Mistakes were made…

July 31, 2006

Yesterday, my three-and-a-half-year-old son, Tom, miscalculated how powerful a force a flushing toilet can be. Tom is a very good boy, so when we were at a friends’ home, and he had an accident in his little drawers, he decided to clean up the mess by himself. While we adults were eating delicious food under the Arizona setting sun, Tom went into the bathroom and flushed his underwear down the commode.

The underwear got lodged deep in the plumbing below the floor. Water (yucky water) overflowed the bowl and started to back up the shower. Alex discovered the mess, and we all ran inside. Tom didn’t know whether to be proud of himself for his enterprising spirit, or be upset because all the adults were running around looking for towels and turning off the water.

We plunged at it for awhile with no luck. Two Home Depots later, my friend and I rented an industrial strength snake attached to a drill that looked like it had a lot of torque. We prodded at the drain for another spell with the big tool. Other than scratching up some of the enamel in the bottom of the toilet bowl, this achieved nothing. By this time it was getting late and kids had to be put to bed. We went home with the agreement that my (hopefully still) friends would try some more to get the underwear free. If they could not, they would call a plumber in the morning.

Well, the plumber came today and was able to flush Tom’s nasty underwear into the Scottsdale sewer system. My friends’ home is back to having flushing toilets that don’t involve waterfalls and gross water in the floor of the shower.

Through it all, Tom has been sticking with his story that he did it by himself and that he flushed the toilet. The funny thing for Alex and me has been the unique and new feelings this experience has brought forth in us. For the first time (other than for minor episodes of acting up in public places) we have been embarrassed because of something one of our children did. Our friends have been absolutely saintly about the whole thing: very calm and understanding–actually less upset than we have been. I love Thomas so, so much. But it would be ok with me if he doesn’t do this again.


Cornish Pasties

July 28, 2006

This blog is not very old, so I’m not quite sure where it’s heading. But looking back over the entries, I sound like a pleasureless curmudgeon of the worst kind. The truth is more that I’m a curmudgeon who enjoys pleasure.

Today, Alex and I ate lunch at the Cornish Pasty Company of Tempe. We had a great meal in a neat place. First, the food: a pasty is a Cornish meat turnover, sort of like a big empanada. According to the menu, Cornish tin miners ate them in the mines. They sell about twenty different varieties, some traditional, some not. Alex ordered a shepherd’s pie pasty, and it was delicious. The ground beef was not too salty and very flavorful. The potatotes didn’t overpower the flaky pastry, and there was a little bit of cheese as well. Her pasty was served with a little tub of red wine gravy that had a strong flavor of beef and rosemary. I ordered something more local, a pasty with carne adovada. The pork was moist and had tang. There were large chunks of what seemed like New Mexico chiles–very yummy. Mine was served with sour cream to take an edge of the spice. We drank beer, which is fun to do when you go to a restaurant at 11 in the morning and everyone else is on their lunch break drinking Coke and iced tea. There’s a large beer list with lots of British options.

The space is cool. Like all of Phoenix, it’s in a crummy strip mall, but this place has character. It’s in a very narrow unit, chair and little tables against one wall, a bar with bar steels right next to them, and the kitchen a step beyond that. The four staff were the owner, a pasty Cornish guy who makes Cornish pasties; a slightly pregnant and friendly blonde waitress; and two Hispanic cooks with wicked hairnets. They’re all in plain site the whole time–no backroom in this little place.

The clientele was typical Tempe. There were two punks (one in full mohawk) talking loudly about video games, several middle-aged white guys who seemed to be regulars, and a few office workers on their lunch break. And two young and suave Presbyterian ministers.

Some Presbyterians get all gooey-eyed about their Scottish heritage, and by extension, all things British. They would like this place. We’re not really like that, and we’ll be back, too

Moyers for President

July 26, 2006

This is Molly Ivins’s column from today’s paper:


AUSTIN, Texas — Dear desperate Democrats,

Here’s what we do. We run Bill Moyers for president. I am serious as a stroke about this. It’s simple, cheap and effective, and it will move the entire spectrum of political discussion in this country. Moyers is the only public figure who can take the entire discussion and shove it toward moral clarity just by being there.

The poor man who is currently our president has reached such a point of befuddlement that he thinks stem cell research is the same as taking human lives, but that 40,000 dead Iraqi civilians are progress toward democracy.

Bill Moyers has been grappling with how to fit moral issues to political issues ever since he left Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and went to work for Lyndon Johnson in the teeth of the Vietnam War. Moyers worked for years in television, seriously addressing the most difficult issues of our day. He has studied all different kinds of religions and different approaches to spirituality. He’s no Holy Joe, but he is a serious man. He opens minds — he doesn’t scare people. He includes people in, not out. And he sees through the dark search for a temporary political advantage to the clear ground of the Founders. He listens and he respects others.

