Why Did the Monk Unfriend the Deacon?

A number of years ago, I received a very unexpected friend request on Facebook. It was from someone I’ll call Stephen Nash, OFM. The name is made up, but the OFM is legit. Puzzled, I looked into Stephen and discovered that this acronym stands for “Order of Friars Minor.” Stephen, it seemed, was a Franciscan–specifically a Capuchin–monk. Let’s be clear: that’s Capuchin monk rather than monkey.

Not this!

Discovering the Monk

Having no reason not to accept the request, I clicked the appropriate button, wondering all along why this guy would be reaching out to me. I had every intention of asking him, but I never got around to it. Then, a couple of weeks later, seeing the name again, I thought, “There was that guy named ‘Stephen Nash’ in high school.” That’s when it hit me. Stephen had been the most religiously inclined person in our small class. He moved from evangelical circles to the Anglican communion at some point. As memory serves, I saw him a few years out of high school and he had crossed the Tiber to become a Catholic priest.

Honestly, Stephen and I weren’t best buds in high school, although we talked a fair bit. Thirty-plus years later, we had even less in common, but I always enjoyed seeing his posts. He thought about things in ways I never would.

The Monk Disappears

Facebook has a weird way about whose things it shows you. At times, I feel as if their algorithms are designed to annoy users, but surely that isn’t correct. You might have 500 friends and see posts from only 25 or 30 of them regularly. So when somebody disappears from the feed, you don’t necessarily notice it immediately.

Yesterday, after writing about how it is important for Christians of different opinions and backgrounds to carefully think about each other’s words, I thought about Stephen. I hadn’t seen one of his posts for a very long time–perhaps a year or more.

I searched for him in my friends. He’s still on Facebook, but he’s not among that rarefied group. I know I didn’t remove him from my list. Presumably he removed me from his.

The Deacon Questions His Self-Worth

What did I do to run afoul of Stephen’s sense of Facebook propriety? You don’t have to look very hard at his current postings to see that he is not a supporter of our current president. He posts a lot of editorial cartoons and comments upon them as if they were somehow fact rather than opinion. That’s fine, although I try not to do that sort of thing. I’m probably more apt to question my conservative friends when they say something not well thought out.

Having said that, I will confess that I tip my conservative tendencies sometimes. I’ll question the apparent self-contradictions of those on the social and political left, including my own children at times. I try to do that in a kind manner, but I’m sure that sometimes my snarky attitudes come through.

Did I somehow offend Stephen? Did I say something that led him to consider me persona non grata? Was it my excessive celebrating when the Royals won the World Series. I’ll probably never know.

The Deacon Opines

In the end, this whole episode just makes me sad. Yeah, I’ll miss the thinking that Stephen caused me to do, but I know that this sort of siloing–is that a word?–is going on all around the country. People on the left are cutting themselves off from people on the right. People on the right are cutting themselves off from people on the left. People in the middle increasingly find themselves forced to choose teams. And God forbid that we are confronted with some sort of reasoned opinion that causes genuine reflection.

Take good care of your like-minded friends, but take just as good of care with those who make you uncomfortable from time to time. And if I made Stephen too uncomfortable, I wish he’d have spoken to me about it.

Why I Won’t Confess Guilt for Oscar and Valeria

Who is my neighbor? Does it include a man from El Salvador and his preschool daughter who tragically drown trying to enter the United States? In the mind of one of my former students–and in my own mind–it absolutely does. But when I read what she posted on Facebook, I got the sense that she might have taken that neighbor thing to an unsustainable level.

Pastors: If your church is not entering into a time of confession on Sunday for the death of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, you are not the Church.

Confess, change and “love your neighbor by preventing their death just like you daily work to prevent your own.” — Jesus


“You are not the church”–that’s a pretty strong statement, and I have to wonder how this particular event rises to become a litmus test for the legitimacy of a local body as a manifestation of the body of Christ.

R.S. encourages us to “confess.” What exactly are we confessing? When we talk about who constitutes our neighbor, the mind immediately goes to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Certainly that Samaritan man, seeing the beaten, robbed, and left-for-dead fellow by the side of the Jehrico road, acted properly, but do we suppose that he entered into ” a time of confession” over whatever social breakdown led to this act of lawlessness?

No decent person would want Ramírez and his daughter to be lying there lifeless in the water, but are we really all complicit in whatever “sin” R.S. imagines led to these deaths? Must we really confess or risk being “not the Church”?

If, failing to enter into that season of confession, we risk losing our churchly credentials, then what other things must we confess in any given week? Must we confess every act of lawlessness, regardless of whether that law is held to be just or unjust?

