Some Days Are Hard to Love

I had plans to write today about the case of Loving v. Virginia. On this day in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states do not have the right to prohibit marriages between people of different races. It’s called Loving v. Virginia because the plaintiff was Richard Loving (1933-1975). He sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to be allowed to marry Mildred Jeter (1939-2008). Richard was white and Mildred was black and several states (including Virginia) prohibited their marriage.

Because June 12th commemorates the day people of all races could marry the person they love, it’s become known as “Loving Day” and I wrote about this in 2008 and 2012.

Several times I’ve drawn the line from Loving v. Virginia to Obergefell v. Hodges which was decided last June. In 1967 the justices allowed a person to marry whom he loves even if that person belonged to a different race; last year the justices allowed a person to marry whom he loves even if that person is the same sex.

That’s the essay I was going to write until I woke up today and saw the headline that earlier this morning a man walked into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and opened fire. By the time he was done, 50 were dead and 53 were wounded. The shooter was also dead.

Pulse is known as a gay club and the shooter recently made anti gay comments. It’s not a stretch to believe that the shooter chose this club because of his homophobia. The phrase “hate crime” finds no better home than this.

So how do we react? It’s not enough for us to call for an end to hate. We need to do more. These crimes continue, in no small part, because good people lack the courage to call out and condemn the hate we see and hear when we see and hear them. We live in a society that celebrates victimization and revenge, where it’s become fashionable to “take matters into our own hands” because “the government won’t protect us.”

From what we’ve learned in the last few hours, the shooter saw two men kissing each other a few weeks ago and became enraged. In his mind this gave him justification to engage in mass murder.

It didn’t. It’s not enough for the rest of us to not want to kill gay people. We need to embrace the fact that people like me (who married someone of the same race and different gender) don’t have the right to decide who is allowed to kiss or marry.

And it starts when people we know make racist or homophobic statements. We need to challenge them only because our silence falsely translates into consent. When the shooter made his homophobic comments I wish someone had called him out. I wish someone reminded him that people who offend him have the same right to love that he does.

And I wish that this Sunday morning had been another boring Sunday for 103 people in Orlando.

Reflections on Memorial Day 2016

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, also called The War Between the States, families began to gather in cemeteries to remember those who died. At first it was called Decoration Day.

By 1868 General John A. Logan (1826-1886) proclaimed May 30th a day to remember those who died in battle. He was the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans. It has since been moved to the last Monday in May.

Eventually Decoration Day became Memorial Day and it was made a federal holiday in 1971.

We’ve all heard the phrase “freedom isn’t free” and our history is replete with young men and women who gave their lives for our freedom. We can never know how many and my attempt to dive into the weeds proved fruitless. Suffice it to say that we need to honor all of them.

And so let me begin my soapbox. We find ourselves in an election year and in November many of us will have the opportunity to choose our leaders. And not without reason it’s become fashionable to lament the lack of worthy leaders. But if we allow this to keep us home on election day we disrespect those who we claim to honor today.

In many arenas we are tasked with choosing between less than ideal selections. Our responsibility to those who gave their lives is no less important in 2016 than it was in 1788 or 1860.

Let’s vote people!

Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)

Saturday we received sad and unexpected news: Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep.

He leaves a clear legacy. He was nominated to the Court by President Reagan prompted by the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907-1995). President Reagan nominated Justice William Rehnquist to fill the Chief Justice’s post. He then nominated Antonin Scalia to replace Rehnquist; Scalia was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on September 17, 1986.

In the nearly 30 years since his appointment virtually all of us learned a few things: his views consistently skewed conservative and his intellect was second to none. We view each other across a long political divide (ie, I’m as liberal as he is conservative) but we actually agreed on how we interpret the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Among them is the case of Maryland v. King. This case, from 2012, questions whether law enforcement has the right to collect DNA through a cheek swab from someone who has been arrested (but not convicted). He and I believe this constitutes an unfair search and seizure and violates the fourth amendment.

That said, we have different philosophies on the Constitution. He considered himself an “originalist.” That means he believes that in interpreting the Constitution we should look only toward the intent of those who wrote the document.

I respect that, but I hold more to the philosophy of Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974) who felt that the Constitution was a “living, breathing document.” Earl and I hold that our basic understandings of truth, morality, and how treat each other, develop over time. Just as our understanding develops, so should our interpretation of the Constitution.