Do I think Bill Moyers can win the presidency? No, that seems like a very long shot to me. The nomination? No, that seems like a very long shot to me.

Then why run him? Think, imagine, if seven or eight other Democratic candidates, all beautifully coiffed and triangulated and carefully coached to say nothing that will offend anyone, stand on stage with Bill Moyers in front of cameras for a national debate … what would happen? Bill Moyers would win, would walk away with it, just because he doesn’t triangulate or calculate or trim or try to straddle the issues. Bill Moyers doesn’t have to endorse a constitutional amendment against flag burning or whatever wedge issue du jour Republicans have come up with. He is not afraid of being called “unpatriotic.” And besides, he is a wise and a kind man who knows how to talk on TV.

It won’t take much money — file for him in a couple of early primaries and just get him into the debates. Think about the potential Democratic candidates. Every single one of them needs SPINE, needs political courage. What Moyers can do is not only show them what it looks like and indeed what it is, but also how people respond to it. I’m damned if I want to go through another presidential primary with everyone trying to figure out who has the best chance to win instead of who’s right. I want to vote for somebody who’s good and brave and who should win.

One time in the Johnson years, LBJ called on Moyers to say the blessing at a dinner. “SPEAK UP, Bill,” Lyndon roared. “I can’t hear you.” Moyers replied, “I wasn’t speaking to you, sir.” That’s the point of a run by Moyers: He doesn’t change to whom he is speaking just because some president is yelling at him.

To let Moyers know what you think of this idea, write him at PO Box 309, Bernardsville, NJ, 07924.

I couldn’t resist reprinting the whole thing here. I think this is great idea and plan on writing Mr. Moyers soon. I mean, with “Sheep Days” support, he can’t lose!

“Do no harm”

July 26, 2006

A few days ago, a judge in Missouri temporarily halted all executions in that state due to his concerns over the process of lethal injection. You can read the NYTimes article about it here. It seems that the current executioner, an anonymous doctor, is “dyslexic” and claims that he sometimes engages in “improvising” when it comes to the drug mixture. He stated, ““So it’s not unusual for me to make mistakes.” Well, good for the judge for putting a hold on things, but then the judge made an error, in my mind.

The judge also called for a board-certified anesthesiologist to evaluate Missouri’s system of lethal injection. So the state sent out a letter to the 298 such people in the area. All of them have declined to participate. And good for them, too. I did always think that that part of the Hippocratic oath was to do no harm. Strange, then, that doctors preside over execution now.

When doctors execute criminals via lethal injection of drugs, we can say it was “a medical procedure.” In Thomistic terms, the only way execution is a medical procedure is in its “accidents.” However, in its “substance,” it continues to be publicly mediated murder of a human being, ostensibly to punish and prevent others from becoming criminals. However, there is no debate on whether such a punishment or prevention is effective: it is not. With this proviso, the “substance” of the act is reduced to murder, pure and simple. In a grotesque, yet increasingly common, twist of meanings, the caregiver (doctor) becomes the killer. We try not to think of this by focusing on the superficial, on the procedural, on the clinical. The problem with the dyslexic doctor is not that he was bad at performing his procedure but that he was called on (and willing) to kill.

So, here’s the problem. The judge wants Missouri’s criminals to be snuffed out by better doctors, ones who don’t remind us that the result of their ministrations will be death.

I had pretty much decided not to continue with this little blog because of a general feeling that I might not have enough to say to sustain this kind of thing. But I got a nice email from a stranger encouraging me to continue, and that was enough to at least write one more.

I’m currently a research assistant for a project at ASU on the study of refugees in the humanities. To tell the bald truth, I’ve never been that interested in refugees, other in the normal, bleeding heart kind of way. But, I made a contact with the professor heading the project, and it’s steady work.

It turns out that refugees have a patron saint who is also the patron of torture victims (see previous posts). Here’s the story from another site:

20 June
Soldier and solid citizen. Converted by a persecuted priest whom he sheltered. He then changed clothes with the priest, allowing him to escape. Caught, he was ordered to renounce his new faith. He refused and became the first Christian martyr in Britain. The second was the executioner who was to kill him, heard his testimony, converted on the spot, and refused to kill Alban. The third was the priest, who when he learned that Alban had been arrested in his place, hurried to the court in the hope of saving Alban by turning himself in. The place of their deaths is near the site of Saint Alban’s Cathedral today.
Verulamium, Hertfordshire (now Saint Albans), England
tortured and beheaded c.305 at Holmhurst Hill, England
converts, refugees, torture victims
Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Alban triumphed over suffering and was faithful even unto death: Grant to us, who now remember him with thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
man with a very tall cross and a sword; decapitated, with his head in a holly bush and the eyes of his executioner dropping out
Alban’s experience of conversion certainly speaks to the experience of many I’ve witnessed in my own work. When the anti-immigrant gets a chance to “shelter” the immigrant, his or her heart is changed and is converted to compassion and human connection. Even the executioner’s heart melted within in his breast at the gospel act of providing shelter.

