Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Allure of 'You Too!:' Can we quell, or spell, tu quoque?

"Shut the door, Randy!" My older sister could be bossy sometimes and I could certainly be lazy. The sliding door on the VW van hung open and I wasn't about to leave my comfortable seat to close it. "You've left it open before!" I said, happy with my logic. Her retort was immediate, full of primal reason: "That makes no difference!"

Fast forward too many quick years and I am up late reading a fascinating story about chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen. My wife, concerned my lack of sleep and absorbed psyche will ruin the day, sweetly and sleepily expresses concern. My inner response? "You do it, too!" I can't say what I think so I argue within: "She is up late from time to time doing what she enjoys!"

But there is a problem. That is entirely beside the point! Whether she does it once or a million times has nothing to do with whether I should do it or not. As the philosophers might say, "P is P, not something else." In common language, the door is the door and sleep is sleep. That is the only thing on the table, so deal with that, not perceived or real inconsistency with the challenger.

This fallacy is called "tu quoque" and means literally "you too." We see it all the time in political discourse. Perhaps it is easiest to see in the inverse: "Because Nixon lied (to borrow an ancient story) so can I." We know this is wrong on its face, but it is as real as the sunrise. We justify our behavior because someone else did it: "You too!"

Of course the normal pattern is when an opponent tries to make a charge stick, say in the morass of sex-related scandals in DC these days. The hue and cry is all over: "Bill did it, too. And you said nothing about it then." True enough but it only speaks to hypocrisy, not the issue at hand which is -- you-name-it -- let's say Roy Moore's alleged abuse of power. Is his in any way lessened because of the other party's easy treatment of Bill's behavior?

"You too" is tenacious as a carnival monkey except its head seldom gets wacked. Like too many fallacies it feels so right we just plunge on. But poor thinking is still poor and never leads to a good place.

How to fix it? Address the problem at hand and forget the rest. Refuse to press the argument beyond the terms. News flash: this makes arguments less fun, less frequent, and diminishes the thrill of moral indignation. And it means we all have to deal with our own front porch instead of someone else's. Man, that's hard! I'd much rather point out your problems. It is so much easier and fun to say "you too!"

But don't you see? When we say "you too" we catch the ricochet full in the face. If our opponent is in some measure wrong for doing it, saying "you too!" means we implicate ourselves as also wrong! Since I didn't want to do the right thing, I faulted my sister for having not done it. It is one of a thousand ways we shoulder off responsibility for moral behavior. If someone else didn't do it but somehow suggests we should, instead of dealing with the suggestion, we deal with them. We say "you, too", and we are still stuck in our bad behavior.

And that's why, much chagrined but rightly upbraided, I am laying this silly laptop aside and going back to bed. She's right. Whether she follows her own advice all the time is simply beside the point.

But I might check Facebook one last time. She would!

Ministry Remnants: You can Rely on God

The very gifted Malcolm Muggeridge said, "Writing isn't hard: you just sit down at the typewriter, slash your wrists, and bleed to death." A suitable metaphor no matter the particular difficulty one has with writing. Mine are multi-faceted, arising in too many ways to deter the simple lifelong love I have had for writing, coupled with the human wont of lack of discipline, motivation, ability, We are born with deficits and we feed them such that they make themselves known. And we have the soul-making task of overcoming, refusing to let various normal lacks dim our vision and drag us down. And so the best among us demonstrate that mettle by normal daily means and the worst sometimes are not so pronounced in their failings but are failing nonetheless. Someday the tide will go out and, as one Warren Buffet says, "We will then know who was swimming naked." Or to apply an apt western metaphor: "We will know who was 'big hat and no cattle.'"