Must we confess

Travel back in time to 1859. Were there genuine churches who did not jump on the abolition train? I believe so and would even argue that some genuine churches, churches that had the right to call themselves the Church, embraced states rights and secession. Political and social forces then, and today, prove difficult to extricate from a Spirit-led embrace of the gospel.

That’s what happens, I believe, when conservatives look at father and daughter, face down in the water, and callously insist that they should have never left home, or when liberals see in this pair an indictment of American nationalism and, probably, the evils of Donald Trump.

I have to argue that we do not disqualify ourselves as the Church if we ignore any one of these or a thousand others. On the other hand, R.S. will disqualify herself as a shepherd to her flock if, moved by this event, she does not share her feelings with the congregation.

In the end, the Church needs to take seriously the call to love our neighbors. We need to talk with those with whom we disagree as to what that means. We need to listen to, respect, and consider those other opinions. We need to genuinely open ourselves to the urgings of the Spirit to change our hearts and minds.

Then, I would suggest, can we claim to call ourselves the Church.

Maybe This Shouldn’t Have Survived, Netflix

As an occasional binge-watcher of various shows, I enjoyed the first season of Designated Survivor from its ABC days. The second season certainly declined in quality, but kept me watching. Then ABC killed the show and Netflix picked it up.

Netflix didn’t ruin Longmire when they did the same thing. If anything, the final seasons of that show were better than the A&E seasons. But these days, the streaming juggernaut has determined to make everything as coarse and as politically skewed as possible. Let me give a few examples.

Let’s start with some of the easy pickings. In Season 3, it feels as if DS had a quota of f-bombs to drop. At least twice in the first five episodes, characters have actually commented on their foul language: “Can I talk like that in the White House?” My reply is, “Yes, you can, but you can’t do it in my living room.”

Then there’s the sex. Did we really need the somewhat graphic and decidedly casual gay sex scene between a social-media aide and a Secret Service agent? And what ever happened to Dante’s boyfriend from earlier? I’ve resigned myself to the idea that every show needs a gay character if the executive producers want to be invited to all the right parties, but this scene was excessive and pointless. It was as pointless as the scene with Kiefer on the toilet. I know everybody poops, but I don’t want to watch. We also were treated to the campaign manager Lorraine Zimmer (Julie White) dismissing a bare-butted male prostitute. Did this advance the plot or significantly develop her character? Not hardly.

All of this is enough for me to stop watching, but I did get far enough along to recognize that the politics is just what we’ve come to expect from Netflix’s offerings. There are some nice jabs taken at the press, but that’s about the only redeeming thing. Instead, we’re treated to a series–at least one per episode–of standard 2019 SJW fare. We’ve got your transgender story line to go with immigration, American hypocrisy, racism, sexism, and much, much more.

The producers love to insert brief videos that we’re told were shot unscripted from real people. I don’t doubt that they were, but the shots are obviously cherry-picked, not just for quality but for content. If these videos and the attitudes of Designated Survivor were to be believed, then everybody in America is a libertarian eagerly waiting for the government to fix all the same things. (And yes, I’m aware that my last sentence, just like much of the worldview of DS doesn’t exactly make sense.)

I’ve watched The West Wing twice through. While Aaron Sorkin and I do not share much in the way of political outlook, I respected the nuance and complexity of that show. Yes, it had its bias, but everyone and everything has a bias. At least The West Wing represented the complexity of human interactions and didn’t portray every conservative as a knuckle-dragger.

The closest thing that Designated Survivor gets to nuance is when President Kirkman has a hissy fit about “child marriage” in Saudi Arabia only to discover that many American states allow marriage below the magical age of 18. This plot line–and really, it’s generous to call this a plot line rather than an excuse for polemics–allows for a Saudi diplomat to walk into the Oval Office and lecture the president on all manner of ways that the United States is not measuring up. Frankly, this entire sequence is the strongest argument for why Tom Kirkman really is unfitted for high office.

I would like to believe that the average American is smart enough to see when they’re being manipulated. However, we might be mistaken, if the writers of the show are indicative. In one episode, teacher strikes spread ominously across the land as educators demand “a living wage.” The solution is so simple that we wonder how nobody thought of it before.

President Kirkman gets a bunch of rich foundations to pony up $3 billion, leaving the strikes ended and the stars aligned. Did nobody in the writer’s room do the math? Take that $3 billion and divide it among the nation’s 3.8 million teachers and you can give them a life-changing $833 this year (and nothing next year), leaving no money for the class supplies also demanded. If these supposedly educated writers think that striking teachers can be bought off for a one-time $833 or if American teachers are really that short-sighted, then I worry about the future.

