Archives

LOOKING THE OTHER WAY

 

Chris Bohjalian’s excellent novel Skeletons at the Feast has been a resource I’ve consulted in my research for both the novel I’ve just finished writing and which is about to be released on April 20: Accidental Saviors, and the one I will begin after a brief respite for my brain and my two typing fingers.

Skeletons at the Feast is a rare World War II novel in that it focuses on German refugees in the latter part of the war (1945) instead of Jewish refugees. An eighteen-year-old Prussian girl, Anna Emmerich, her mother (Mutti) and her younger brother pick up and leave their ancestral farmstead and join the stream of other German civilians heading westward to escape the rapidly advancing Russian army. In their party is also a Scottish POW, Callum, and Uri, who unknown to the family, is a Jew who escaped from a train headed to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The family knows him only as a Wehrmacht corporal named Manfred, however, a false identity he assumed when he shot and killed a young German soldier and stole his uniform and papers.

 

Anna and Callum fall in love, and Uri (Manfred) falls in love with Anna.  There’s a lot in the novel, and I highly recommend this work by one of America’s better contemporary novelists.

 

One of the questions Bohjalian explores in the novel is the one about the possible complicity of ordinary Germans like the Emmerich family in the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, especially the Holocaust. He grants that the Nazi leaders tried to keep knowledge of the death camps instituted in 1941 from German citizens. But there was no hiding the notorious Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 which stripped all Jews of their German citizenship and prohibited marriage between a Jew and an Aryan German, among other repressive measures. Likewise, it was common knowledge that on the evenings of November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis incited crowds to smash windows of Jewish shops throughout Germany, and set them on fire, and beat and murder Jews in the bloody event known as Kristallnacht.

            At the beginning of the novel, young  Anna is totally oblivious to Nazi atrocities committed in her name, and the name of her family and neighbors in the years leading up to 1945. She not only becomes defensive, but retreats into actual denial, when her lover Callum questions how much she actually knows about what the Nazis are doing.

Both of Anna’s parents had joined the Nazi party, but it was virtually impossible to carry on a dairy farming business without being such. The reader is not convinced that they are totally committed members of the party or adherents to the extreme Anti-Semitic party line. However, Anna’s mother has a subtle crush on Hitler and refuses to believe some of the rumors of the kinds of suffering the Führer has been wreaking on the Jews, Gypsies, and disabled, among others.

In a masterfully described scene, Anna and her family, as well as Callum hiding under the vegetables on their wagon and Manfred aka Uri, come upon a column of bedraggled, almost skeleton-like prisoners being marched for the almost umpteenth time from one work camp to another to prevent the Russians from discovering them.

The family assumes that the haunting figures are men.

“Old men? Are you blind?” Callum admonished. “They’re girls! Young women!..Some probably the same age as Anna here!”

“Are they….” Mutti (mother) asked.

“Yes, they’re Jews,” Callum chastises the woman. This, he was saying in essence, is what your people are doing. Have done. Here it is in full view. No more hiding it behind barbed wire fences and cement crematoriums, no more burying the corpses in ditchesHere’s a whole bloody parade of the walking dead.”

Still, Mutti is disbelieving.

Callum continues, “They’re Jewish girls! Here’s what your thousand-year Reich is really about.”

The truth dawns slowly to Mutti and Anna, not entirely. When it does, it’s absolutely devastating.

 

I ponder the very same question in my novel Accidental Saviors. One of the two protagonists, Dr. Felix Kersten, reflects on what he has witnessed in his seven years of semi-forced service as SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s private masseur and living among the German people from 1938-1944. Here is an excerpt from a late chapter in the novel:

“Kersten still wondered if the brutal suffering Himmler had wrecked upon the Jews and others was simply a matter of a deep-seated hatred, or merely a product of his dogged devotion to conscientiousness, unquestioning loyalty, eagerness to please and methodical efficiency. Most would say “conscienceless efficiency”, Kersten supposed, but he was confident Himmler’s physical ailments were symptomatic of a fragile, tortured, split, pathetically disjointed conscience.

