Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Name Is John

 My name is John. How shall I tell you about my life? I was the Lord's best friend. Well, no...the Lord was my best friend. Does that sound arrogant? He loved us all--He loved everyone that He met. But we were like brothers...even though He was a rabbi, and I was just a fisherman. I was a young man then, impulsive and brash--not as brash as Simon the Stone, mind you--but, oh, the arguments we had, Simon, my brother James and I...and then the Rabbi would speak, and our squabbles would seem so petty and small by comparison. He made the world seem so alive, and yet so calm. But yes, I was allowed to be there even when most of the others were away.

 I saw the most amazing moments--when He let His true self start to shine through on the mountain, and the bright day seemed so dim by comparison. When He learned of the death of His cousin--and prophet--John the Baptizer. His cousin and prophet--can you imagine that? How He took the news quietly, calmly...with a clear undercurrent of anger at the injustice and loss, but also with acceptance that John was now at peace, his mission complete. When He was faced with impossible conundrums from the "holy men," but would turn toward me with a wry smile before confounding them with His wisdom and understanding. These amazing stories He would tell us--so energetic, so full of truth--and yet we would not understand the point. And He would shake His head, almost laughing, "Do you still not understand?" And calmly, He would explain His meaning. And His rampage in the temple! I had never seen Him so furious! The anger burning in His eyes, as He flung tables across the floor, the clanging of bags of money spilling about, the fierce slapping of His whip startling the shocked bankers, as He shouted louder than I had ever heard Him shout before, "My house shall be a house of prayer!" The hurt in His voice was palpable. And yet, whenever there were children around, He almost became as one of them--smiling, laughing, holding them close as if they were His own.

 But we were like brothers. In a sense, all of us were--we traveled together, ate together, dealt with the enormous crowds together. We'd be crammed together on a little fishing boat, either traveling across the sea, or pushed just far enough from the shore so He could speak to the multitudes. Our last meal together, though, He spoke with such passion and fervent longing--as if imploring us to understand, cherishing each moment. He had washed our feet--we were shocked, all of us! But He made us each feel like royalty in that moment--and yet, I felt so undeserving. And then, after all that, we ran. Every single one of us. When He needed us most, we ran. I felt so awful...but I made myself go back. I was determined to stand with Him again...but I was ignored by the council. Simon the Stone went back too--ever the talker, he drew some attention, and started yelling and cursing, before a glance from the Rabbi silenced him. But I, I could not make myself speak. I was there, and yet I couldn't bring myself to offer a single word in His defense. What I would give to change those moments....

 And yet, even as He struggled on the cross, covered in blood and scars, He looked at me, and I saw not anger...but warmth, and understanding. He charged me to take care of His mother. How could I not see Him as my brother now? It was a charge I never forgot. In her later years, as she grew weaker, I would spend hours recounting all the times we had spent together, miraculous and mundane, and I do believe it gave her some comfort as she reflected on all that had happened since she was told she had been "chosen." And I'll never forget that feeling of improbable elation and anxiety when the women came and told us the impossible news--He was gone! We buried Him, watched them seal the giant stone, and yet...He was gone! And then we met Him! Touched Him! He was changed, somehow, but that smile was the same. That look in His eyes was the same. He tried to tell us, and we never quite believed Him, but somehow--He knew. He knew it had to happen that way.

 Now as I look back over the years, I think of all that has happened. We saw Him float away into the sky. What a sense of wonder, and also a sense of dread--He's really gone from us! Not dead, but gone away. And then when crowds gathered around us, we felt so confident to tell them what happened, in a way we'd never felt before. Even when the leaders threatened us, we knew we had to go on telling what had happened. Not that it was easy--my own brother was murdered for speaking the truth. A man named Saul who was sworn to stop our movement suddenly came to us asking for forgiveness and acceptance. Such a brilliant mind, but trusting him took every ounce of faith I could muster. And after all this time, the story seems so clear--a perfect picture of faith and redemption, such a perfect display of love. I've seen so much happen--like the world is transforming before me, small stones creating a mighty onslaught that can wipe away the evil of these days. For evil they are--we are chased, persecuted, and murdered. Our teachings of truth and love are called demonic, and those who would claim to be part of us teach of having special knowledge that never came from the Rabbi. But lives are changed. The most vile folk transform into gentle and loving souls--reflections of the Man I walked with when I was so much younger.

