Evil

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Guest post by Levi Kottas

“By the way, a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow,” Ivan went on, seeming not to hear his brother’s words, “told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them–all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.

These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. Doing it before the mothers’ eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They’ve planned a diversion: they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn’t it? By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.”

“Brother, what are you driving at?” asked Alyosha.

“I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”

The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoyevsky captures the essence of evil perfectly. Most us of are left feeling ill after reading a selection like this. Francis Schaeffer referred to this internal turmoil as “moral motions” (see Romans 2:15). In a world seemingly defiled with evil, the Christian can easily find himself orr herself questioning the goodness of God while others may even question his very existence. When confronted with real, palpable evil – rape, murder, torture, etc. – asking why God would cause these sorts of things to happen or angrily denying God’s existence is altogether understandable.

As ambassadors of God’s kingdom, how do we flesh this out? Is God the author of evil? Should we be questioning the validity of our faith in the face of war, famine, disease and suffering? The quick answer is no, but with a topic so emotionally charged, a one word response will not suffice. In order to effectively tackle the problem of evil, we must first come to an understanding of what evil is.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that evil is something. That is, evil is real. In other words, evil is a matter of objective fact and not merely personal opinion (more on this later). The second thing that needs to be understood is that evil is not some “thing.” I know this sounds like a bit of double-speak but an important distinction needs to be made here.

Evil is not a blackish-grey blob floating around the universe that we must carefully avoid. No, evil is a relational property (as evidenced by the fact all questions about evil are either raised about a person or by a person). A good example of this can be made through the use of a piece of steel. If the piece of steel is a scalpel being wielded by a surgeon to remove a tumor, the “relationship” between the steel and the person with the tumor can be declared good. If, however, the piece of steel is a knife in the hands of a criminal being plunged into the belly of his/her victim, the “relationship” between the piece of steel and the victim can rightfully be declared evil.

Why is this distinction important? If evil is a description of the “relationship” between two or more things (more specifically two or more caused/created things), God cannot be its cause, author or creator. The astute among us may already have the follow up question ringing in their head; “Okay, maybe he didn’t cause it, but why would a loving God allow so much evil?”

The rejoinder to this question, made popular by Alvin Plantinga, is known as the free will defense. In reading through all of God’s “omni’s” it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that God can do anything. The truth is God cannot do just anything. God cannot do that which is logically impossible. He can’t make a square-circle, He can’t make a rock so big He can’t lift it, and He can’t contradict himself (praise God!). God also can’t create freedom without choice.

God didn’t want robots that blindly follow him. Rather, He wanted people who freely choose to love and follow Him. We can all understand the importance of choice concerning a loving relationship. What makes love authentic is being loved according to another’s volition rather than through coercion. My relationship with my wife is special because she chooses to love me. She was never forced or told to do so. To put it simply; God is responsible for the fact freedom and we are responsible for our acts of freedom.

There is one objection to the free will defense that holds a bit of rhetorical force that I would like to address before moving on. Some might respond to our freedom of choice by asking why God couldn’t have created a world with less evil. That is, why not keep freedom of choice intact but eliminate cancer and poverty? There are three things not being considered by a person who sincerely asks this question:

!. We don’t know that God hasn’t done so already.

2. We don’t fully understand linkages – the resulting effects of God intervening.

3. We don’t know that we would be satisfied with the limits imposed on evil. Consider Aristotle’s tallest man problem. Imagine a person who couldn’t stand the idea of there being a tallest man. In order ease his mental anguish this person decides to eliminate (kill) the tallest man. What then after he has eliminated the tallest man? The previously second tallest man is now the tallest man and we are back to where we started! The point is, the idea of eliminating some evil sends you into an infinite regress. We would get to the point of denying God’s goodness because of paper cuts (oh, the humanity!).

Understanding that God didn’t cause evil and why He allowed it might be good enough for the believer but many non-believers (atheists) remain unstirred. For many non-believers (atheists), talk over whether God allowed evil or caused evil is a waste of time; the idea of a loving God and evil coexisting is incompatible – like Super Man and kryptonite. When looked at carefully, it isn’t difficult to see how truly shallow this objection is.

Any discussion of evil (more specifically moral evil) under the atheistic worldview ultimately degenerates to nothing more than empty words. If there is no God to objectively ground morals in, all that we are left with is moral relativism – right or wrong/good or evil is purely subjective (only personal opinion). The value of maternal love of a human mother towards her child is as arbitrary and morally neutral as when a salt water crocodile eats her young. A slave owner is no more right or wrong than a researcher who dedicates his or her life to curing cancer.

It defies reason to even attempt to reconcile moral choice with a worldview that negates the very notion of free choice altogether (the two are not logically compatible). As Hume said, “No matter how hard one tries, you cannot get moral agents from a process of scientific materialistic reductionism. It simply does not work. Morality does not come from empirically verifiable scientific statements alone. At several points of the delicate formula we will always have to make the leap into the realm of moral reasoning; but if there is no absolute basis from which to make the leap, if there is no transcendent foundational scope to human life, then there is no platform from whence the leap can be made.”

