua), who goes to Catholic grade school, decides to go on a quest to find and talk to God to make sure his grandfather is OK.

Let me tell you, I'm a sucker for kid movies, especially kid-on-a-quest movies like "Amazing Grace and Chuck" or "Pay it Forward." So, I lucked out here because it was only happenstance that I caught "Wide Awake." I saw Dana Delany in a movie I liked over Christmas break ("Resurrection") and since she was in "Wide Awake," I watched it, too . . . having no idea what it was about.

Anyway, the little boy, Joshua, has the normal grade school problems: bullies, weirdos, girls, and a best friend who's always getting him into trouble. When Josh tells his best friend about his quest to find God, the friend says something like, "There either is no God or else He doesn't care about people, just look at all the suffering in the world, look at all the bad things that happen for no reason." But Josh continues, asking questions of his parents, his nun-teachers, his priest and even seeking out a Cardinal (in a restroom). Josh searches for God on the Internet and investigates all manner of religious ideas throughout his 5th grade year until everyone at school knows about his quest. Finally, near the end of the year, Josh walks in on his daredevil friend (who was always missing school for various, rather-fake, health reasons) having a massive undiagnosed epileptic seizure. Josh gives up his quest having never found God and realizing his friend was right about bad things happening to good people.

But then, slowly, we begin to understand. We look at the drudgery the nuns and the priests go through at the school all day, every day. We look at the bully and the weirdos. We look at Joshua's family and we realize that his quest led him to understand the bully and show him kindness, his quest led him to show the weirdos kindness and friendship, his quest brought moments of inspiration to his teachers and his priest and his parents. (During confession to his priest: "Can we just talk? How do you know He's really there? Where can I find Him?") Finally, his daredevil friend, who had told him constantly his quest was pointless and making him look crazy, told him from his hospital bed that he was afraid, for the first time, he was afraid, "Don't give up your quest, Josh. Look, it was a miracle that you walked in on me, you never come over when I miss school, but you came over that day and found me."

Each of the students give a "What happened to me in 5th grade" essay at the end of the movie. Josh writes something like this: "Before this year, bullies were just bullies, weirdos were just weird, daredevils were never afraid, and people I loved never died. It was as if I was asleep and didn't realize what was going on around me... but now, now I'm wide awake."

I find the story inspiring, and even if I'm not a child and even if it's a little harder for a grown up to ask questions and quest for God . . . I find myself thinking of my own extended family and my own co-workers and my own RCIA teachers. How might my own quest effect them? How might discussing impossible-to-answer questions allow God into their (and my) life? Just how much am I missing? Just how sleepy am I?

A decent question to ask of Eutychus who did, after all, fall asleep out of a third story window and die while Paul was preaching. A good question to ask of Eutychus who was, after all, brought back to life from the dead.

I wonder if his first question was, "What did I miss?" I wonder if he said, "Well, I'm wide awake now!"

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Conscience Feeding 

In RCIA last night we discussed the 4th and 5th commandments: Honor Thy Father and Mother and Thou shalt not kill. I was again struck by the enormity of the 10 commandments and how each commandment can inform a multitude of moral decisions we face daily. We talked about a lot of things, but some stand out:

It is growing more difficult to justify support for capital punishment. We talked about Ted Bundy, who escaped from prison in Aspen and went on a murder spree in Florida. Would it be possible, with today's technology, to prevent a Bundy escape? What about the poorer nations, how hard is it for them to maintain prisoners on death-row for decades?

Our teacher asked if anyone in the room knew anyone personally who had committed suicide and every hand went up. I was shocked...

We talked about PVS (persistent vegetative state) and Terri Shiavo and the Pope's directive on feeding tubes. These are all things we talked about and discussed, but it was a conscience feeding evening and no conclusive directives were given we students. We walked out into the cold night of a grey world.

Senator Bayh 

Evan Bayh, one of my Indiana Senators, rose in opposition to Condi Rice today in the Senate debate. Senator Bayh said that the Bush Administration made mistakes that got us into Iraq and no one has been called to pay for those mistakes. I'd like to point out that Senator Bayh supported the war in Kosovo in 1999 based on the intelligence that genocide, ethnic cleansing, was occuring. President Clinton's intelligence sources said, at different times, between 100,000 and 250,000 people, mostly gypsies, had been murdered and placed in mass graves. Estimates today of the ethnic cleansing seem to range between 1,000 and 2,500 people might have been killed -- hardly genocide, hardly on the scope of the millions killed in the genocide after the USA left Vietnam.

Who has Senator Bayh called to pay for this false intelligence that got us into the war in Kosovo? I expect that Condi Rice has huge favorable ratings in Indiana and I'm rather surprised that Senator Bayh would take a position so far outside this state's desires. I am disappointed less by his standing in opposition than by the partisan nature of his opposition: he would not have risen in opposition to Madeleine Albright after her mistakes in Kosovo and North Korea. I do not believe he would have stood in opposition to Joe Biden, either, had John Kerry chosen him as his Secretary of State.

Bayh joins the other Democrats who both demand the Administration admit mistakes and then bash them in any way possible for doing so. Bayh votes against Rice for not preventing the war in Iraq which he himself voted for on the evidence. Bayh votes against Rice for being not knowing that Saddam was a toothless tiger while at the same time Bayh garners support from hoosiers for his vote for war to keep the tiger out. Come his next bid for re-election, will he not run to pay for his mistake in voting for the war?

Windows on the World 

So many people make fun of and dislike Bill Gates. But the Gates Foundation is doing good work.
In its less than five years of existence GAVI has been responsible for the vaccination of some 54 million children against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, influenza type B, and yellow fever.

