Monday, April 21, 2014

Philomena

My wife and I recently watched the movie “Philomena,” and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. The story is about an Irish woman by the name of Philomena, who is now elderly (played by Judi Dench) in the movie. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helps Philomena Lee search for her long-lost son, who was taken from her by nuns in an Irish convent and sold into adoption when she was an unwed teenager. The movie is based on a true story, and it raises some moral and ethical questions that I’d like to address.

On the positive side, the nuns provided a place for these disgraced mothers and their children to live at a time when such pregnancies often resulted in rejection by the girl’s family and the community as a whole.

Unfortunately there are a number of serious negative acts these nuns did. The first negative act had to do with their treatment of these unwed mothers. The nuns took in these girls and their children, but then they treated the girls like slaves. It was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, but occurring in the mid-20th century. The rationale, according to “Sister Hildegard” in the movie, was that these girls had sinned and therefore deserved harsh treatment as penance for their transgressions.

We should understand that there are a number of problems with that mentality. First of all, the Bible tells us that Jesus died to pay the penalty of our sins. If you believe you have the responsibility to punish people for their sins, then you have a very distorted view of Christianity and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Of course I’m not talking about civil authorities, whose job it is to keep order and dispense justice.

Such a mentality is dangerous because it then could be used to justify punishing the Jews for Jesus’ death, for example. It also encourages revenge rather than forgiveness, ignoring the teachings of Jesus about forgiveness, loving one another, and the principles expressed in The Beatitudes. You also have to ask these nuns, “Just how long must these girls be punished before their sins are fully atoned for?”

Secondly, Jesus did not establish his Church to be a vehicle for punishing sinners. Rather, one of the roles of the Church is to dispense God’s grace (unmerited favor) through good works. Those nuns did not exhibit grace, only condemnation and cruelty.

Thirdly, the Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standard. So why were these nuns so hard on those who committed one particular sin? These nuns were abusing the weak and vulnerable, judging them rather than ministering to them.

The second negative act these nuns did was to sell these girls’ children. On one hand, it was good that these children usually, I presume, ended up in good adoptive homes. These were often in the U.S., where these children had opportunities available to them that they wouldn’t have had in Ireland in mid-century. On the other hand, to yank away these children from their mothers, usually without warning, and sending them off into the unknown, was cruel and heartless. These young mothers were not given a choice as to whether to keep their children or not. It was assumed they were unfit, and taking away their children was probably considered to be another justifiable form of punishment.

The third negative act on the part of these nuns was to destroy all adoption records to prevent birth mothers from ever reuniting with their children. The nuns even lied to those inquiring about their children. So we can add deceit to the list that includes cruelty and lack of grace.

Steve Coogan, who played Martin, also co-produced the movie, and co-wrote the screenplay. He admits he is not fond of the Roman Catholic Church. Having been raised Catholic, he fell away from Catholicism and now views it (and probably most religions) with some distain. Hence some of the negative comments by “Martin” in the movie. Nevertheless, the basic facts in the movie are true. These nuns did mistreat the unwed mothers and did sell their children. Regardless of your view of the Roman Catholic Church, or Christianity in general, we have to acknowledge the sins of these nuns, and realize that such actions are inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, whom they claimed to serve.

Despite blatant wrongdoings that have been well-publicized, the Church and its agencies have done many good works in the past 2,000 years: sending missionaries out to help people all over the world; building hospitals and orphanages; providing food and goods to the needy (Salvation Army, Catholic Charities); and it was the “safety net” before government got into the welfare business. On balance, the Church has done more good than harm, something we should remember when we are tempted to view the Church as irrelevant or worse.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Another Book Recommendation

In a recent post I recommended “Sealed with a Kiss.” I now recommend another book, also written by a friend of mine. Below is the summary of the book from Amazon.com.

Dr. Ken Ardrey was a hardworking and enthusiastic pastor and family man when his life was suddenly shaken up by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He battled, and continues to battle, the physical and emotional aftershocks of his illness. However, rather than letting this sickness permanently sow seeds of bitterness and despair, he has developed a faith based plan for dealing with all that life can, and will, throw at you. This book chronicles Ken’s personal journey, and provides the reader with a practical blueprint for living their faith and having courage in the times of need. How will you respond when life shakes you up?

The book is encouraging and inspirational, and also very practical. I highly recommend it whether or not you are dealing with a crisis.

“When Life Shakes You Up” by Ken Ardrey
Paperback, available at Amazon
ISBN-10: 1937602222
ISBN-13: 978-1937602222

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Book Recommendation

I’d like to recommend a book to you, especially if you are a baby boomer. Read the description below from Amazon.com and then I’ll tell you about my role in the book.