I am not suggesting atheist can’t be moral. In fact, I believe they can. The problem isn’t immorality; to be immoral one would have to presume knowledge of right or wrong. Atheism cannot plausibly have any such knowledge. Atheism is not immoral; it is amoral, which is downright terrifying!

One last point to address before I wrap this thing up – natural evil (earthquakes, volcanos, etc.). First I think it’s important to point out there is nothing inherently evil about one continental plate slipping under another, nor about the earth’s trembling as a result. These natural events are morally neutral. Something “bad” only results when humans get caught in such events. Much like the case with moral evil, the non-believer (atheist) finds himself or herself in a precarious position when complaining about natural evil.

If an atheist suggests a tidal wave sweeping over an island ought not to have carried children out to sea he is acknowledging that this might be troubling for the islanders but is ignoring the great boon for the marine life surrounding the island. The atheist is quietly proclaiming there is a way things should be, a view only plausible for the believer.

The following five points might help the believer understand why God has chosen to allow natural evil:

1. The earth’s processes that cause many of these events are crucial to our survivability on this planet (rent The Privileged Planet on DVD for a better understanding of this)

2. God does not cause people to be in the times and places where the natural events take place

3. It is very plausible that only in a world suffused with natural evil would great numbers of people freely come to know God and find eternal life.

4. Although God has intervened in His creation before (performed miracles to handle/prevent some form of evil), He is the Master painter of this canvas we call the universe. Miracles are like radiant colors that add much beauty to a painting with just a light touch. Too much lustrous color can ruin the whole painting. God is the Master Designer/Artist and He knows the perfect amount and scope of miracles that will reflect the most beauty of His creation.

5. Compassion is a virtue that God desires us all to have. How could we develop the virtue of compassion without the existence of suffering?

Armed with all this information, how should we respond when someone we know is suffering from some sort of moral or natural evil? How quick should we be to answer with the proper philosophical or theological retort? The appropriate time is when they are ready to hear it; after having the chance to grieve and process all the pain (both emotional and physical).

I have experienced this first hand. Six years ago I went through a divorce and while in the throes of all the emotional anguish I was given many of the standard Christian responses, most of which rang hollow. There was however one response that I will never forget. Upon hearing the news of my divorce my brother, who was living in Escondido at the time (I was in Chula Vista) drove down that night to visit. He arrived at the house late, walked in my room laid down next me in shared in my pain. Two grown men crying together; so unexpected, so taboo yet so appropriate.

Consumption Gumption!

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Recently, I bought new tires for my Nissan Juke — 235 50/R17’s.

I had researched this purchase for three weeks. Upon buying, I experienced the thrill of the purchase, and the agony of the bill!

I upgraded to wider, quieter, safer, longer-lasting tires — less roll resistance, better gas mileage, and better traction on wet surfaces, but afterwards I brooded, “Did I just pay too much for the wrong tires?” They weren’t the most expensive offered me; they were also by far not the cheapest.

Stuff is tough on me!  Then again, later looking at the tires sitting under the car —  wide, stabilizing, sports-car aggressive, more efficient, safer — and  feeling the improvement in ride as I drove and turned the car, I knew I’d made the right choice. There is a significant improvement in ride, handling, safety and quality.

I had passed safely through the rugged terrain of the buyer’s high and the buyer’s low. I bought the right shoes for my car.

Consumption takes some gumption, for our buying choices exist within our emotions. Anxiety and hope rule the attribution of value.

I venture ahead into the world of consumerism with a bit of nagging uncertainty (that’s weird, but so human) and a bit of loving confidence;  I pick my way gingerly through the landscape of consumption.

The ability to purchase wisely — it’s hard!

Smart buying requires accurate knowledge, good judgment, some risk, some caution, the good sense to stay within our means, the equally good sense to sometimes upgrade to better, smarter and safer.

A while back I called my cable company. I did that because I had just come from Best Buy where a representative from another TV service offered me a better deal. I didn’t take it. All the reviews on Yelp were negative — lousy costumer service and poor quality.

I’m glad I didn’t jump on that deal.

But the option gave me the idea, the energy and the motivation to negotiate my current bill with my current company, and so I did. It took three phone calls until I got the representative that knew what I could do, and through her I dropped everything I didn’t need. I dropped my land line phone. Who needs a home phone when the whole family has smart phones that far surpass the house phones? I dropped some TV stations the family never uses. I kept what my daughter wanted — the ability to see her beloved San Diego Padres.

That worked; it fact, it worked so well that, again, recently, when the baseball season ended, I got another idea. Cut the cable. I did. I bought an indoor antenna for $30. This gives me all the network channels free with great HD reception. Then I bought a Roku TV box and signed up for HuluPlus at $10 a month. The only thing I kept the cable company for was internet. I cut my cable bill by two-thirds, and we still have more TV options that I could ever want. Really, TV pretty much bores me anyway, so less is better, for me..

All this figuring took a change in thinking for me, and a bit of assertiveness with the cable company, and a bit of research and work, but in the end, these were wise financial decisions. With less TV and less phone, I’ll be saving about $1700 next year in phone and tv service costs! That is a lot of money, and it is helping me to increase my savings, increase my giving to charity, and travel more.

With all this said, a few thought on wise shopping come to mind.

Think, process and plan before you consume. Don’t buy impulsively. The tire purchase; that was my second visit to the tire store to discuss the options. I researched for about three weeks before buying.