My best example lies in Justice Warren’s flagship decision: Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954 the Court held that schools could no longer segregate students by race. It overturned the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson that allowed “separate but equal” segregation.

Originalist arguments must hold that the Court has no right to demand integration because the authors of the Constitution included slave owners and likely none of them would have held that the races are equal. None of them would have supported a decision that virtually all of us find necessary.

I argue for the “living breathing” interpretation because I value progress. I pray that whoever claims Justice Scalia’s seat also looks to progress.

That said, I was saddened but not surprised by the immediate response of the Senate Republicans. Seemingly before the mortuary arrived to pick up Justice Scalia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that President Obama “had better not” nominate Justice Scalia’s successor because the “American people” should have a say in his successor.

He is delusional on several fronts. He claims that since President Obama’s Presidency is in its last year he is a “lame duck” and shouldn’t nominate anyone. This ignores the fact that President Reagan nominated Justice Anthony Kennedy who was confirmed in the last year of his administration. Furthermore, our Constitution claims nowhere that there are conditions on the President’s ability to nominate a justice. There is no “lame duck” exception.

Finally, and this runs through both terms in the Obama Presidency, the Republican leadership refuses to play by the rules. According to the Constitution the Senate is responsible for providing “advice and consent” of Court nominees. Mitch McConnell, et al, have announced that they will not fulfill their responsibilities.

Simply put, they are in contempt of the Constitution.

Yosemite 2016: At Last It's the Yosemite We Love (and Pray Doesn't Change)

As long time readers of this blog know all too well, Nancy and I make a pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park each year.

The last few years we’ve been concerned because it’s been too warm and too dry. California has been suffering a drought for a few years and we’ve noticed it in warm temperatures and diminished falls. This year we were more hopeful because this winter is turning into an El Nino year. Yosemite had several snowfalls before our visit and we were optimistic, and we were justified in being so.

We hit rain for most of the drive from Fresno to our destination and when we got to the valley floor the snow was not the fluffy, new snow that we like, but hard crusty snow and ice. That said, it was nice to see snow.

Over the next 2 days we hiked like crazy and (truth be told) I had two epic falls, both times on my right elbow. Ice is not forgiving. That said, it was magical to be surrounded by snow and the air was cold enough to make it feel like winter (OK, I get that many of you are digging out from 2 or 3 feet of snow and I don’t envy that, but living in San Diego robs you of a few experiences).

We also enjoyed being there for the Chef’s Holidays even if our chefs this year are from New York and we’re unlikely to have the pleasure of visiting them. But if you have a chance to visit Annisa or Dirt Candy, don’t pass it up.

For as long as we’ve been going to Yosemite, many of the employees we have interacted with have been employed by Delaware North. We’ve had some issues with them, but the employees have been second to none. This year we learned that the National Park Service ended their relationship with Delaware North and chose instead Aramark. The Park Service may have made this choice for economic reasons, and we understand this. But we fear that their choice may make customer service a lesser priority and that next year (and the years after that) will provide us with inferior service and lesser paid employees.

We are committed to Chef’s Holidays 2017 and we pray we won’t be disappointed.

Physician Assisted Suicide Comes to California: Why I'm Against It

We received word today that California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows for physician assisted suicide.

Not surprisingly feelings run high on both sides and I feel the need to add my input. I’m against it and fear this will lead to all sorts of problems.

I should probably come clean and tell you that I have some skin in the game. For the past 17 years I’ve made my living as a hospice chaplain; I’ve spent these years walking with people (from 15 days to 102 years) through the last chapter of their lives. My wife Nancy is a physician, though as a pediatrician she won’t confront these issues.

The idea of a person choosing to end his life is as old as King Saul in the Old Testament.

Reasons for suicide are manifold. Saul killed himself to avoid capture in battle. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) killed himself as a result of depression. In 1978, 909 people killed themselves in Jonestown on instructions from Jim Jones.

The concept of suicide to accelerate a terminal disease is fairly recent. For most of our history illness and death followed so closely that nobody who was sick even entered the idea of hastening the process.