All that to address the problem of writing, in a blog about ministry remnants? I suppose, because it is always easier to think about writing and see where that goes than to actually write about the matter at hand. Diversion is so much easier. Could we play a trick on ourselves so we allowed the diversion to be the thing we actually needed to produce? No doubt that is the sum total strategy of many a very successful person, and plumbing that strategy would be fascinating indeed, while very difficult. At base it seems the diversion, for some reason, is something more appealing. Maybe, then, my own writing, such as it is, should be all about the random diversions that come up when ever I sit down to write. I may be on to something there!

For now I will continue this path, itself a diversion from other necessary work, to muse on the Sunday message from a week ago. I described the largest of the enormous trucks used in strip mining: weighing over 600 tons empty, 25' to top of bed, 13' tall tires, 84 gallons of oil in the motor, able to haul payload of 366 tons. In a word, grande! My point was these trucks can be relied upon to carry a load. 

I used a bag of salt pellets to illustrate a burden and talked about what that burden is like for a truck of that size. The bag weighs maybe 40 pounds. The bed of the truck is about 1/3 the size of the congregation seating area. Setting the burden down in the bed of the truck would be like dropping a leaf in the back of my neighbor's F-150.

These trucks are large with a scale of capacity that boggles our mind. But compared to God's ability, they are child's play. Reckon God can handle our burdens? Reckon we can rely upon Him? Reckon when Jesus says "Lose your life for my sake and you will be OK" he meant what He said because He can handle anything that comes our way? Not only is He more capable than the truck, He made all things that go into that truck, including the ability of the geniuses that engineered it.

They say a sermon is supposed to have one main idea. The main idea I worked toward was this: God is reliable. He will not let you down. He can handle any burden you have. And I closed, as I began, with the incomparable piece from the oratorio Elijah, echoing several verses of Psalms:

Cast thy burden upon the Lord; and he shall sustain thee.
He never will suffer the righteous to fall:
He is at thy right hand.
Thy mercy Lord is great, and far above the heavens.
Let none be made ashamed, that put their trust in Thee.

It feeds me now as I remember it, and I pray it may do some good for someone reading from some distant place or time. 

Bring your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

A Poem for Father's Day


Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

I Almost Died Today

 The Day I Almost Died

Reflections after a Near Drowning in February 2018

If you swim in the ocean you know the push of water. Water allures, and like all powerful things, deceives.

I was going far out forthefunofit. Overweight, I was still strong in mind if not body. I could touch bottom easily between swells and was not concerned. It was fun to go further a bit. I swam but grew tired quickly. I knew the current was pushing sideways but didn't worry as long as my toes could reach the sand.

Deciding to return to shore, I lay face down and swam for 15 strokes or so. I stopped and could not touch bottom. I dog-paddled for a minute or so, unaware I was going nowhere. Soon I realized my right leg was caught in a fisherman's line. He was waving his annoyance, about 80 feet away – no more than 100 feet away beyond pounding surf. I kick and paddled but could not loosen my leg, though the string was the least of my worries. After about 2 minutes' effort I was free of the string but moving sideways still, drifting beneath another fishing line as I paddled.

Unknowing, I was caught in a sideways rip-tide. I could not touch bottom and my paddling toward shore produced only exhaustion. I realized I may need to cry for help. “Surely I can make it!” I thought. My muscles ached and I tasted seawater. I thought of floating, but I have never been able to float. There was a most dim awareness I might die. My lungs burned as I treaded water.

Devin, my 12-year-old nephew, was 25 feet away on a boogie board. Dare I cry for help? Would I pull him down with me? I didn't want to be needlessly dramatic. But somehow I knew I must wave and cry for help.

The first time he didn't hear me. I waved with one hand and yelled weakly. From the shore no one could hear. I knew by the time I was truly desperate there would be little energy left for flailing and shouting. I struggled on, going nowhere. I learned later that drowning nearly always happens quietly. The fight exhausts the swimmer and all that remains is to sink beneath the waves. In a few minutes I would have done exactly that. By the time anyone noticed my absence it would have been too late.