There will be simplistic minds and readers of history who regard evil as black and white, to be sure, and that the only solution is to eliminate evil completely somehow. The Allies and Russians may feel that by defeating Hitler, they will have erased forever the kind of evil perpetrated by the Nazis from the face of the earth, that it would never be allowed to happen again. I truly wish it were so.

            Whose hands are completely clean of the Jews’ blood, however? The blood of the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the mentally ill or retarded, the Poles, the Slavs? What about the hands of the ordinary German husbands and fathers who served in the police battalions, conducting routine police duties in the cities and towns, hired to merely maintain the rule of civil law…until they were assigned by the SS to round up Jews and deliver them alive to the train stations? Are their hands clean of blood?

            Or, the hands of the farmwife who came to market in town and saw a haggard group of exhausted, broken, demoralized Jews being marched forcibly through the center of town to the waiting trucks at the town square? Did it never occur to them to wonder who these Jews were and where the trucks were taking them? Or, didn’t they have the moral courage or imagination to wonder, and just went about making their purchases instead?

            What about the hands of the engineer of the cattle train that was requisitioned by the SS to transport these Jews from the trucks to the camps? Did he and his fireman ask each other what the Jews in the cattle cars would do once they arrived at the work camp? Did they ever discuss what the working conditions were like at the camp, and how the Jews were treated by the guards? Or, did they consider it none of their business?

            Or, the hands of the farmer out in his potato field. Did he not notice the unusual odor of smoke drifting downwind from the “work camp” between the neighboring village and his? Did he not know what…or who…was being burned? Did the men with whom he had a glass of beer or two at the local watering hole at the end of a workday ever mention to one another the odor or the smoke? Did they ever acknowledge, even to themselves, their suspicions about what really went on in the camp?

            If we don’t acknowledge to ourselves our own capacity for evil, we will, like Himmler, project it and attack it elsewhere.”

  

Bohjalian’s novel, and I hope mine, too, should make us ask ourselves if we, too, are looking the other way as the current administration in Washington is waging a war, not just of words, against immigrants, refugees and people of color?

 

            Accidental Saviors will be released approximately April 20 by Can’t Put It Down Books. You can preorder the ebook version for $2.99 at: https://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Saviors-Jack-Saarela-ebook/dp/B07BN5NBZ9/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522629843&sr=8-1&keywords=Jack+Saarela. 

On April 20, the ebook will be delivered directly to your e-reader.

The paperback version will be available at the same time. You can pre-order for $9.99 on my website: jacksaarela.com. Click on “Purchase Jack’s Books”.

 

Until the next time, live this unique day given to us as a gift to its fullest. And, let me know what you’re reading and what you like.

 

CONFESSIONS OF A “BANDWAGON” FOOTBALL FAN

Everything in Philadelphia is colored green this week. In case there are any Philadelphians reading this blog who have not been paying attention, the green-clad hometown Eagles football team captured the NFC crown in the National Football League on January 21. That victory over the Minnesota Vikings qualifies the Eagles to proceed to next Sunday’s (Feb. 4) national, if not international, intemperate saturnalia known as the Super Bowl, this one the fifty-second edition. It’s been thirteen years since the Eagles were at the Super Bowl, against the very same opponent, the dynastic New England Patriots.

Locals are pretty excited about the game and their team, to say the least. Sales of Eagles’ jerseys, T-shirts, and miscellaneous memorabilia have gone through the proverbial roof. The Eagles’ fight song reverberates everywhere. Even our pastor, a native New Englander, has offered to sing it at church next Sunday if more than five congregation members donate to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal this week. The news department of every local television channel has sent a team of reporters and photographers to Minneapolis to relay reports and video back to the City of Brotherly love. The television ratings for the NFC championship game last week set a record.

Even I watched the game, or at least a nominal part of it. That’s news around my house because almost twenty years ago, I vowed to limit my attention to sports exclusively to two: hockey (my first love), and baseball. I would swear off football, soccer, tennis, basketball, NASCAR and the Indy 500, the World Series of Poker, and even the Olympics. With the introduction of the internet and television networks committed to 24 hours of sports content, I was finding that I wasn’t getting anything else done other than studying player statistics and or watching Morgan State and Lower Southwestern Idaho State University play each other in the annual tiddlywinks tournament. Besides, I woke up in a lousy mood each morning because, with that many sports to follow, it was inevitable that at least one of the teams I cheer for had lost badly the night before.