Avoid debt if possible.  I do have a car payment and a house payment, but no other debt. I put the tires on a card, but I will pay for them out of my savings account when the bill comes. I save, so that when these bigger, less frequent expenses come —  the tires, a broken washing machine, the dental bills —  I can pay without paying interest. Not everyone can do this at every point in life, but it is something to aim for. Savings lessen stress and allow for the extra expenses to not take from us in interest what we can have for ourselves by some care with spending and some pre=planning.

Rely on the wisdom of the community of shoppers. I read numerous customer reviews on the tires and the cable and TV service providers before I pulled my wallet’s trigger.

Don’t be afraid to risk. It was a risk to buy better tires. It was a risk to drop my home phone line. I’ve had a home phone all my life. No more! No more political and sales calls!

Decide with your head and your heart. Emotions are fine, wanting something is normal, desire can lead to improvement in life, but the heart must team up with the head to make smart decisions. It is with our minds that we can best please our hearts, over the long hall.

Don’t forget that you also want to give back. I make my financial decisions with the constant check that I am reserving something for others. I save, shop, spend, and don’t spend with it in mind that charity is not an option. I will only spend if I also leave something to give. Why? I want to be able to give to others. Last year I bought tires for my daughter’s car. I paid for kids to go to school in Mexico. I gave to my church. I like myself when I give. My goal is to give away at least ten per cent of what we make. That seems fair to me.  The good life is not spending all I have on myself.

Lastly, remember that it is a privilege to get to decide. Much of the world does not have the luxury of driving personal cars, upgrading tires, owning cutting-edge technology, having access to consumer information. I won’t always be able to do this either. We should always consume, when we do, with a great sense of thankfulness that we are alive, privileged and resourced enough to consume wisely.

How very cared for we are when we have the power to care for ourselves and others wisely.

Random

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When I hung up I cried.

The numbers weren’t down as much as I had hoped.

“What does it mean?” I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell — and the doctors didn’t seem to want to say.

It’s multiple myeloma, cancer, and I’m not sure what to make of it; neither is my brother. He has it, and there seems to be no puppeteer above his stage, pulling on his strings, jerking him away from it.

There are a lot of variables at play in his disease, and the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The doctors say that the course of this disease is not predictable, that every patient responds differently to treatment, that they will have to try things to see if they work, and so my brother and I and everyone else who cares for him are left with the unknown.

At time like these, life can appear to us a unsettlingly uncertain, confusing, as random. Its events may not have discernible causes, patterns or solutions.

An accident, a sudden disease, a family member who dies and suddenly we experience the shock of the unexpected, the chill of the unknown, the unwelcome, surreal face the random.

With my brothers cancer, for us, there are more questions than there are answers. Why did he get cancer? When did it begin? Was there a roll of the dice in it? And what about God? My brother is a pastor. Despite my brother’s allegiance to God, God clearly didn’t stop him from getting cancer. And God clearly hasn’t healed it, despite many requests to do just that.

Is randomness playing a part in my brother’s life? Does it play a part in the realities we all experience?

Let’s consider it. Say we happen to be driving through an intersection when a car is also crossing the same intersection perpendicular to us, and the light fails and is green in both directions and the other car hits us. Under such circumstances it is common for someone to say, “That was horrible luck! I guess I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and everyone understands what is being said.

There are many variables at work in the crash, the failure of the light, just at that moment, the presence of the two cars at exactly the same time, the drivers choices to drive out that day, the speed of the cars — it’s complicated — and so we are right in seeing chance as playing a role in bringing all these elements into play, placing us and someone else at a scene at just that second on that day at that speed when the light failed and involving us in the crash.

It feels like this with my brother’s cancer. It’s a car crash we didn’t see coming, couldn’t prevent, with a result we can’t predict. There are so many variables in my brother’s situation — our family medical history, his genetic makeup, his age in life, the aggressiveness of the cancer, the drugs that are available at this time, his doctor’s choices of treatments, his body’s unique responses to the treatments. Indeed, there are so many factors at play here that we are left with little ability to make accurate projections, draw conclusions or make stable plans.

Life with cancer — for us it has a kind of surreal randomness, at the very least because of our vast ignorance, and quite possibly, because there are elements of it that are random at it’s very core.

This awareness of randomness is real, and it can be observed everywhere. We experience the rather common randomness of life when we take up dice. When we roll dice, the outcome is uncertain. For instance, on any given roll of five dice, we may get a pair of dice that will match or we may not. Anyone who has played dice knows this. We cannot say for certain, before we roll, if we will get a pair or not, nor can we discover a formula by which to accurately predict each roll.

However, the roll results may be calculated as a probabilities. For example, when we roll five dice one time, there is a 70% chance that we will get one pair that match. So from this we can see that the frequency of some outcomes can be calculated even when the outcome of a certain roll cannot be known.

This seems similar to my brother’s treatment plan. The outcome of this is unknown. When he is taking treatment, he is rolling dice.

Some scientists would argue against randomness. They would argue that everything is explainable, if we dig deep enough. There is one problem with this; it has not been proven yet. There are many things scientists do not understand. In fact, for all of us, there is more we don’t understand than we do.