Bird-Brained People

This morning, my daughter hurried my day along by calling me as I got dressed. “Our chickens are here! I have a meeting in half an hour. Can you come over and set things up?”

If you haven’t experienced the joy of raising chickens, you might not know that they arrive in the post office a day or two after they’re hatched, peeping and cheeping enough that the postal service puts them at the top of the priority list. Emily expected her birds to arrive tomorrow, but they miraculously showed up today.

I headed to her new house and pulled up in front just as Emily got into her van. Inside, Isa, her middle son, stood prepared to help me get things rolling. He showed me the supplies and the small, cheeping box.

A few minutes later, we had bedding in the bottom of a large storage tub and a heat lamp clamped to the side. We lifted the chicks, one by one, from the box and deposited them in the tub, dipping each one’s beak into the water to teach it to drink.

After we had all 17 of the 15 chicks in the tub–that’s hatchery math by the way–I gave Isa the five-minute tutorial on keeping the chicks alive and well until Mom came home from work. “If they’re all bunched up right here where the light is hottest, then they’re cold. You need to move the light in more. If they’re all over here where the light isn’t reaching, then they’re hot. You need to move the light away.”

Chickens, you see, even at only two days of age, have more sense than humans do. When they’re cold, they try to get warm. When they’re hot, they move away from the heat. In short, the chickens seem to know what’s good for them. They’ll drink water when they’re thirsty. They’ll eat until they’re full and then stop.

People, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of sense. We (I) drink caffeine-loaded beverages to such an extent that the kidneys are working in overdrive and we’re constantly running to the restroom. We don’t stop eating when we’re full. Sometimes we don’t even have the sense to move toward the warm or cool areas. In short, we don’t seem to know what’s good for us. Or more accurately, we know what’s good for us, but we don’t do it. Paul seemed to recognize this in Romans 7:15:

For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.

So far Emily’s birds are doing nicely. I’m less confident that Isa is behaving wisely. Time will tell.

Mowing the Wide World

Powell Gardens, outside Kansas City, covers some 970 acres. Tanner, a teenage worker there, set out to mow the whole thing–with a push mower. Perhaps that’s not completely accurate, but yesterday, when Penny and I visited this lovely place for our 37th anniversary, we saw this young man (who might have been named Tanner) mowing a wide border of grass around a large swath of vegetable rows. Given the rain that Kansas City has enjoyed in recent weeks, the grass was thick and tall. Tanner would have plenty of mowing to keep him busy all day.

I stood and watched Tanner for a couple of minutes. He shoved his mower into the tall grass. You could hear the engine start to struggle. After a couple of steps, the grass would bunch up and stop the blade, killing the engine. Tanner’s shoulders rose and fell as he drew a heavy breath. Then, without even pulling the mower back to get away from the problem, he began jerking on the starter rope.

When, after several difficult pulls, he succeeded in restarting the mower, he’d repeat this process. As I stood there, I saw him clog and start at least four times, having covered perhaps 15 feet of grass.

I wanted to offer Tanner some advice, suggesting that he only cut a narrow swath with each pass, that he set the wheels to maximum height and then move them to mow it again lower, or at least that he only mow in the direction that threw the cut grass away from the uncut.

Of course all of these strategies would have involved much more walking. Instead, Tanner opted to rely on his own strength and endless pulls on the starter rope. He might still be there this morning, mowing the grass six feet at a go.

Sometimes the best way to do things is a way that makes no sense to us in our flesh. All those things Jesus teaches about turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor, and going the second mile seem to fly in the face of logic. Then try out this instruction from Exodus 23:11-12:

Sow your land for six years and gather its produce. But during the seventh year you are to let it rest and leave it uncultivated, so that the poor among your people may eat from it and the wild animals may consume what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

So God is telling an agricultural people to willingly give up more than 14% of the productivity of their land. You might as well ask Apple to only sell iPhones six years out of seven. When you have a productive asset, you want to use it! But God’s way, perhaps especially when it runs against human sense, is the best way.

I wouldn’t suggest that my mowing advice for Tanner was God’s way, but don’t we all behave like Tanner now and again. We might hear the counsel of God, but we know that our own way is more efficient, more effective. Instead of following God’s plan, we shove our mower into the tall grass and rely on our own strength. Yes, we sometimes get the job done that way, but what other opportunities do we miss when we mow like Tanner?