 Did I say these days are evil? Surely they are. Indeed, I see troubling images in my mind--glorious nightmares, horrible and terrible visions, but they all end the same. He overcomes. For His truth is completely invincible. So magnificent that no weapon, no empire, no demon can topple it. There is so much uncertain, so little I can predict, except one thing I know with absolute confidence. In the end...we win. He wins. And on that day...I know I'll see Him smiling.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lunch Meat: A Modern Fable

 Meet Mr. Koothrappalli. He has no relation to the similarly named character on The Big Bang Theory; it’s just an astonishing (and completely legal) coincidence. Mr. Koothrappalli opened his furniture store in suburban New Jersey several years ago, and the first was so successful that he was able to branch out and open other stores in the local area, and later throughout the state. He has even managed to open some stores in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York. He employs over 150 people full-time and is enjoying his own rags-to-riches success story.
Mr. Koothrappalli long ago decided that as a way to keep his employees healthy and happy, he would offer meals to his workers, free of charge. Whenever they take their lunch break or afternoon snack break, there is a full selection of food for them in the employee break area. Iced water, tea, and soft drinks are available as well. There is no requirement for them to partake, but many do, or supplement their home-packed lunches with items from the “Big K Menu,” as they call it. The Big K is offered at all of his furniture store locations to any of his employees. Leftovers are taken to local homeless shelters. Mr. Koothrappalli is proud to run a clean business that provides jobs and service to the local community.
lunch-2However, things have gotten a bit tougher recently. A new law, the “Employees Always Take Lunch” or “EAT Lunch” act, was passed in Congress. This law requires that any company with over fifty employees that offers lunch must offer a full menu of twenty different items. Naturally, those items include chicken, turkey, and dairy products like milk and cheese. That’s a problem because Mr. Koothrappalli is Hindu and, in keeping with the teachings of his religion, is a strict vegetarian who offers no meat or dairy in his menu. The employees don’t complain; after all, the food does not cost them anything, and they are of course free to bring their own food if they don’t like what the Big K offers. But the law is the law, and if Mr. Koothrappalli does not expand his menu accordingly, he must pay thousands of dollars in fines per day, per employee. Needless to say, his business is not so successful that he can afford that.
Mr. Koothrappalli joined some other businesses in a lawsuit to ask for an exemption from the law. After all, what they were doing was completely legal before the new law was passed, and several non-profits, like many local PETA branches, were allowed exemptions. Surely he should be free to run his family-owned business and provide food to his employees without having to compromise his religious beliefs! Fortunately for him, the Supreme Court agreed. The new law went too far, and he could provide whatever menu he wished as long as he did not prevent his workers from purchasing and consuming their own food of choice.
But that’s when the protests began. The day after the ruling, hundreds of protestors showed up outside his main showroom door. None of these protestors were familiar; they certainly hadn’t worked for him before. But there they were, large poster board signs in hand, chanting “meat is neat!” and other trite catchphrases. Mr. Koothrappalli made his way through the gauntlet of protestors and sat down at his desk. There were angry voicemail messages on the phone. There were outrageous accusations on his company Facebook and Twitter pages. Irate editorials in the newspapers and screaming commentators on the news channels. And there were reports that similar protests were popping up at his other locations.
“He wants us to starve!”
“K hates American food!”
“We won’t stand for cafetyranny!”
“The average worker can’t live on this type of diet!”
Mr. Koothrappalli could not believe what he was seeing. For years, he had offered his beloved employees free food. They had never complained, to him or anyone else. He had sued simply to protect his First Amendment rights, and now the worst accusations were being hurled against him. A reporter for one of the local stations called for a comment.
“I don’t understand all this. I have never shown bias to anyone! Most of my employees are Christians, and they have never complained about this. I treat my employees well. I give part-time jobs to low-income kids so they get a paycheck and experience and can stay off the streets. I pay above minimum wage to my full-time employees. I offered lunch to them before the law required it, and then the law changed everything. I challenged the new rules to protect my personal beliefs, and my challenge was vindicated. And yet now, somehow I’m the bad guy…? I guess some Americans aren’t as tolerant as they like to claim they are. Wait, don’t include that last part–they’ll think I hate this country, even though I was born and raised here.”

Monday, June 30, 2014

What's the Deal With Soccer?

 I'm not a big fan of soccer. I don't dislike it, mind you; I just never have been passionate about it. Like most Americans, my tastes run more to baseball and football. A big part of it is personal involvement: I never played organized soccer, but I did play baseball and I went to lots of football games as a member of my high school and college marching bands, so there is some emotional attachment involved. For me, soccer just doesn't have that.

 What mystifies me, though, is how every time the World Cup comes around, this debate starts up about why soccer isn't/should be more popular, and how the game somehow becomes this metaphor for American/world society. There are typically two views that emerge during the debate:

It is the most popular sport in the world in just about every major industrialized country (and even the non-major countries too) except for the United States, so shouldn't we get with the program and embrace it, and what do you mean it isn't exciting? The entire game could depend on just one kick! Our nation is culturally deprived because we don't have the enthusiasm everyone else does, especially since anyone with a soccer ball and some open space can play it. Also, we should call it football like the rest of the world.