Some of the very spiritual would argue that there is no chance or luck in life because the hand of God is in the world, because the power of God is present to control our affairs, and that because of God’s sovereignty, and his omniscience, nothing is random.

That is not what the Bible says.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

The wise Solomon observed chance, just have we have, and not just in the dice. He spotted it by looking at gifted people and seeing that they fall prey to random forces — the swift, strong, wise, smart and educated fall into trouble by chance. A great athlete is ruined by a chance injury. A strong, young person dies of chance contact with a disease.

We see this kind of thing in the New Testament. In Acts 12, King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed. He arrested Peter and threw him in prison. It’s odd; Peter was miraculously delivered from prison by an angel, while James was brutally killed.

Why was James killed and Peter saved? We don’t know. It must have seemed random, perhaps even unfair, to those who loved James.

Did James’ death have any element of chance in it, the car at the wrong place and the wrong time, and if so, why would God allow chance as part of his universe, particularly for his useful, chosen ones?

Perhaps this is because God has not chosen to be the great puppeteer, pulling the strings on all the events of his universe.

The Bible reveals a God who lets go of some of his control. In the command of Genesis 1:28, we humans we given the power to create, to make choices, and to steward the earth. And then we were held responsible for our decisions.

God gave us choice, and so he has let us decide many things in our lives, and these choices are consequential and he holds us accountable, just as he did with Adam and Eve. We can see in this that God has in this way taken his hands off the wheel a bit, and he has let us drive. Apparently, he wanted to let go of control.

Just in this same way, as noted by Solomon, it appears that God has decided not to dictate every dice throw, or every moment of nature. It looks very much like he decided that he did not want to run the whole show. He has allowed the dice to roll random, he has set up the game this way, because he choose to let go of the wheel. He apparently wanted us to experience choice and chance, and to let himself experience our choices and the universe’s chances because that would make for the world he wanted. We can’t be certain why he did this, but we can note that the alternative would put him in a very bizarre position.

For God to to dictate every dice roll, to superintend every event, to manage every accident, to dispense all diseases, to hand out all sufferings — this would nullify all choice, remove all human responsibility, take away consequence, delete the sow and reap principal that now operates, and present instead a world totally controlled and dominated by the creator. In this scenario God himself would become the world’s great unrelenting, hyper-attentive, over-active, mad, mad, mad tyrant of phenomena. This is not God.

God is not a crazed puppeteer, frantically working all the stings, making every thing move. God is not the crooked casino manager, loading all the dice. God is not the over-controlling boss, the mad micromanager of life, nor is he the horrific, disease-breathing monster of the universe. God is not the Pandora’s box of the world, unleashing every ill at every turn, in every case. He has certainly allowed the possibility for disease, and in his great power he can certainly can allow a disease to overtake a person or a nation, (we see this in the Old Testament) but he isn’t the horrible disease dispensing, disease mongering dictator of all of life.

Here is the deal. God obviously didn’t want it that way, a totally controlled creation. And yet we must also insist that according to Christian orthodoxy, God does retain ultimate control of life, that he does intervene, that he does sometimes fix things, help us. Christian history and theology include the belief in the incarnation, Christ bringing salvation to earth, God intervening, God fixing human kind, God is far more than a Divine Watchmaker, winding up the world, stepping back to let it tick along on its own.

How do we square all this up? Well, perhaps in this way. God is actively involved in the universe, God does care, does step in, but chance still operates. Why? Perhaps God has allowed chance in the world, just as he has allowed free will, because he saw what he could do with it.

What could he do with chance? Chance has its uses. By chance, by the presence of the random, we transient humans live blinded to the future. Because of randomness, we see the roll of the dice dimly, as through a glass darkly. Perhaps in this way, chance was allowed to confound us, to humble us, to lead us to depend on God. Chance is perhaps an antidote to pride. We can’t figure it all out, we don’t have all the answers, we can’t predict the future, we are not ultimately in control. Also, by means of chance, or randomness, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised. Good things fall to chance, not merely bad things. By chance we may get a full-house! By chance we see beautiful wild animal. By chance we win one of the many games of life.

And there is perhaps one more virtue in chance. By means of chance, mystery is maintained, and mystery is a deep part of God himself.

Let’s bring up one more problem. Open theism, as presented by proponent Gregory A. Boyd, is the view that the future is in part, a set of possibilities and known by God as possibilities. This has caused tremendous debate from the traditionalists who insist that this limits God’s knowing and determining power in a heretical way. Open theism is not what I am arguing here. The Bible seems to make it clear that God knows everything, past, present and future. God does not, not know what will happen yet. He knows ahead what possibilities and probabilities will become realities. He knows which “might happen” will become a “did happen.” And we might even say that what seems random to us, a possibility, or a probability, may have a very clear explanation to him. And yet this need not make us abandon the doctrine of free will or the possibility of chance.

God, if he is God, that is omniscient and omnipotent, is never surprised, nor is he limited. He sees the way all the dice will roll before they roll and yet, seeing ahead or knowing ahead is not the same as causing, and giving choice is not controlling, and letting chance work in the world does not mean he cannot intervene at any point he chooses. Apparently, God is big enough to allow other forces than himself to be at work in his creation. God has gifted the creation with power.