That’s changed in the last century. Terminal events like pneumonia or appendicitis are now easily curable even when they present in people with terminal cancer, heart disease, or dementia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with family members who have chosen aggressive treatment for things we can fix and then told me that they favor assisted suicide because their loved ones “wouldn’t want to live like this.”

I believe decisions about quality of life need to happen much before anyone says: “There’s nothing more we can do.” Physician assisted suicide has become an issue only because we wait much too late to have hard discussions about how we want the last chapter of our life to go.

Anyone who receives a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or Parkinson’s Disease or ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease) knows that death will eventually become much closer. But if the 20th Century gave us the false belief that we can control our lives through science, it appears that the 21st Century may well provide us with the false belief that we should be able to control our deaths.

We can’t. For those of us who hold beliefs in a reality beyond our understanding, we need to embrace the humility to accept the possibility that we are here for reasons that elude even our wisdom. A chance encounter that leads us to a lifetime marriage. An abusive relationship, however brief, that provides us with a child that gives our life true meaning. A broken condom that gives birth to a Nobel award winner.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in the last two decades who announce to me that all the purpose of their lives have already passed. They’ve used the words “useless” and “waste” to describe their last days. I tell them this: “How can you tell that your days are useless and your life is a waste? How can you decide that the home health aide who comes to give you a shower today won’t be inspired by you? How can you decide that this isn’t the moment when he or she will decide to start working to be a doctor?”

I recognize that this scenario is far fetched, but can you tell me it’s impossible? This surprises most people I know, but when I was a child I hated to go to church with a white hot passion. Sunday mornings became a battlefield between me and my parents, me arguing that church was boring and them arguing that as long as I lived in their house I would go to church with them. Out of desperation more than faith, I finally threw down the gauntlet and told them that if I had to go to church I may as well be an altar boy and at least have something to do to fill the time.

Honestly, I expected my parents to squash that too, but they called my bluff. They told me that it would be fine with them, and they told me I should talk with the priest in charge of the altar boys after mass the next Sunday. My heart in my mouth, I approached him after mass and asked him about being an altar boy, praying he would tell me I couldn’t. He didn’t: instead he told me that a new class was starting soon and I was welcome to join.

I joined, became an altar boy, got more involved, found a home in the church, studied for the priesthood, became a priest, and transitioned to a hospice chaplain. In my years in ministry I’ve changed the lives of countless people and none of it would have happened if my parents didn’t call my bluff or if the priest didn’t encourage me to become an altar boy.

In the final analysis I oppose physician assisted suicide because I believe with all my heart that the last chapter of our lives may well inspire and change the first chapters of someone else’s life even if we don’t recognize it. An early exit, based on our fears instead of our hope or faith, might cheat someone we don’t even know now.

I recognize that my terminal illness is ahead of me. The seeds of my death already exist in my body: maybe it’s a cell in my pancreas or colon that will someday begin to replicate out of control. Maybe it’s a weak spot in an artery in my heart, brain, or abdomen. Maybe it’s my own bad judgement that tells me it’s ok to cross against the red light.

I pray that, at the end of my life, I still hold to the beliefs I profess now. My prayer is for courage. I pray that my faith gives me enough strength to allow me to trust that my hospice nurse can manage my pain, my hospice social worker will acknowledge my strength, my hospice chaplain will respect my beliefs, and my home health aide will care for me with the dignity I need.

Mostly I pray that the end of my life will not call me to choose to kill myself.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 25: An Interesting Theological Questions

My friend James wrote a fascinating question to Facebook and tagged me. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it but I feel my answer is too long to post to Facebook. I decided to answer James here.

James is an incredibly kind and generous person and late last year he entered the world of fatherhood. Here is his post:

Theological quandary I’ve had recently:

I believe that God is all-loving. We sing “God is love” in church. And the Gospel of John says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That is a lot of love for God’s creation.

But think about this from Jesus’ point of view: Was God showing love to him by sending him here to live, spread the word, die and be resurrected? Seems like a bit of a crappy thing to do: hey, I’m going to send you to some people who will put you to death, but it’s ok you’ll get better because as part of the Trinity, you’re eternal.

There is a parallel to this in the story of Abraham being tested by God in the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In the end, God is satisfied with Abraham’s faith, and spares Isaac (who probably never wanted to go in the wilderness alone with his dad ever again), but with Jesus, where is God’s mercy? or justice? Is this the act of an all-loving God, a single dad to his son?