Avoiding Clay Feet

When I decide to retire from my job, I wonder if some of my coworkers will hear the news and say, “It’s about time!” Who knows, some of them might think that I already checked out.

What brings this to mind is something that happened at my church recently. The pastor, near the beginning of his sermon, announced that a new addition was being made to the staff. What makes this hire different from pretty much any that we’ve ever had is that the lucky guy, Clay, has already worked at the church in the past, having departed about six years back. In fact, Clay grew up in our church

When the pastor made the announcement, there was an audible and very positive gasp. Obviously, a large number of people in the room remembered Clay and welcomed his return to the fold. Having been privy to the announcement ahead of time–because I’m just super important, you know–it gave me great pleasure to hear that positive response. I’m sure there’s somebody in the membership who thinks that Clay’s return is a disaster, but they did not make themselves known that Sunday.

This got me to thinking about the legacy that we leave behind. What will people think about me when I hang up my teaching hat for the last time? Will they be relieved or will they think that I should have done it earlier? When I shuttle off this mortal coil, will my children and grandchildren be relieved not to have to mess with me anymore or will they legitimately grieve?

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon speaks to these questions, offering one proverb that seems obvious and another that causes confusion:

A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

It’s obvious that Clay has a good name. He left a good taste in the mouths of the people who knew him at our church on his previous stop. But what about this idea of the day of death being better than the day of birth? I think what this verse is trying to say is that on the day we die, we don’t have any more chances to mess things up, while on the day we’re born, our opportunities for foul-ups are virtually limitless.

To put this in the context of Clay, he, like many ministers, probably started well. People typically give the new guy the benefit of the doubt. They want him to succeed. The day of one’s occupational birth should be good, but if you’ve held things together until the day you leave, the day you retire, then you’ve really accomplished something. We don’t have to hang around churches very long to see people who did great things, sometimes for years, only to fail spectacularly at the end of their run.

I’d like to think that people will feel about me the way that they feel about Clay at the end of my course on this earth. I don’t really need their approval. I don’t need that audible response, but that sort of response would indicate that I’ve probably done something good along the way.

So when I choose to retire from Johnson County Community College, I pray people won’t respond by saying, “Finally!”

Wrong Clothes at the Wrong Show?

Fashion Report: This morning, I’m wearing a muted green plaid shirt over khakis. Add Rockport shoes and I could pass for a mall walker. At the same time, I’ve had my music playing the “Celtic Punk” playlist. I enjoy the energy of the Dreadnoughts and Flatfoot 56, but I would never fail to stick out at their concerts. People would look at me and ask, “What is that old guy doing here?”

It’s a fair question, I suppose, and one that comes up as I continue thinking through Richard Baxter’s four questions for evaluating reading material. Having considered questions one and two, it’s time to proceed to the third:

Are the lovers of such a book as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life?

If I’m reading the question properly, then Baxter would accompany me to a Dreadnoughts show, complete in his 17th-century garb, and ask, “What sort of creatures are these who repeatedly shout ‘Oi!’?” As I try to explain the subtleties of this odd genre of music, I imagine him interrupting me. “And, pray tell, do such roustabouts love our Lord and the holy life?”

Here I would pause. How do I answer that question? I enjoy this music and I can answer “yes” to these last inquiries. But then I don’t exactly fit in with the whole Celtic punk scene. Some of the others bouncing around to “Sleep is for the Weak” probably have a high view of the Bible. Most probably don’t. It’s hard to tell.

It’s at this point in my imaginary conversation with Richard Baxter that I’d have to ask myself why I’m hanging out in whatever club is hosting the band. Why do I want to spend time with these people? But I like the music. “Oi!” indeed.

Tim Challies, who wrote about Baxter’s questions some 12 years ago, commented (in a more controlled tone than mine) on the challenge of this question:

This is a difficult question. I sometimes read books that are popular, but favored by those who do not hold high the Word of God. While I do believe there is value in reading books for the purposes of research (for example, to understand what 22 million people are reading in The Purpose Driven Life), I need to prioritize good books that are loved by godly men and women.

Challies is a pastor. I’m a professor of English. That makes it my job to read all manner of things not beloved by the “greatest lovers of the Book of God.” Don’t I need to be current in all the things the kids are reading and hearing and watching? Don’t I need to be up to date on Game of Thrones and Marvel and the latest dystopian YA fiction series?

Richard Baxter, who has been quieting sitting in my office all this time, shakes his head. He never said that reading Twelfth Night puts us on a fast track to hell or that the church should shun those who read Gargantua and Pantagruel. He offered these questions not as a series of “thou shalts” but as a diagnostic tool.