We may maintain our affirmation that God is omniscient, and yet agree that it is still clear from the Bible and our experiences, that there is human free will and a random element in life. In trying to make sense of this, David Bartholomew puts it this way, apparently “God can have it both ways” – randomness and order.

What to conclude? How do we comfort the family who loses James? What do we tell the Christian with cancer? What do we celebrate as God’s intervention, what do we accept as his will, what do we take responsibility for?

I’m still not always completely sure, but I am sure that God is wise and responsible and makes good choices and handles the random well and that so should I.

My brother told me recently that he has experienced God walking with him through his personal car wreck, walking with him through his unwanted, seemingly random numbers, through his suffering, with him through the apparent randomness of his experience, with him not as a magician who chants the abracadabra and the disease is gone, but with him as a God of beauty, a divine beauty maker, offering bits and pieces of respite and wonder that refresh, in the middle of the news that shatters.

…..

Note: For my modern proverbs on randomness, visit http://www.modernproverbs.net

Apricity 101

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Being curious — apparently it’s good for learning.

Professor Charan Ranganath, the senior author on a recent study on curiosity, says that “curiosity recruits the reward system” of the brain. It puts us in a state where “we are more likely to learn and retain information.”

Cool! I love the feeling of curiosity. When I’m curious, apparently the research shows that dopamine goes to work in my head. From my experience it does; I can feel it coaching my neurons right now. I can feel it calling out to the universe of knowledge, “Come in here! Come into my brain too!”

According to the professor, dopamine is the information sucking chemical, enhancing our curiosity rushes, aiding stuff in settling in.

This week I ran into the word “kerfuffle.” I got a dopamine rush out of it. It put me in a kerfuffle. A kerfuffle is a commotion, uproar, tumult or brouhaha. Love it! My brain is an uproar.

This week I also came across the word “apricity.” It was love at first sight! Apricity refers to the warmth of the sun in the winter. Think an old dog laying in the sun in January.

Nice! Think of the apricity of a beautiful smile. It wakes up and warms the freezing cold heart.

Not everything wakes up the brain. This week I got a little frustrated, and a bit angry. I upgraded my smart phone and lost my account password and a bunch of documents.

I’ve noticed that being angry, getting frustrated, does the opposite of being curious.

At first anger or upset may stimulate a pay-attention state, but the angrier we get, the less effectively we tend to think.

About the tenth time I tried to reset my password on my smart phone, my brain went on strike!

At some point anger decreases our ability to think, it gorgonizes our ability to take in new information. Anger kills data intake. Anger is the enemy of curiosity and learning.

Yeah, what to do?

Thinking about it, I think I’ll fight anger and frustration with curiosity and wonder. I think I’ll ask what I can learn about myself and about others, from everyone of life’s frustrations. And I think I’ll keep looking up new words on my new and improved smart phone!

Come to think of it — when I am tempted to be angry or frustrated — I will to rebelliously revel, bask and sun in the opportunities for learning present there.

I plan, pledge and commit to get goofy-good at enjoying and learning from the winter-warmth of life.

Curious, I will sit at the hearth of the apricity resident in every single one of life’s wonderful, frustrating, kerflufflng upgrades!

Which Way To Flail Next

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Reality is stubborn. It’s freakin’ abyssopelagic!

The deep water creatures close to my face mask — a friend’s pointy, bright-red critique here, a community member’s spiny orange glance there, a suddenly uncloaked pearly-white shark’s tooth of judgment dead ahead — and everything starts getting that dim, damned, dangerous, depthy look fast.

I find life to be blurry, even in the sunny, splash zone of consciousness, and dsfluency takes over upon every attempt to spear reality — and eat it.

I drag out my standard armamentarium — a gut feeling, a Ted’s talk, yesterday’s brilliant observation had while driving in heavy traffic, the book my friend just told me I have to read, a bit of early morning arm-chair theory mongering, the Holy Bible, what my wife thinks, what my financial consultant thinks — and then I get to thinking about my brother’s multiple myeloma, my daughter’s trenchant anxiety, my own ripped rag of insecurity over aging, what I might be doing 10 seconds from now and I’m gone — mesopelagic again.

I dive hard into the depths of what it means to have daughters, a cat, new friends, a second career, old eyes, a discriminating appetite, a healthy relationship with God, passions. I check out what it means to own a shiny piece of new technology, a butchered piece of Augustinian candor, a broken chunk of twenty-first century philosophy, a fresh slice of true love, a green tea frappuccino and I find my arms flailing and my legs kicking to get back to the surface.

I float on the top of the water and take a break.

I love life, especially, exactly the way I find it on the surface, and below.

It’s a splish and a splash, a miss and a mash, an up the boat ladder and a down again, a drop into the sea and an a soggy trip out, a rorty romp through a designer-made microbiome, a perfect drop into a custom-fitted, deep-sea-diving birthday suit, a flit and flop in my lovely skin, my healthy bones, my intact, updated, autonomic nervous system, my glorious gallimaufry of emotions, my mental buggy, my sublime, submersible brain, where I can futz about however I want, to pick and choose and have clarity — and not.