Or is this a semantic thing? God the Father giving His Son is the same thing as Jesus the Son choosing to go because Trinity.

EDIT: the main point I’m getting at here is whether God truly is all-loving or not, using the act of God giving Jesus to death from Jesus’ POV: Was God all loving to him?

You ask several wonderful, puzzling, frustrating, and eventually faithful questions. Let me see if I can parse this out.

I’m going to start with the Abraham/Isaac question. Nearly everyone who reads this passage from Genesis has the same reaction: horror. How can anyone, especially God, make this demand on a father? And what father would agree to this? I think we all agree that we would’ve had more respect for Abraham if he had told God to go bother someone else.

Fair enough, but in that time the idea of human sacrifice was not unknown. Those who followed pagan gods often saw human sacrifice as something that was demanded of them. The best description I’ve found on this came in the first few pages of James Michener’s book Hawai’i.

I’m not certain that I’m right about this, but I think God was telling Abraham that human sacrifice will no longer be a requirement of his faith. “The pagans do human sacrifice but those who follow me will not. Unlike the pagan gods I find human life to be sacred and will never demand that you kill as a sacrifice.”

That said, I’m troubled by the idea that God let Abraham get that close to sacrificing his own son. Every time I read this passage I wonder if Isaac lived the rest of his life with PTSD.

But I’m also heartened by the reality that the God of Genesis, the Old Testament, and the New Testament does not demand sacrifice. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ ultimate throw down centered on his cleansing of the Temple in Matthew 21:12.

The phrase “throw down” is a modern term and it means this: someone “throws down” when he or she wants to make a point so badly that he (or she) makes a statement with no regard to the consequences. Jesus’ throw down is the last straw that leads to his arrest and execution.

But James, your point is well taken. What do we say about an all loving God who allowed his Son to be killed (and killed in such a horrible way)? We all understand that Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected unless he died, and had he died of natural causes his resurrection would have meant little more than Lazarus’.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us nothing about Jesus before his conception and if we had only those Gospels we could easily make the argument he didn’t exist before then. Only in John’s Gospel is Jesus described as being “in the beginning with God.” Perhaps Jesus “volunteered,” knowing what he was getting into. This doesn’t make his death any more horrible or painful, but it at least gives Jesus the advantage of knowing that it will turn out well in the end.

It Was Seventy One Years Ago Today: D Day

June 6, 1944 is a day most members of the Greatest Generation will never forget. By 1944 everyone knew that Allied Forces stationed in England would need to make an amphibious landing on the coast of France. Nobody (or at least almost nobody) knew where or when.

The English Channel is a little over 20 miles wide at its narrowest (in the Strait of Dover) and Adolf Hitler, among others, believed the invasion would start there, in Calais. It didn’t.

The invasion instead was south of Calais, near the villages of Caen and Bayeux. They hoped to join their forces at St. Lo.

It was chaotic from the very beginning. The weather was not cooperative and many of the paratroopers were dropped far from where they were supposed to be.

Nevertheless, this day was ultimately successful. The Allied troops were able to claim a beachhead and begin the march toward Berlin. Ten months later the Nazis surrendered and Europe was once again free from tyranny (at least those countries not conquered by the Soviet Union.

I’ve spoken with several of the troops who landed at Normandy that day. Their memories continue to move me to tears. I can’t help but know that the first few waves landed and understood that their jobs were to use up all the Nazi bullets. I remember one man telling me that they were told to get off the transport boat and start marching: if the man next to you goes down, don’t try to help him. Just keep marching. He defied that order when the guy next to him walked off the transport boat and stepped into a divot in the ocean and fell in over his head (and was in danger of drowning). This man told me he defied orders by grabbing the collar of his buddy and dragged him back up.

He also told me that during the transport he saw the soldiers doing several things. Some were praying the rosary, some were staying silent, and some were playing dice. It’s hard to imagine being on a transport, as a teenager or young adult, knowing this may well be the last day, or the last hour of your life. By sunset on this day, 71 years ago, they were all grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful too.

On This Day 150 Years Ago: A Bad Day

My last post celebrated a good day: the day the Civil War ended. Our newly reunited nation rejoiced and nobody was more grateful than our President, Abraham Lincoln. Even before the war ended he was outlining the plan to bring back the states that wanted to secede. He articulated a process that would echo the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.