If the answer to question number three is “not exactly,” then number four will help us to know how to properly evaluate the book.

All-Star Media

Hey now, you’re an all-star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you’re a rock star, get the show on, get paid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold

I will, I’m afraid, never get that 2012 song by Smash Mouth out of my head. It seems that the coolest thing to do lately–or maybe it was a cool thing several years ago and my grandsons have only just discovered it–is to use that song in strange and unfamiliar settings. In the last few minutes, I’ve been treated to Kermit the Frog singing “All Star.” Before that it was Heath Ledger as the Joker followed by Shrek. So that you’ll share my misery, I’m embedding the original song’s video here.

Yes, this morning, as we wait for it to be time to go to church, as Penny is getting dressed and I’ve already taken care of the dog, Isa is sitting on the couch rocking out to “All Star” memes. It could be worse, I suppose. But then I’m afraid it will get worse.

Recently, in considering my recent 46 hours wasted watching Z Nation, I mentioned Richard Baxter’s four questions for vetting appropriate reading material. Today, I’m tempted to use the second question–“Are there better books that would edify me more?”–with Isa.

I love the fact that Baxter’s implied measurement for the quality of a book is how much it would edify him. Granted, “edify” isn’t a word that we use a great deal, and it’s one that Isa probably doesn’t know at all. What if we tried “build up” or “make me better”? I have to confess that my measurement for most media, whether it be the gardening videos that Penny watches, contemporary novels, or zombie television shows, is not edification but entertainment quality. When the last episode of Z Nation finally wrapped, I was relieved not because I hadn’t been edified but because the overall story of the series had become tedious.

Richard Baxter might not agree with me on the edifying qualities of some of the things that I read or watch without feeling as if I’ve wasted my time. For example, I rather guess that Baxter would not have been a fan of William Shakespeare, who died just three years before Baxter was born. I could suggest that Hamlet carries powerful messages about guilt and sin and stuff like that. Baxter would probably shake his head, perhaps smile condescendingly, and then ask his question again. “Are there other books (or plays or videos) that would edify you more?”

Is my attention to things like Shakespeare or fly-fishing literature or James Fenimore Cooper and the claim that it is somehow edifying really just a rationalization, a way to excuse my guilty pleasures? I’m not completely sure that it is, but I do believe that we need to ask the question.

But what I need to do is take control of the TV from Isa before I have “All Star” etched in my brain for the rest of my life.

The Tip of the Spear

I have asparagus! Over a month ago, I mentioned that I had planted 18 asparagus crowns in a row out on the edge of our yard. Yesterday, I saw the first sign of life from those plants. When I say I have asparagus, I more accurately have only one plant definitely growing, but that is asparagus. I’m confident that the others will come along presently. And some of those that sprout later might wind up producing far more spears for me. Who knows?

Who knows indeed. Last night, I scanned that asparagus trench looking for more of the little fern-like fingers poking up amidst the clover and bluegrass that lap over into the dirt. I didn’t find any more, but I’m convinced that within a few days, more shoots will be above the ground. I’m convinced that by summer’s end, I’ll have all 18 plants growing. Maybe it’ll be fewer, but I have a hope for 18.

Gardening is an act of delayed gratification. You place a seed into soil and wait for it to sprout. You then carefully nurture it, believing that it will grow. When it’s nearly time to set that plant out into the wild, open world of the garden, you expose the plants to the sun for a few hours over several days to harden them off, believing that the sun and the wind won’t destroy them. Then you put them into the garden bed prepared for them, train them up, keep pests off, pull weeds, and, perhaps 80 days later, you begin to pluck fruit.

Some vegetables yield more quickly. I’m convinced that you can plant radishes in the morning and harvest in the evening. Others take nearly the entire season, but all of them require time and hope. You bury something in the ground, you place it outside where all manner of things can attack it, you invest your time in caring for it, and all the while you believe that there will be tomatoes or squash or beans or something good produced. Paul could have been speaking of gardening when he wrote this:

So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.–2 Corinthians 4:18

There’s a parable in my single asparagus plant. I felt joy when I saw that frail, ferny stalk emerging from the soil. That joy, however, is just a tiny glimmer of the joy (and good food) that will eventually follow from that row of plants. More profoundly, all the blessings of today are a down payment on the incalculable riches that await us in eternity.

We plant. We wait. We have hope, and the outcome will be amazing. And until that day comes, at least we can grill some asparagus.