Saturday, May 28, 2011

Religious Rapture Brings Church Rupture

Dateline Washington, DC

In a blow to the nation’s churches, today the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that supported a successful damages suit brought against Harold Camping and his nonprofit organization, the Family Radio ministry.  Camping, who had convinced thousands of believers that the world would end on May 21, 2011, was found financially liable for losses incurred by his followers.  Millions of dollars were donated to Camping, enabling him to spread his prediction of an imminent Armageddon.
Unfortunately, many of these followers quit their jobs, sold their homes, and gave away their belongings, secure in the knowledge that the worldly possessions would not be needed after May 21.  As one of Camping’s former followers stated, “We had an understanding--a whatyamacallit--a verbal contract.  He said we wouldn’t need that money.”  Within days of the failed prediction, lawsuits were filed against Camping and his network of radio stations.

Camping’s lawyers tried to convince the court that the radio ministry was not responsible, using arguments that some newspapers labeled “the creepy senile old man defense.”  Almost immediately after these arguments became public, the Catholic Church filed an Amicus Curiae brief.

A particularly damning testimony came from Camping’s own bank, which revealed that Camping was still accepting donations by credit card within hours of the time of predicted Apocalypse. 
Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsberg said, “I do not think it is asking too much for a faith-based organization to exhibit a little faith in its own faith.   When you’re wrong, you should pass the plate in the other direction.”

In a minority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that this decision would be disastrous for religious organizations across the country.  “This decision by the majority--a bunch of secular humanists--would have prevented the Bible from being written in the first place.  Noah wouldn’t have built the ark: he would have just purchased flood insurance.”
Almost immediately, the market responded to the news.  AIG, the troubled insurance company, announced a new spinoff company; Mutual of Purgatory.  Several churches announced plans to buy religious malpractice insurance (the nation’s few Mayans wanting their policies to begin coverage in January of 2013).

Zondervan Publishing, the world’s largest Christian publishing house, announced that starting immediately, a warning label will be added to the bibles: “The Publishers are not responsible for the translation errors of King James.  This work is allegorical in nature and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, would be miraculous.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Family Heirloom

My father was in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The CCC, as it was called, was a program started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to keep unskilled teenagers who might be hired for cheap wages out of the work force, thus freeing a job that might employ a head of household.  And you can’t have a lot of teenagers hanging around doing nothing.  If the prospect doesn’t sound frightening, imagine thousands of teenage boys across the country simultaneously saying “Hold my beer and watch this.”

These young, unmarried men were employed to build roads, plant trees and build parks, in short, about all a teenager from West Texas could reasonably be expected to accomplish.  My father never really talked about the work much, but I pieced enough facts together to figure out that he helped build a highway somewhere west of Fort Worth.  As far as I am concerned, all highways west of Fort Worth are secretly named the James H. Milliorn Memorial Highway.  The sole exception is Interstate 10 between Las Cruces and El Paso, this road is Who-The-Hell-Came-Up-With-The-Idiotic-Idea-Of-A-Safety-Corridor-Highway.

The CCC started in 1933 and ended in 1942, when most of the young men, (who had nominally been commanded by Army Reserve Officers), were more or less marched into recruiting offices to fight World War II.  And while I do not know the exact details about the transition for my father, this is more or less what happened to him.  What I do know a little about, is how he came to leave home for the CCC. 
As a young teenager during the Great Depression, the prospects on a West Texas farm must have been grim.  I have always wondered just what my ancestors were thinking about when they picked that particular homestead.  As they were traveling west by covered wagon, what possessed them to look around that hardscrabble country and suddenly say, “Hey Ma!  This looks good; let’s stop here!”  I have no idea where they came from, but when they left, it must have been underwater and on fire at the same time.
One of the many chores my father had on the farm was to take grain out to the calves.  While the older cattle could take care of themselves, the few calves couldn’t find enough grass to graze on, so their diet had to be supplemented by grain.   My father would fill an old cast iron soap kettle with grain and carry it out to a dry creek bed where the calves were waiting patiently.  Then, he would watch them eat, make sure none of the other cattle intruded, and then carry the soap kettle back to the dog-run house in the center of the farm. 
Watching cattle eat doesn’t use a large part of your brain.  Actually, farming in the kind of country where you can’t grow a reliable crop of cactus without a complicated irrigation program doesn’t usually inspire deep thinking about much of anything but escape.  In any case, at some point, my father looked at those calves and simply walked away.  He didn’t go back to the house; he just left and joined the CCC.  By the time the war was over, he was married and ready to start a family.

Let’s move the story forward a couple of decades.  It’s the early 1960’s and my father is heading back to the old homestead for the first time in about 20 years, to attend a funeral.  In the intervening years, he has managed to convince himself that he is allergic to every known animal, bird, fish or reptile.  He would have convinced himself that he was allergic to dirt if that was the only way he could insure that he never, never had to live on that farm again.

Naturally, after the funeral the family spent a lot of time sitting around that wreck of an old house talking about old times that never were.  Do you remember this and do you remember that?  And since the family farm was about to be sold, people were scrounging around the pitiful house trying to find a few keepsakes.   It wasn’t long before my aunts and uncles turned on my dad.  “Why did you steal the old soap kettle?  That was the only thing the family still had from when the family moved west.”
My father was kind of stunned.  “You mean you never brought the kettle back to the house?” He was talking about an event that happened before Pearl Harbor, he couldn’t believe them.
“No,” my uncle answered.  “You took it with you when you left home.”
My father stared at his brother for a long minute, then just walked out into the dusty field, stepping over a sagging barbed wire fence, and disappeared into the brush.  He was gone for about ten minutes, and then could be seen walking back with that old cast iron soap kettle on his shoulder.  He walked straight to his car, unlocked the trunk, put it inside, and then shut the trunk lid firmly.
And just as firmly, he refused to discuss the matter with his family.  The general feeling was that if the family was too lazy to find that pot through two wars, and the start of a third one, they had pretty much lost the claim to it.
This is the part of the story where I probably should put a moral of some kind--something about patience or time--something inspiring about the Great Depression or young men going off to World War II.  Sorry--all I can think about is a smaller question: I wonder how many days those calves waited at that creek bed for my father to come back.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