The people with this viewpoint typically are considered politically liberal.

Soccer is boring, no-score ties are commonplace, the field is just too big, and who cares what everyone else thinks? We love sports that have been part of our popular culture for decades, and those sports were developed HERE, so if you love soccer move to one of those other places. Our tastes are not defined by what everyone else wants. You can't make us have a passion for a sport that we just don't enjoy, and no one enjoys a sport because "it's good for you." Yuck! If we wanted to follow British sports, we wouldn't have declared our independence from the king. And we'll always call it soccer, because real football is played Friday night in high school, Saturday in college, and Sunday in the pros.

The people with this viewpoint typically are considered politically conservative.

And thus follow radio commentaries and print articles about what's wrong with soccer and how there are all these reasons why *real* Americans prefer other sports.

Before I go further, I do want to be clear about one thing:

But if you're in camp number two, especially if you're politically conservative, I'd like you to consider what you're saying about soccer. The reason is that, somehow, this topic becomes another proxy war in the battle for the culture. A typical skirmish goes something like this:

Person A: Wow! Have you been keeping up with the World Cup? What a game the other day!!!
Person B: Nah, I can't stand soccer. No scoring, it's boring--hey, that rhymes!--and who cares about this "world" stuff anyway? Give me my baseball and apple pie and let me cross off the days until fall camp starts!
Person A: But don't you want us to win? This is one of the best teams we've ever fielded!
Person B: So what? Real Americans could care less about soccer. What a dumb game.

All of the sudden, you've gone from "I just don't like soccer" to "you're un-American if you do."
Now undoubtedly, some of you are reading this and saying, whoa, not only have I never said that, I don't know anyone who has! Or would! But it's too late: the caricature is out there, and it is going to stick. If you doubt me, just Google "Ann Coulter Soccer" and read the headlines. This is how you lose elections: you become known for what you oppose rather than what you support. If you're conservative, you have to deal with the uncomfortable reality that most people in the media hate you.  They want to make you look bad. They don't need a *good* reason, just an opening. And what one of us says, ALL of us believe. It isn't true and it isn't fair, but THAT is our perfectly-manicured over-sized playing field. We are always the visiting team, and the refs are wearing home colors.

 Does this mean we compromise our ideals and move to the center? No, of course not. But it does mean that we must have a good strategy, and we will only sway the crowd by playing the game better than they do. If you don't recognize that it's a game, go to the showers; you've already lost. And if you object to a sporting event because it requires minimal equipment, then you're clearly an elitist who hates poor children. (Remember, there is no logic in the media--object to healthcare reform and you want grandma to die.)

 Just for the sake of argument, let's deal with a few common objections to soccer.
Yes, soccer games are typically very low-scoring. If you're a fan of baseball or hockey, though, you should not use this objection. Remember that scoring is not the only action in the game. Watching guys dunk the basketball fifty times in a row can get monotonous too.

Well, running is a good thing. It even has its own sport! If we want our kids to be active and healthy and burn off all that extra energy, there are far worse things they could do than running around on the grass kicking a ball.

Every sport has its idiosyncrasies. You can't move the basketball without dribbling. No icing the puck. Don't nod your head before the snap--that's a penalty! It makes a lot of sense that a game referred to as "football" by millions of people requires that you move the ball primarily with your feet.

This is what I'd call an "organizational flaw" rather than a structural flaw. The game itself would be exactly the same if there were a requirement for overtime or penalty kicks to decide every single game and require that every game have a winning score. For whatever reason, FIFA has chosen not to do that. Maybe if enough fans demanded it, they would. NCAA football used to allow ties; now they have almost ridiculously long overtimes to determine a winner. This is like complaining about baseball's designated hitter; it could be easily changed with a rule modification that does not impact the actual play of the game.

Why not? A lot of people think soccer is fun, and believe it or not, a lot of those people are Americans. A good number of them are immigrants who loved soccer and then came to love their adopted country too. Do we want to be the ones telling them that they'd better give up their sporting passion if they want to blend?

Well, that may be true. Many liberals say becoming more like other nations, especially European ones, is something America needs to do. But we should not object to a game simply to be contrary to our political opponents. If a person simply loves the game, we are being shallow if we allow that to become a point of political division.

Winning elections is about winning the culture. Winning the culture is about giving people a reason to believe that your ideas are better for them and their neighbors. When your reaction to a sports tournament is to chalk up reasons why Americans shouldn't like it even when they have a team competing, you are not broadening your coalition. You aren't welcoming new people; you're giving them a reinforcement of their notion that conservatives are stodgy, close-minded, obnoxious traditionalists who just don't get it. Sporting events bring people together. We should see that as an opportunity.