I stopped for a moment yesterday at my daughter’s day program, got out of my car — in my workout clothes — and went up to the director of the program and one of the job coaches and thanked them for doing what they do every day that they do it, taking care of disabled adults, giving them something meaningful to do.

They lit up. I lit them up. I walked away smiling. For a moment, anyway, I had seen which way to flail next.

The Man Who Made Up His Family

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I had coffee with my friend Dennis today.

His life is good, and sometimes a bit tough, as life is apt to be. Dennis recently retired from a long, very successful music teaching career. He has a long successful marriage, he has a beautiful, successful, loving daughter, he has a wonderful grandson. Dennis told me that he has no bucket list. He has done so much, lived so fully. He’s good to go!

But Dennis is coping with NF2, and he is losing his hearing, slowly, which is hard for a musician, and he is enjoying life on the terms that it comes to him now — somewhat limited — the best he can.

Dennis told me today, “I’m working on being grateful.” I’m impressed!

He is also considering designing an online class on using iPads in music education.

I like that too.

There are so many ways of responding to life, of getting along with what we don’t want to get along with, of ciphering life, of doing the math, the pluses and minuses of career and health and success and family.

People are resilient! I see that all the time. And they are smart and creative and brave and wise and full of the kind of imagination that thrives in difficulty!

Thinking of this, I wrote a fable about a man, who didn’t have a family, so he made one up! I love this man!

…………

Once there was a man named Santino who didn’t have a family — so he made one up.

“Maya”, he said to his wife, “would you mind getting me a piece of the cake you made today?”

“Certainly,” she replied. He got up and got himself some cake.

“Yosef,” he said to his son, let me see your homework. Ah, you are doing a paper on the sociology of interracial intimacy. One thought is that you focus on the varying interpretations of father craft within these families.”

He pulled out his tablet and looked up several websites on the sociology of fatherhood within the bourgeois family.

“Interesting,” he said to himself, “the pervasive maternal dominance when it come to parenting.”

“Lilit,” he said to his daughter, “If you and your sister Saki would like, I will take you out this evening to get ice cream.”

That evening he went out and got himself an ice cream. He sat alone eating it.

“Saki,” he said to his youngest daughter, looking up from his ice cream. “How are you doing with that boy at school, the one who told you he liked you.”

He sat quietly for a moment. Another family sat quietly nearby.

“Well,” he said gently, “this can be quite sensitive. I wouldn’t say that to him, but it would be best to be honest. You don’t want to lead him on, give him false hope. That isn’t kind. It’s important in life to be honest, but not too honest, if you know what I mean?”

Santino looked up. The nearby family — a father, mother son and two daughters — were all staring at him.

He looked at them, and catching the father’s eye, said in a clear voice. “The fathering, it just never seems to end, does it?”

The other father, not knowing what to say, looked down.

Santino, looking around the room, smiled, and said to himself, “I just love being a father.”

……

I love Santino!

He was a father, a natural father, a good father, one capable of the acceptance of great diversity — an international father — a real father who didn’t get a chance to be a father — and there is a sadness in that for me — and yet he was indeed a father beyond ordinary fathers.

Santino was a great father to his imaginary international family!

I wonder about Santino and so many others like him. Why didn’t he get the opportunity to live out his identity? I don’t know. I made him up, and still I don’t know.

It happens all the time, the Santinos, living with their dreams deferred, their desires unfulfilled. And yet, like my friend Dennis, so many of the semi-blessed, partially blessed, and even the unblessed are doing very well. They, like Santino, are very grateful, on some very deep unfulfilled level, for who they are.

I wonder. I wonder what do we do when we don’t get to do all that we might have done, when illness, disability or circumstance don’t allow it?

This is hard, and yet, we I can see through Dennis and Santino, that we may yet thrive!

If we are grateful for what we have been given, even more profoundly, if we are grateful or who we are, and can image that, affirm that, act that out in any way possible, even when the rest of the world doesn’t see or know that, even when that doesn’t look like what we once hoped it would look like, then we are indeed blessed.

By the way, if you enjoyed the fable of Santino, you can find more of my fabulistic literature at http://www.antifables.com

How To Enjoy Life!

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When I flew into the airport and saw the palm trees, they looked like home, but odd, almost artificial, pseudo-tropical — they weren’t pines.

I had spent the morning driving through Montana’s rolling hills, ogling the lovely farms, the sparklingly clear rivers, the pines wandering along the rivers, the pines strolling up into the hills.

But now I was back home. As we drove from the airport, into San Diego, I still had a smile on my face.

I love airplanes, I love travel, I love cities — their museums and restaurants –and I am smitten with hills, rives and pines. New places change how we see, allowing us the luxury of contextualizing love — and beauty. I love a new place, anchored in eating, sleeping, wandering, exploring, fishing, hiking, slouching and smooching.

It brings up the question, how does one enjoy life? How does one really mouth it, chew it, savor it, kiss it, dive down deep into the cold, clear, refreshing liquid-rush of it?

By sloshing in it!

In Montana, on the Blackfoot River, I stood stiff-legged in the front of the boat, locking my leg into the curved plastic of the hull and cast my dry fly to the right bank. The boat sloshed, I rocked back and forth, Matt yelled “Mend,” I did, and an eighteen inch Cutthroat trout boiled to the surface, took my fly right off the top of the boiling water, and dove.