Drawn from an extraordinary collection of over four hundred perfectly preserved personal letters, “Sealed with a Kiss” is a coming-of-age story, a romance, and a glimpse of an America poised on the brink of change. Anyone who remembers having a pen pal, scribbling envelopes with codes like S.W.A.K, or even just falling in love will recognize themselves in its story--and savor its vision of not just a unique moment in time, but also a timeless love.

In 1957, Bob Zielsdorf is thirteen and living an ordinary middle-class suburban existence in York, Pennsylvania. On a trip to Massachusetts to visit a friend, he meets fourteen-year-old Fran Jordan. Though they spend less than an hour together (admittedly, an hour that includes some kissing, thanks to a local variation on Spin the Bottle), they agree to write. Remarkably, they do, beginning a correspondence that will last for eight years, encompass hundreds of letters, and end with an enduring marriage.

As Bob and Fran move from middle school into high school and college, they never live in the same town or even the same state. Long distance calls are still too expensive to be a relationship staple. Instead, the teenagers' bond, which begins as friendship and only later deepens into love, is forged through writing. Describing high school and college, family and friends, home and travel, frustrations and dreams, practical jokes and serious car accidents, companionship and “chemistry,” the letters paint a vivid and unselfconscious picture of two lives in transition from childhood innocence to adult choice.

The “friend” Bob was visiting in Massachusetts was me, and I appear in several places in the first third of the book. If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s you’ll appreciate the descriptions of life back in the day. The book is an easy read, and it’ll take you down memory lane, especially if you were a teen-ager during that time.

“Sealed with a Kiss” by Bob Zielsdorf, ISBN-10: 0991317408, Publisher is Two Shores Books, Vero Beach, Florida. Available through Amazon. Paperback

Muddled Thinking

There was a news item recently concerning a new, more powerful, pain killing drug that is about to be introduced to the market. However, this new drug has produced some controversy because there are some who fear it will be abused and more people will die as a result. Those opposed to the drug would rather have people in severe pain suffer so that drug abusers may live. What’s wrong with this picture?

Should we get rid of all cars because some people drive recklessly and kill themselves and others? That’s the kind of muddled thinking we are seeing. I believe it is better to provide as much relief as possible to those who are suffering excruciating pain, such as burn victims and cancer patients. I know the human toll resulting from substance abuse, and I include alcohol, is staggering, but we as a society should be working to eliminate the causes of abuse, not denying beneficial drugs to those who need them.

Another example of muddled thinking is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to remove three charter schools from public school buildings. Again we have mixed up priorities, penalizing those kids fortunate enough to get into a charter school for a dubious purpose. Moreover, he reneged on commitments made by former Mayor Bloomberg, and these schools have already begun hiring teachers and administrators. I think New York is going to regret electing de Blasio if he continues this way.

This is a reminder that we should pray for our leaders, that they do the right thing for the people. We should include in our prayers our representatives in Washington and Albany plus the President, Governor and Supreme Court.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pray for Rain in California

I’m very concerned about the water situation in California. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but there’s been very little rain in that state for the past several years. As a result, the water situation is getting desperate. Reservoirs are practically empty and agriculture is beginning to suffer. Some areas are going to literally run out of water. What do you do when that happens?

This is shaping up to be a crisis of major proportions, not just for the residents of California but the whole nation. So please pray for rain (and a lot of snow in the Sierras). Let me explain why this could be a crisis of biblical proportions:

(1) I can envision a reverse Okie migration. During the Dust Bowl (no, it’s not a football game) of the 1930s, thousands of people from Oklahoma (Okies) and neighboring states fled their homes and migrated to the Land of Promise, sunny California. In a worst case scenario, I could see millions of people (not just farmers) leaving California because life became intolerable or even impossible due to the lack of water and the fires.

(2) California, our most populous state, has a large economy. I believe it is something like the fifth largest economy in the world. A large part of that economy is agriculture. That state grows everything from avocados to lettuce, from grapes to oranges. If California agricultural production is shut down due to a lack of water, it will affect the rest of the country’s supply of food. Prices of many food items will skyrocket, so that certain items will be nearly impossible to buy because of either price or supply. Think of the millions of gallons of wine produced by that state. Supply would be met by other sources but at a much higher price than we’re used to paying.

(3) California’s large economy also consists of manufacturing, high tech, and tourism. If California’s industry is hindered by lack of water, there will be massive unemployment and possibly shortages of certain goods in the rest of the country.

(4) With all this dryness comes fires. Not only will there be more wildfires than usual (which is already happening), but some fires in cities won’t be able to be extinguished because of a lack of water pressure or constraints on its use.

(5) Based on what could happen as described above, there is the possibility of lawlessness, mayhem, and violence. You could have large numbers of unemployed people roaming the streets, robbing and possibly killing.