In one of the cruelest twists in American history, a man who hated Lincoln killed him 150 years ago today. John Wilkes Booth first devised a plan to kidnap the president as a bargaining chip to force the Union to ransom him in return for Southern emancipation. When the South surrendered on April 9th, Booth’s plan lost its purpose. Booth, a frequent actor at Ford’s Theater, found out on the morning of April 14th, that President Lincoln would attend the play This American Cousin that evening. He took that opportunity to kill Lincoln instead of kidnapping him. The plan was greater than that. He devised a plan where he would kill President Lincoln. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward.

George Atzerodt got drunk and didn’t attempt to kill Johnson, Powell was able to wound but not kill Seward, and only Booth carried out his mission.

Booth was shot to death on April 26th. Azerodt and Payne were executed on July 7th (along with Mary Surratt and David Herold)

On This Date 150 Years Ago the Civil War Ended

On April 9, 1865 two men met at Appomattox Court House and signed a document that silenced thousands of guns and ended possibly the worst era in our history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrendered the forces of the Confederate States of America to Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and the Grand Army of the Republic.

Four years earlier the nation was torn apart when eleven states succeeded from the union in an effort to preserve states’ rights and slavery. Neither side expected the other to last long and both expected to win the war handily. The union didn’t think the confederates had the resources or commitment to fight a long war and the confederates didn’t think the union had the desire to preserve the union. They were both wrong.

By the winter of 1865 the nation was in shambles. About 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease, or starvation. The confederates suffered the lion’s share and its troops were starving. General Lee recognized that he had no choice and asked for terms of peace. He had no idea what that would mean for him or his troops.

General Grant rose to the occasion. He told General Lee that his troops could go home (and not be prisoners). His officers could keep their sidearms. And the union troops fed the starving confederate troops. You can read more about this in an article written by Douglas Brinkley.

In fairness this was not their first meeting. They were both graduates of West Point (Lee in 1829 and Grant in 1843). They fought together in the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848. As a matter of fact when they met at Appomattox they began to talk about that war.

Libraries have been written about this day but I have two recommendations. Bruce Catton (1899-1978) wrote several books on the Civil War and his last volume recounts the last days of the war. It’s called A Stillness At Appomattox. My next recommendation is a work of fiction that details a man who is walking home from the war. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier gripped me from page one.

The Justice Chronciles, Volume 19: 50 Years After Selma and We're Still Not Done

Today is the 50 anniversary of the day most Americans heard about Selma, Alabama. March 7, 1965 was a rough day.

The events actually began on February 18th when a 26 year old black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (1938-1965) was shot to death by an Alabama state trooper. Mr. Jackson, a deacon in his church, was trying to protect his mother from being beaten up. This incident, combined with the institution of segregation and roadblocks placed to make sure people of color could not register to vote, boiled over. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his organization the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the state capital 50 miles away.

But on their way out of town they were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and attacked by law enforcement. It’s worth noting that the bridge was named for a real person. Edmund Pettus (1821-1907) was a Confederate General and U.S. Senator, but is most well known for his time as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The bridge was completed in 1940.

National reporting of the that event, often called “Blood Sunday” shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that legislated equal rights for people of all races.

So 50 years later how are we doing? On one hand very well. Nowhere in this country can you deny someone the ability to register to vote because of his or her race. Neither can you refuse to do business with someone on this basis. Our schools and neighborhoods can’t refuse admission to anyone and we even have an African American President.

But there is still work to do. A poll taken in January shows that 34% of Republicans believe our President isn’t really an American.

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times describes how two police officers and a court clerk lost their jobs over emails. This takes place in Ferguson, Missouri, a town that doesn’t need any more bad news. One email compared President Obama to a chimpanzee; another stated that he wouldn’t be in office for very long because a black man can’t hold a job. Finally one email reported that a black woman was paid to have an abortion as an anti crime measure.

In Selma the famous bridge is still named after the Grand Dragon of the KKK. And if that weren’t enough, in 2000 the city paid for a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877), one of the founders of the KKK.

My thoughts and prayers are still for Mr. Jackson. You can see a tribute to him here.