I reared back on the fly rod, it bent toward the water, and the Cutthroat took off like crazy toward the far bank. Beautiful! Thrilling! Perfect!

That night when we got off the river my back hurt like crazy. It didn’t matter. I had sloshed in it, in the river, in life. I had done what it takes to receive the beauty. I had placed myself in a posture to receive.

This is how you do it, but something else is required too.

You have to prep like crazy!

For the last year before my Montana trip, I had worked like crazy at my job, and made and saved the money to go. And then I had thought and planned and talked and arranged. I had practiced with my fly rod on my front driveway, casting to imaginary fish in a concrete river. I had made an arrangement with my friend, I had paid my money, I had made the long trip, I had hired the skilled guide, had gotten in the boat, cast the rod and I had mended the line.

It takes an effort to enjoy life, and sometimes some pre-work. But when you do that, you get it — some pleasure, a Cutthroat trout, some loveliness, a bit of the gorgeous whip and womp and woof of the wonders.

That day, as we rocked down the river, we watched a bald eagle soar overhead, perused a black bear as it wandered along the bank, peered at a herd of elk on a far hill and watched Mayflies dance in a tall, white column above the river.

We were immersed in the Blackfoot and the ecosystem of the Backfoot — the sparkly white, rapids, the bumpy, rocky bottom, the cool rain that spotted our coats and brought a fresh, damp fragrance to our senses, the deep fish-filled water along the banks — the gorgeous speckled shinning rainbow trout, brown trout and Cutthroat Trout that we caught and released that day.

This is how you do it, how you enjoy it.

Life is so good, from time-to-time, and we can enjoy it, the columns of Mayflies, and then again, the churning fish-filled rivers, when we get a chance, the lovely pines, if we put ourselves out in it — the soaking rain — and do the work, and make a choice to get up and get out, and slosh in it.

Skip The Schoolboy Pools

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“There is a sharp bank there leading down to the river, with big gravel bars at the bottom.”

“Yeah, I know the place,” said Rod. “You park on the left side of the road.”

“That’s right,” said Chuck. “It’s a good spot. People don’t want to go down that bank, but it’s not bad if you’re careful. If you hike on in, then cross the river and fish the pools around the bend, you’ll do well.”

“Sounds good,” I said looking a Rod. This was good information.

I wandered over and looked over Chuck’s tie flying table. It was a mess, of fun stuff — a fly tying vice, spools of different colored thread, feathers, hides, dubbing, hooks, a can of lacquer, a pair of glasses. It was an artist’s studio.

Rod and Chuck were talking flies. “Black ants, number 14 will work, and Brindleshoots,,” said Chuck.

We bought some.

On the way out we patted the dog. In the parking lot there was a rabbit, hunched down under a pickup truck.

“Maybe he is trying to stay warm,” said Rod. It was a good interpretation, but who knew — a rabbit warming himself on a cooling engine? Odd, or maybe not.

It’s hard to tell exactly why creatures do what they do.

As we left Chuck added one bit of advice. “I’d skip the school boy pools at the bottom of the bank,” he said.

We did.

We hiked on in, to what Chuck called the “feeding trough.”

There, along some deep water banks, big Montana clouds overhead, big pine trees leaking their sweet fragrance, we both hooked some nice cutthroat trout.

There is an odd kind of art to living. It comes down to not doing the first things that comes to mind, finding warmth any place that you can, tying flies when you could just buy them, hiking down steep banks, taking advice where you can find it, not settling for the easiest thing, skipping the school boy pools, and fishing the feeding troughs, wherever you can.

Cancer, Wackos and Ferry Landings

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As I walked by, I heard a older gentleman say to someone he was talking to on the phone, “I’m not sure we are at the ferry landing.”

He was at the ferry landing.

I know; I was there, walking by him, at the landing. This place is familiar to me. I have been coming with my family for years.

The whole thing seemed familiar — the bewildered person, wandering around a bit confused, not quite clear as to what was going on.

I see them all the time, the semi-confused. I know them: I am them. We humans all suffer myriad disorientations and confusions.

Lately I have noticed that places can disorient, (parking lots, new cities) and also that sicknesses can create significant bewilderment.

Illness seems to cause the Voortrekker syndrome — “Where the heck are we now?”

Poor health, impairment, disability — it’s freakin’ foreign, and can elicit some pretty wacko responses.

About six months ago, my brother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. People by and large have been great, but his cancer has created some very interesting responses.

He has cancer, and some people are delusional.

“You have just got to read this book!”

“Listen, there is this diet …”

“I want to pray for you, right now, and I believe that God is going to heal you completely, right now!”

“I read this article. I am going to email it to you. You just have to read this article and …”

“There are several herbs that I have been using …”

“In Mexico, you can go to this clinic …”

“Have you ever heard of the healing power of magnets?”

They come to him, these self-appointed healers, with great energy, enthusiasm and love, offering their gifts at his altar, caring so much, and they really do, and they come to him, basically — insensitive.

Books are good. He has read books.

Diets are good. He eats well.

Prayer is excellent. Hundreds of friends and family member are praying for him everyday.

Articles inform. He has read more internet articles than is probably good for his mental stability.