I hate to paint such a bleak and disturbing picture, but I think we have to be made aware of both the seriousness of this drought and the impact it could have on the rest of the country. The frustrating thing is that there’s nothing we can do to bring about rain. Or is there?

Yes, there is something we can do, and that is we can pray to the God who controls the weather. Remember how Jesus calmed the storm? Remember the words from the hymn “Here I Am, Lord”, which say, “I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry.”

God will hear your cry as well. As you pray to God, also keep in mind these two passages:

Thinking of our nation and California in particular, pray this verse back to God:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord…”
Jeremiah 29:11-14a, NRSV

Thinking of our nation and California in particular, pray this verse several times a day, emphasizing “seek my face” and “forgive their sin and heal their land.”
“[I]f my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
2 Chronicles 7:14, NIV

I’m not saying this drought is God’s punishment for our turning away from him – although it could be – but what I’m saying is that we as a nation need to be cleansed with the life-giving spiritual water from God even more than we need rain.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Memories of Pete Seeger

It was December 1967, and I was in army basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. The Vietnam War was raging and wasn’t anywhere close to ending. Young men were dying and more were to follow.

We had been out in the field doing something or other – I can’t remember what. It started to snow heavily, so we marched over to a nearby building for shelter. They called for several deuce-and-a-half trucks to come and pick us up. While we waited, the Company Commander, a First Lieutenant, suggested we sing some songs to pass the time until our transportation arrived.

He suggested we start off with a popular song of the day, a song written by Pete Seeger called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I don’t know whether he realized that it was an anti-war song, but the irony of it all was not lost on me. Here we were, spending eight weeks learning how to kill and maim, and yet here we were, singing an anti-war song. Most of us would be sent halfway around the world to fight in a questionable war, and in the song we were asking “Where have all the young men gone?” We know where they had gone, and where even more were going. It was a surreal moment.

Pete Seeger and others have demonstrated to us how powerful music can be. It can be effective in bringing awareness of injustices. It can help bring about societal change through powerful lyrics. It is a major way we worship God – that’s why we sing hymns and praise songs in worship. Music can express some emotions much more effectively than prose. Even after we’ve lost most of our faculties, music often remains with us.

Like anything, music can also be abused. It can put down women, as we hear in the lyrics of some rap songs in which women are referred to as “ho’s” and ‘bitches.” Music can promote drugs, promiscuity, and a host of other bad behaviors. Fortunately Pete and others have used their music to promote social justice and peace. Pete also used his fame and influence to clean up the Hudson River. If he had done nothing else, being instrumental in cleaning up our beautiful river would have made him a hero.

I didn’t know Pete and Toshi very well, but I had the opportunity to talk with them on several occasions. I had some interesting conversations with them, which I treasure.

After basic training, I went on to advanced training in the field I had enlisted for. Miraculously, I did not go to Vietnam, which I thank God for. Why I was spared and so many weren’t I can’t answer. It is one of those mysteries that we just won’t understand in this life. But I’m grateful I received orders for German language school, and then was sent to Germany where my new wife and I spent one and a half enjoyable years.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Your Reputation Is Everything

When I worked for a company, I had to let an employee go. To get back at me, she called my boss and accused me of verbally abusing her by using “the f word” and yelling at her. So my boss called me into his office and asked me what happened. I told him that first of all, I had my office door open the whole time, so he should feel free to ask any of the employees whose desks are close to my office if they heard me yelling and cursing. I then explained what happened, and said the allegations were totally false. He said to me that he didn’t believe her because he knew that’s not the way I operate, but he had to investigate.

Right now the story the media is obsessing on has to do with the Chris Christie issues, primarily the George Washington Bridge fiasco and accusations by the Mayor of Hoboken of bullying. What might have been a local story has blossomed into a national one for three reasons:

1. The governor is a national figure because he is potentially a candidate for the presidency.

2. He is a popular Republican and the media love to go after wayward Republicans and try to bring them down. Sadly there are too many wayward politicians in both parties.

3. Because of Christie’s tough guy persona, people are ready to believe the accusations against him.

That’s where reputation comes in. You can have a reputation as tough, but not a street fighter or thug. Christie, who I think has been a good governor, especially in times of crisis such as Hurricane Sandy, comes across as somebody who could be vindictive and manipulative. While Christie claims he “is who he is” and isn’t going to change, I think that’s the wrong attitude. What might have worked in local New Jersey politics probably isn’t going to work in national politics. If you are going to run for President, you had better start acting presidential – he actually should have started years ago.

People perceive you based, in large part, on your reputation. A good reputation can’t be bought – it has to be earned. Think about your reputation. It is the kind that will help you in future endeavors or hurt you?