GAVI was set up in 2000 in response to stagnation in the rate of worldwide vaccination and the growing gap between industrialised and developing countries in access to vaccines.

"Despite remarkable progress in the past three decades in immunization coverage world-wide, it is unacceptable that in the 21st century, about two million people still die each year of infectious diseases that could have been entirely prevented through basic vaccinations," said Lee.

Paul Allen (co-founder of MicroSoft) has his own charitable institution, "The Paul Allen Family Foundation."

So, say what you want about MicroSoft, but what did the billionaires of the past establish to rival Gates? Did Howard Hughes innoculate the world? Did J. Paul Getty work to modernize poor schools and libraries?

Monday, January 24, 2005

A Tree Grows in Phoenix 

I was reading about the two suspended Phoenix, AZ priests over at Amy Welborn's site (where does she find the energy?) Over time, I've lived through some congregational splits over pastors and over change. I've also been on the sidelines for other splits over building projects, behavior, growth, money, etc. There's no end to the causes that can split a parish or a congregation.

A couple of winters ago, an ice storm brought down a large limb from my neighbor's maple tree onto our garage roof. Our neighbor is an 80-something widow and we've lived next to her for over twenty years, even before her husband died. Our kids and my wife and I mow, rake, shovel and otherwise try to help out. Our neighbor decided to take down the tree so this wouldn't happen again. Rather than pay for tree-removal, her son came over and cut off all the branches and then topped the tree so that only a 10 foot high stump remained. It was quite a production.

I used to trim trees for a mobile home park when I was in college (hang with me here, and I'll get back to those suspended priests). We were trained to never take more than 1/3 of the tree at a time and always trim so that there was a clear "leader" branch at the top of the tree. Our boss told us that he had seen trees survive when 2/3 of the tree was taken, but he prefered being safer with his investment so we only ever took away 1/3 of a tree. I drive by those trees now, 25 years later, and am proud of how high and strong and well-formed they are. Every year, we would cut off the bottom branches so that eventually the lowest branches would be too high for kids to hang on, too high to be in the way. Every year we would cut off branches that rivaled the "leader" branch so that eventually the main trunk rose straight without curves and bows and weaknesses. And, of course, every year the nearby families complained about us butchering their trees.

Anyway, despite all my training and experience, I was surprised to see my neighbor's bare, 10 foot high, maple tree stump continue to sprout small limbs and leaves. I was amazed to see it, year after year, struggling to come back. The stump survives to this day, with limbs growing stronger and starting to spread, once again, overtop my garage.

I know nothing of the cases of those two Phoenix priests beyond what I've read in the article above. But I understand that in each case the congregations, the parishioners, are loyal to their priest and consider the whole thing (in each case) a misunderstanding. I have lived through this and have seen it lived through. Sunday, which should be a day of peace and focus on God, becomes embattled. If only there was some immunization for this kind of thing. Change is constant and if we compare the Catholic Church to the trunk of my neighbor's tree, you can almost hear the congregational limbs under the saw's attack. What are the people in this analogy if not the leaves, the leaves that bring life and light to the tree. I doubt one tree in 100 would survive the stripping of all its branches and leaves. The trick, I would think, the immunization, if you will, would be to have the leaves sprout right off the trunk.

I think that's what a good RCIA program brings to a church. One of those priests in Phoenix preached that women should be ordained priests and that gay folk should be welcome at the Eucharist. What a weakness that brings to the tree! The RCIA class at that church must be quite confused to learn one thing in class and have the priest teach another on Sunday. You can see the weakness in that tree... the central branch, the "leader," has a rival and it should be trimmed. A tree with two leaders grows off-center, leads the congregation away from the central truth.

I like our priest. When he teaches RCIA, I have yet to hear anything about, "oh, you can ignore that part, it's dated and we don't follow it here." But there are those who do not like our priest, and it would be so hard, if and when he leaves, to follow someone who doesn't really believe the teachings of the church. But if worse comes to worse, and the branches and leaves are lopped off our parish, I hope our strong RCIA program has immunized our parish well enough that the people, the leaves, would continue to sprout from the trunk and seek truth and light and life.

Tree trimming doesn't always make people happy. Often, people are used to what their trees look like and happy with the shade the way it's cast. Healthy trees, though, must needs be trimmed despite the uproar, ill-will and sense of loss so many feel.

Boston Legal 

Boston Legal isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the character Alan Shore (played by James Spader) has a set of morals. It's a bent set, but the lawyer-character Alan Shore, however baudy and pompous, has beliefs. I don't want to write about his beliefs, though. Another character on the show, played by William Shatner, is Denny Crane. The character Denny Crane is an aging, famous lawyer who is suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's. Denny Crane, too, has morals and I don't want to write about those, either.

I want to write about their friendship on the show. Often, at the end of episodes, the two sit out in the air, on a balcony, and smoke cigars and talk. Their friendship is well played and palpable. Last night, the two were talking about Denny's Alzheimer's and Denny, a conservative Republican, says something like...

Denny Crane: Sometimes you can only look for answers from God, and failing that... (heavy silence... )

Alan Shore: Fox News.

Denny Crane: Exactly!

Alan Shore: (snidely) You Republicans.

Denny Crane: (smiling) You Democrats.

Of course, I laughed out loud at the Fox News crack, but the friendship of the two characters was played out wonderfully and it's something that is missing today in politics.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Johnny Carson 

I have the feeling that Johnny Carson is the last, great, television focal point. A person who had a feel for the silent majority of the nation and knew how to reach them. We have a bunch of him on tape and DVD and watch him periodically. I miss him. It's sad that he's gone.

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