Herbs, Mexico, bracelets, magnets — they all have their proponents, but what is really helpful?

A few thoughts.

It is not particularly reassuring to anyone, when amateur healers appoint themselves to the position of fixing the sick. It disorienting. The blind cannot lead the blind.

“You know how to do what? Heal cancer? Really?”

Those who don’t know what to do shouldn’t pretend they do.

Which leads to an interesting question?

Why? Why do people feel such a compulsive urge to give a remedy that they really don’t know will work, that they don’t even know hasn’t already been tried by the person, for instance prayer or a special diet? Why do they rush to offer things inappropriate to the person or the situation?

Perhaps this is because they really do want to help, very badly — too badly — and so they instinctively grasp at the first thing that comes to mind, something that they were told worked for someone else, something they found on the Internet, something they wish worked. They just can’t take it, not to offer a remedy.

These well-meaning ones are reality resistant — compulsively. They don’t know where they are at. They are at the ferry landing, and don’t know it; they are at the entrance to the River Styx, and they can’t recognize it. They are disoriented. Perhaps they have never been there before.

And at that point of confusion they are not quite safe to themselves or others. Unconsciously they blame the victim by implying that the sick one hasn’t done something right yet, hasn’t prayed with the proper amount of trembling, volume or spiritual mojo, hasn’t read the right book, eaten the right plants, gone to the right doctor or worn the correct metal.

Maybe, just maybe, this is because they are themselves are uncomfortable with sickness, brokenness, disability and loss. Perhaps they haven’t come to terms with the shaper edges of life. Maybe they haven’t accepted pain as part of life; maybe they haven’t integrated suffering and death into their philosophies, their epistemologies or their theologies. It’s denial, and it makes people offer up wacko responses.

It seems to me that God himself is much more comfortable with sickness and suffering than we are. He allows it. He uses it. God is not in denial about the rougher side of life. It seems to get along with it. God is sovereign, he can fix anything, but under his watchful, loving eyes, everybody gets sick at some point, and everybody dies.

So what would help? If the impulsively gushing of remedies doesn’t help, what does? How do we do something good here, how do we avoid wandering about confused, among the suffering?

I know what I have experienced that has helped me through some tough medical issues. It wasn’t aromatherapy.

When I have been sick, what has helped me has been when people affirmed me for some aspect of my character, particularly when it was true.

“You haven’t lost your core,” someone told me once during a particularly difficult time. “You are still who you are. You haven’t lost you.” I liked it. It made me more confident that an important part of me was surviving my difficulty.

It has also helped when people have had the sensitivity to ask a few relevant questions and then really listen.

“Wow, so what do your doctors say is next for you?”

“Cool, I’m praying that this will really work for you.”

And it has really helped when my dear ones have made simple expressions of love for me and my family.

A hug, a pat, a kiss that conveys real care, it helps. Real love helps, especially when you and most of the people around you are a bit confused by the complications of acute illness. Then it helps to be loved. It helps you get on the next ferry and travel to wherever it is that you have to go next.

Orchestrated

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“Demo the porch,” said Richie. “It will solve a bunch of your problems.”

I looked at him blankly.

“Extend the porch out to here,” he said, pointing to the area about six feet out from the door of the house that I was hoping to turn into a counseling center, “and slope the rest of the porch down to the your walkway. That slope will end up about here,” he said, walking out on to the dirt and pointing down at his foot.

“Wow, that low,” I said. “That’s perfect! Then the walks on both sides of the courtyard will be about the same height.”

He had solved it! Richie, in only a couple hours on the site, had figured out solutions to the grading and leveling problems of the courtyard we are building at the church.

Orchestrated. That’s how I see it.

When we set out to do this project, a seventy by seventy foot interior courtyard garden for the church, it seemed impossible. We had no plan, no money and no professional support. A small old, dilapidated house sat in the middle of the site, surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

But, it had already been orchestrated. We just didn’t know how.

There was Vickie, the realtor, who introduced me to Joaquin, who had a business partner named Jesus, who bought the house. Joaquin put it on a truck and drove it down a two foot embankment, over the sidewalk and down the street.

We waved goodbye, and hooted. The house flew. And Jesus gave us some money for it.

Orchestrated.

Then there was Janet, the landscape designer, who volunteered to draw the design, and her boss who volunteered hours to solve design problems — free.

Then there was Josh, who revised the plan, created the fire exit plan the city demanded, added the detail for the wall, free, and printed out all the large scale drawings, three times, free.

Orchestrated.

Then there was Richie who came to me through a friend, Eric Richards, by referral. “I know a guy,” said Eric, who does this kind of stuff. He grades stuff and he’s got all the equipment to do it.”

Come to find out, Richie just graded the brand new Del Mar Race Track, and now he was at the church, volunteering all his experience and expertise, to us — at very little cost.

Orchestrated.

Then there was John. My daughter saw him at the college, putting up a wall, and came home and told me. And a light went on. Ask John, to build the wall to enclose the courtyard.

Orchestrated.

I walked past the dirt lot on Sunday. It’s growing weeds. It will soon be a beautiful inclosed garden, an outdoor room, a venue, a park, a worship center. How will that happen?

I’m not sure?

But I know this: It will be orchestrated.

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