This is All True, I Swear

I have a pet peeve this week: profanity (actually the lack of it).  I was bowling this week with … well, call her Ruth (that was her name)… when an absolutely beautiful ball solidly into the pocket produced a 7-10 split.  The poor girl should have been kissed because she had just been screwed.  Despite this, she refused to utter a single necessary expletive.  She kept saying it was inappropriate.  This, or course, is the whole point: if it is appropriate, it’s not profanity.

I cannot imagine living without profanity; how would I ever be able to lecture about the French?  As Mark Twain said, “… under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”  Personally, I think it can prevent a 7-10 split if applied skillfully.
Skill in profanity is sadly lacking today--not from overuse, but from timidity.  All too frequently, otherwise intelligent adults are reduced to the linguistic capabilities of children by using such euphemisms as “the f-word.”  What exactly is the purpose of this?  Everyone knows the word you mean, knows you want to use it, and knows you lack the balls to say it.    This is the verbal equivalent of trying to pick up a turd by the clean end.  Unless “u r hukked on fonix,” you are too old to be using “f-word.”
Remember, this was at a bowling alley--not the faculty dining room at Harvard.   I have overheard people discussing the best way to finance a tattoo!  (At the bowling alley, I mean-the people at Harvard probably get their tattoos from the Art Department.)
When the boys were small, the various neighborhood rug-rats taught them some highly inappropriate language for the various bodily functions.  Soon, the boys were saying such phrases as “tinkle,” “number one,” or “whiz.”  My wife and I took immediate and decisive action; every offence was punished by the requirement of doing ten pushups.  We didn’t care if the boys had to go take a crap, but we wouldn’t stand anyone going wee-wee.  Later, this was a frequent topic at parent-teacher nights at school. 
Some profanity is just used completely backasswards.  Why on earth do we say if something is bad that it sucks?  Sucking is a good thing--damn near a perfect and holy rite.  Not sucking is horrible.  When we say something sucks, this should be the highest praise--the pinnacle of perfection.
Where did this confusion come from?  I believe that this, like most of the real evil in the world, originates with Baptist preachers.  In an attempt to banish their own unfulfilled desires (not to mention disguise a few repressed feelings of their own) they have reversed the meanings of the word and forever confused the word ‘suck’ with homosexuality.  And of course, they have used the Bible (especially some bad Greek translations of terms) to justify their actions.
Yes, I know that Leviticus condemns homosexuals to death, but let’s be honest: Leviticus would condemn parking violators to death.  If you read long enough, you can find something in Leviticus that would justify the destruction of a day care center with napalm.  Levi and the rest of the Levites were probably the victims of over-aggressive toilet training.
No, let’s move forward a few centuries and look for confirmation in the book of Matthew.  To be precise, let’s quote Matthew 15, verse 11.  In the King James Bible, this says:
Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
Obviously, a just and loving God not only endorses sucking, he commands us to swallow.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

With Tom, Huck, and Peter Pan

This week I attended the worst possible event imaginable: I attended the funeral of an eleven year old boy. It truly does not matter whose son this was, for the loss of any young child is a tragedy for each of us. And this child was a particularly fine young man.
It was an incredible funeral. There may have been 800 people there; it was the largest funeral ever held in this small New Mexico town. I once attended the funeral of a former governor that wasn’t observed by half that many, but considering the relative value of almost any governor compared to a fine young man, that is not that surprising.

No parent should ever outlive a child; this is such a universal belief that I firmly believe almost any adult would sacrifice himself for almost any child. This sacrifice is hard-wired into our DNA: we must love our children more than ourselves, and that, unfortunately, is both a gift and a curse.

What an incredible heartbreak! The death of a fifth grade boy touches us the way the loss of no adult could since we all know and can appreciate the life of a child happy in the warmth of loving parents, secure in the promise of a wonderful future life-- but a promise that will never be fulfilled. Every parent eventually realizes that his child will probably not grow up to be president, but this usually happens later in life.  A child of eleven years old is too young, this child still lives in a world where all dreams can yet come true.

A boy who dies at such a young age is a child caught in the perennial innocence of youth. He will forever dwell in a world where Peter Pan and Huck Finn are the notable residents, and where Tom Sawyer is the mayor of a community that will never be touched by the cares, worries, and troubles of adults. A world of endless summer days of golden sunlight, of devoted puppies who share your bed, over stocked fishing holes, grass lawns without stickers, and where the circus has always just come to town, but it seems like Christmas will never come.

This is a world where your best friend (and this particular boy must have been best friend with the entire town) is your friend forever. Girls are starting to be interesting, but you are not really sure why. Your baseball team will surely win the pennant this year and every issue of your favorite comic book is better than the last. This is a world constantly improving; there is an endless supply of tomorrows, where each one is vastly better than yesterday, and will, somehow, be even better than today.

Unfortunately, this is not a world where the adults who knew such a special child can ever visit. We are stuck here in a present where it seems the winter will never end, where the cold feelings of loss penetrate our bones and leave us feeling empty and lost. The dull ache of our pain in this tragedy cannot be measured; it can be just barely endured.

But even as we try in vain to patch the enormous hole in our hearts, this boy is leaving the tree house with Peter Pan in order to float down the Mississippi with Tom and Huck.

This perfect world where special children live forever is created by the endless love of our memories.