Devin was still not far off and he was watching me. Devin is an unusual young man, one of those people who knows more than most, and knows it in ways unavailable to most. His care for people is plain and real and on the surface. He knows what matters without trying, and he is a gift to all who know him.

I think he knew I may need help and so he stayed nearby. He was looking at me intently as he drifted with a hand on the boogie board. I raised a hand and called for help. He heard me and called back, “Uncle Randy do you need help?”

“Yes. Please!”

He quickly pushed his board in my direction. We met in about 30 seconds and both held to the board. I was worried I might drag him down but the board did its job. After a minute or so of kicking I felt bottom and better, the push of a wave lifting me toward the beach and life. A minute later a crashing wave pushed me forward and I knelt in the rocky sand as the undertow returned without me. Barely able to stand, I shuffled toward the frustrated fishermen and tried to explain. Then I half stumbled, half walked the 200 feet to my wife, son, friends and family, sat down, still breathing heavily, and told them what happened.

What does this mean? I have spent the last many hours shuddering at what almost was. My wife and youngest son were there, as well as a niece, 3 nephews, and their friends. At minimum my drowning would have traumatized the afternoon and radically changed life for my wife and sons as well as my relatives; and in a much lesser sense, all who shared the beach that day. I almost died. It is certain I would have without help. It is unlikely I could have gotten anyone's attention; certainly in another minute I would have been unable to stay afloat to flail and cry for help. Pride – and a normal reluctance to cause undue drama – nearly cost me my life. And this is right enough. No one wants to cry out when it is not warranted. And we seldom encounter such near-death experiences – how would we know when to call for help? I certainly didn't. So I struggled, almost to my death.

Lack of knowledge, lack of awareness, lack of strength – all together these lacks would have cost me my life, except for the provision of Devin, my nephew. He knew without knowing that his Uncle needed help and he lingered near, saving my life.

I can barely process it. It is easy enough to speak the hubris: “I could have made it.” But that's false. And I ponder what my death would have meant. While I grieve deeply for what I would have missed in future years, I feel more the loss my loved ones would have felt. What is this gaping hole and emotional onslaught we call death. It rips loved ones from our hearts and crushes us with unalterable realness. And when I think how my untimely death would visit that upon them, I grieve.

No one wants to die, and somehow we make death distant and irrelevant, all the while knowing it comes to all. My great-grandfather drowned about 95 years ago. He was in his mid-20's with a wife and young daughter, my grandmother Freida. While his death was a great sadness to his family and close community, it is forgotten by most and will someday be gone even from the record books. Our lives are that way. The most important people die and are forgotten. Take a figure such as Alexander the Great – known of by countless millions over 2300 years of human history. Still his death remains unknown to most who ever lived.

So what matters – being known on a large scale? Nope. Being known at all? Yes – that matters a lot. I do not know what all of this means – I am pushing a rope, trying to understand. If I would have died today, the people I know would have suffered. I would have suffered for a short time, grieving, hopeless, muscles giving out, painful asphyxiation and death, drifting lifeless to sea or shore in time. I would have been no more for this world and those who remain would have been heart-broken. This is the weight of being, the weight of knowing, the truth of 'better to love and lose than never love at all.'

Why do we go on marrying and birthing, rearing and loving, building and caring and working and dying, only to do it again in the next generation? Are the endless waves a picture of this life, landing on shore with no end, no apparent reason except the cycle of being and life, water with mind-boggling volume and power and depth, yet able to sweep a simple human into its lapping arms and lull him to sleep?

Here is Ecclesiastes, of course, a wisdom one cannot know as well before near-death as after. It is easy to see how pointless life can be because, as the writer says, no matter what you do or what meaning you  contribute, it all goes down with you at death – you can't keep it or prolong it for yourself after you yourself are gone. And gone you will be.

I almost died today and I have no fancy words. I only have words struggling to find meaning. I believe in God, the One who made all things, who gives and takes away, who cares, who holds funerals for fallen sparrows. That God saw a man almost fall today and sent a nephew to rescue him. "Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!"