Person A: Wow! Have you been keeping up with the World Cup? What a game the other day!!!
Person B: Not really; I never got into soccer. What happened?
Person A: We lost the game, but we still managed to make it to the next round. Still alive!
Person B: That's awesome! I don't care if it's competitive kitchen-tile painting, I want to see the US team holding that trophy when it's all over!

We're the land of the free. We put astronauts on the moon. You better believe that World Cup should be ours. Let's go get it.

This is cross-posted at . My thanks to Kayleigh McEnany!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Thoughts On Film: Saving Private Ryan

 As row after row of Soldiers are cut down by constant machine gun fire and artillery blasts, a few manage to find footing on the beach. The only sounds are the rattling of the guns, the booming explosions, and the screams of the wounded and dying. Captain John Miller sees one Soldier run up to him through the cascade of enemy fire.

 "Sir, what's the rally point?"

 "Anywhere but here!"

 This is the invasion of Normandy as depicted in one of the landmark films of recent years, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The story is a simple one: A squad of US Army Soldiers in Europe manage to survive the hellish attack on Omaha beach of June 6, 1944. Three days later, they are tasked to locate Private First Class James Ryan of the 101st Airborne Division. PFC Ryan's three brothers were all killed in action and the Army has decided that Ryan must be sent home. (Though fictional, the story was inspired by real-life examples of siblings who fought concurrently. Department of Defense policy now allows for serving family members of those killed in action to be exempted from combat.)


 " looking for a needle in a stack of needles."

 Naturally, the troops have misgivings about what seems to them a public relations mission rather than a tactical one. Without cellphones, GPS systems, Twitter, or Facebook, they have to find one man whose location is "somewhere in France, probably, if he isn't already dead." On top of that, someone who is not trying to be found. Even CPT Miller (Tom Hanks), who properly refuses to question his orders in front of his men, holds out little hope for success. The horror of the opening battle is a shadow through the rest of the film, with any moment holding the prospect that the small group will encounter a larger German force, or that a single well-placed sniper could take them down. (This is to say nothing of the possibility of other American or Allied troops accidentally mistaking them for the enemy.)

 "You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense of riskin' the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?"
 "We all have orders, and we have to follow 'em. That supersedes everything, including your mothers."

 As they make their way through the countryside, occasionally encountering other Army units and trying to determine if Ryan is in their ranks or among their casualties, the Soldiers wrestle with the thought that, officially, Ryan's life is more important than theirs and how they too have families back home. The new guy (there's always a new guy), translator Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), wants to learn about the camaraderie of the team, but to them, he's still an outsider. He's spent the war behind a desk and hasn't seen the action that they have. CPT Miller still tries to maintain some distance by refusing to reveal anything about his life and family back home; he has to order these men to kill and may have to order them to die and prefers that they not get too close.

 When skirmishes break out and men in the team die, the question is no longer hypothetical: is saving Private Ryan worth the cost?

 Eventually, they manage to find PFC Ryan (Matt Damon) as part of a contingent of men holding a strategically important bridge. Of course, finding him is not the end of the mission. They have to get him back safely to a secure transport, and the odds of a quiet jaunt through the French countryside are not good. What they hadn't counted on was Ryan choosing to stay, when any of the men who were hunting for him would gladly have gone back home after surviving D-Day. But the camaraderie that unites Miller's squad is also felt by the man who is their mission.

 "Tell her that when you found me I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left and that there was no way I was gonna desert them. I think she'll understand that. There's no way I'm leaving this bridge."
*     *     *

 From the day it hit the theaters, Saving Private Ryan was a game-changer. The realism of its battle sequences has impacted every historical war movie made since then, including star Tom Hanks's own landmark HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, based on the real exploits of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company. According to William Manchester,  men in war do not fight for flag, country, glory or other abstractions, but for one another. The men in this film are not in a position to see the "big picture," so they do the only thing they can--fight to get themselves and their buddies through one more day. They resent anything that makes that harder, or reduces the odds that they can all go home. For me, one of the biggest messages of the film is that even if one does not think war is wrong, one can still acknowledge that war is a terrible thing, and that even good warriors pay a price for their participation. What the men in the film can't see in the heat of battle and the insanity of a war zone is that their mission to find one man and protect him is essentially what the military is supposed to do for all of us: fight the enemy so that complete strangers can be safe. When a mortally-wounded Miller tells Ryan, "Earn this...earn it..." I find myself thinking about how all of us today benefit from the sacrifices made seventy years ago. Thousands risked their lives, and many of them lost their lives, to allow us to have the freedom we have now. Let's not waste that gift, but rather use it to keep this nation a free one, and to make this world a better place for everyone.