Reading Lists

July 7, 2006

“Your family and friends don’t understand
They treat me so strange
The book you said to read
Well I have read but nothing’s changed ”
–Billy Bragg in “The Only One”

When I was a kid in high school in Arkansas, a few of my teachers gave me copies of various lists that were always titled something like: “Reading List for College-Bound Students.” I would spend time with these lists of fifty or more of the classics, and like everything in my life, I had system for this. I had particular marks for books I had read, for books that I possessed but had not yet read, books that were in our school’s library, books that were not in the library, books in the priority in which I hoped to read them. These lists were very important to me; they seemed like the measure of that *something* that would make me into the person I hoped to be. One of the indicators of the role of these lists for me is that I still have them, dog-eared in a filing cabinet whose sole purpose is to hold my old papers and hold up our printer.

Perhaps they are august professors and intellectuals out there who have completed these lists. I never did–not even close. They sit in my cabinet, though, still giving me a vague feeling of intellectual inadequacy. Graduate school is all about that feeling: knowing without a shadow of a doubt that if I could only read all the books, then I might belong in this club.

Recently I watched the Elia Kazan film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family in turn of the century Brooklyn and their struggles to make a living. The little girl protagonist is an audacious and precocious character named Francie. In one scene, we see her attempting to check out some giant tome from the local lending library on some arcane subject. The librarian doubts that she will read, much less understand it. But the pugnacious Francie explains that she is reading all the books in the library, start to finish. This is her way to succeed, to break out of poverty. She and I both were looking for that *something.*

But in another source, Sartre’s Nausea, there is a clownish character called “the Autodidact” who is engaging in the same project. In the novel, he had made it through “F” or so and was fairly ignorant in every other subject not treated by an author with surname beginning with a letter very early in the alphabet. This is more like it. He’s right there in the novel, there I am, and there is Francie. And the existentialist has his laugh at our expense, and maybe we deserve it. I can never tell exactly why I study the things I do, or why I am ignorant of other things. But I do know that I wasn’t wired right early on–I never feel like I’m adequately well-read. I frequently feel a little like a poser, like an autodidact at a party of people born with secret knowledge.

Now, as a college instructor, I’m in the position to tell students which books belong on the lists. Hopefully they will not discover my old high school reading lists with their many unread books. And hopefully I will not ever make these students feel inadequate, unwelcome, or existentially unable to be like me.

A Shared Priesthood

July 5, 2006

In preparing my sermon for this Sunday, I came across this absolutely lovely story:

She sat huddled in her wheelchair as I turned the television tray between us into an altar: tiny chalice, tiny paten, and a yellow rose from the garden, all spread on an embossed white paper napkin. Because she was 97 years old and all but blind, I suggested that she not bother with a prayer book. “I’ll read all the lines,” I said, “yours and mine too. You just join in on the parts you know.” She nodded and we began, each of us delivering our lines on cue until I came to the Great Thanksgiving. Then, when I raised my hands, she raised hers too, the sleeves of her flowered gown falling down her bony arms as she lifted her gnarled fists into the air. We faced each other across the table, mirror images of one another.
“Holy and gracious Father,” I began, “in your infinite love you made us for yourself . . . ”
“In your infinite love” she said slowly, tasting each word.
“And, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death,” I went on, “you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ . . . ”
“In your mercy,” she said, smiling as though someone she knew had just entered the room. When I realized she meant to say the whole prayer with me, I waited for her to catch up and we prayed it together, our voices looping through one another in an unstudied duet. I had thought they were my lines, but they turned out to be hers, as well. No one had fooled her, all those years she sat watching someone else bless the bread and the wine. She knew she was a priest (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, 1993, pp. 25-34).

It is easy to forget this as a minister. Every week, I prepare for my special function in the church. I get ready to get into the pulpit and interpret texts and teach and offer guidance and advice. But this is a mere function of my ordination, not my baptism. We are all priests by virtue of our baptism. We each have this prophetic and heraldic and pastoral task to carry out as part of the reality in which we claim to live.

But there are so many sheep days, for pastors (pun intended) and for parishioners. There are so many days that the practice of who we are disintegrates, and we forget to walk in the borderlands of the world and the kingdom. Apparently not the case for the old woman in this story.