My Nephew Devin

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Truth is "Written In": or, "All Truth is God's Truth"

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an intelligent man in other matters, says that there is only a ‘theological’ opposition to divorce, and that it is entirely founded on ‘certain texts’ in the Bible about marriages. This is exactly as if he said that a belief in the brotherhood of men was only founded on certain texts in the Bible, about all men being the children of Adam and Eve. 

Millions of peasants and plain people all over the world assume marriage to be static, without having ever clapped eyes on any text. Numbers of more modern people, especially after the recent experiments in America, think divorce is a social disease, without having ever bothered about any text. It may be maintained that even in these, or in any one, the idea of marriage is ultimately mystical; and the same may be maintained about the idea of brotherhood.” (The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 4, 230-1.)

Sunday, October 2, 2022

"Go Large or Go Home"

“Go large or go home!” The words from my gifted friend stung and made me want to hide. I knew what he meant – “Do your best, be all you can be!” But the implication was more than I could bear. Does everything have to be large? Is value found only in the spotlight where people say, “Wow!”? What about the rest of us, the 99% who live on the sidelines, hoping our lives matter, too?

The allure of fame is a common human problem and it helps to remember the words of the ancient prophet: “Do not despise the small things.” Little things matter?! How can that be? Small things are annoying. Children are underfoot, bills have to be paid, the dog gets fed (or not), the gas gauge signals empty, the phone rings again, the lawn needs mowed.

We remember small things matter at graduation when all the hard work pays off. And we know it is true when a few cucumber seeds overwhelm our garden. We get it that “a small leak will sink a large ship,” and, “Words are small like a match; and they can set a forest on fire.” These things we do well to remember. But in all these cases we value small because we know it has large results. We toss the mortar board in the air, the ship is sound, we prevent fires, and we might even boast of our cucumber harvest!

But is that the final word? Graduation is soon forgotten, ships are supposed to sail, few learn to hold their tongue well, and no one really wants nineteen overgrown cucumbers!

Truth is, when all is counted we are left with ourselves and the quiet daily life of small things. These are the simple disciplines that teach what matters: tend to the mind and soul, sow good seeds, fulfill your responsibilities, give care to your speech, check your anger, don't let money rule you. We learn to do it because it matters, not because it is large.

And this comes around to the surprising truth in that grating challenge: “Go large or go home.” The largest small thing in our lives is, after all, home. Nothing is larger, and nothing requires more daily small attentiveness. In fact, forget large! I want to go home! Home beats “large” any day and pays the richest long-term dividends. 

It is true, of course, that home can cause great pain, which speaks to the volatile nature of our greatest treasures: they can bless mightily or hurt with equal weight. But that is not the fault of the treasure, but in how we handle it. Those who find the blessings of home do so because they apply themselves to the vital necessaries of daily small things. When we tend to these everyday cares we become people of substance and blessing, able to make and enjoy a treasured home.

What holds your focus and attention? It is easy to love largeness, and large is not wrong of itself. But it oversells and leaves empty as many celebrities can attest. Small things are their own reward, worth the investment and the rewards. And they help you build your life so even if you never get to go large, you can always go home!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

"Freely you have received, freely give..."


"Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes." (Annie Dillard, Write Till You Drop)

She is on to something. ;) 

"Channels only, blessed Master, but with all Thy wondrous pow'r
Flowing through us, Thou canst use us, every day and every hour.

This old lyric is only true in loving relationship with Him. More than channels only -- we are friends, devoted servants, sons and daughters of our Elder Brother, redeemed Children of Light, "workers together with God."

Yet, if we hoard what we receive it rots like the secreted manna.

Lord, you are the Safe for our lives. Let me not fashion my own private safe, imaging I can keep something there, only to find ashes on that Final Day when all is opened.