I may watch more than just a small portion of the Super Bowl game next Sunday, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure why I would break my vow to fast from watching sporting events other than the Toronto Maple Leafs or Philadelphia Flyers hockey teams, or the Toronto Blue Jays or Philadelphia Phillies baseball clubs. I guess its just because everybody seems to be talking about the upcoming game even more than the changeable winter weather. I confess that I am one of those whom really thoroughly devoted enthusiasts for all things sports love to hate: a bandwagon fan.

 

image

In other words, a fan who cheers for a team either because everyone else is, and he or she doesn’t want to look uninformed or not appropriately civic-minded; or joins in the cheering in an opportunistic way when that team is seen to have become successful (although I think the latter may be called a fair-weather fan.)

Back in the nineteenth-century, the infamous Phineas T. Barnum (the subject of a current box-office blockbuster movie, The Greatest Showman) packed circus workers and a colorfully-decorated brass band onto a bright red horse-drawn wagon and paraded down the main street when the circus arrived in a particular town or city. It caught the attention of people for whom watch the grass grow and paint dry were the highlights of the week. The children especially would be drawn to the “bandwagon” and run home to beg their parents to let them go to the “big show” that evening.

Bandwagon

Ever the opportunistic copycats, nineteenth-century politicians adopted, or rather co-opted, this same form of attracting followers during their campaigns. Switching allegiance to a particular candidate or party became known as “jumping on the bandwagon”. Personally, I hope for such a rush to jump on a different bandwagon in the November mid-term elections.

If the Eagles do win the Super Bowl (they are currently 6-point underdogs), I don’t think I’ll go down to Broad Street for the victory parade. For one thing, the commuter trains will be so crowded that they may not make a stop at the Jenkintown-Wyncote station at all, a repeat of the situation when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

 

01parade.span

But more importantly, as a bandwagon fan who is barely holding on to the running board on the bandwagon because I got on so late, I don’t think I deserve to participate wholeheartedly in the exhilaration of a victory celebration the way the die-hard fans do who have cheered their team faithfully through some futile and depressing seasons since their last playoff appearance in 2010. In all generosity, I’ll be happy for the players, and for the true fans, and for the city of Philadelphia, but I have not merited the right to indulge in the merriment for myself.

 

b2f804cbf03e1fad9334622dd62648fd

 

However, I think worse than being a bandwagon or even fair-weather sports fan is to be a bandwagon participant in life. In my case, it’s my Christian faith (I know that for some readers, it’s another faith, or perhaps none at all) that impels me not to stand on the sidelines, but to jump in head-first and relish each moment of every single, unique, God-given day. Or, unlike a fair-weather fan of life, not wait until I feel like a “winner” and everything in my day goes as planned or as I wish it to go (it seldom does, in fact), but know that even in the temporary setbacks, there is the benefit of something new to learn and celebrate.

OK, in honor of my adopted city, I’ll say it. “Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory.”

JAS

 

January 17, 2018

WHAT MOTIVATES A HERO?

A REVIEW OF

THE HERO OF BUDAPEST: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg

By Bengt Jangfeldt; I.B. Taurus, publisher; 406 p.

51U6TAe1zdL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

I came across this book in the process of wrapping up my research for my second novel, Accidental Saviors. My novel centers on two expatriate Finns who find themselves living in Germany at the outbreak of World War II.  Though initially reluctant and by no means intending to, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska involve themselves deeply in the saving of Jews from the persecution and likely death at the hands of the Nazis.

 

AS_MockupWeb2 (1)

Strangely enough, neither Kersten nor Niska was able to articulate explicitly why they as citizens of a neutral country would become engaged in such hazardous and potentially life-threatening activity on behalf of persons whom in most instances they did not even know. Perhaps their motivation was too personal, or too complex and convoluted, to be articulated succinctly in their memoirs, which are the primary sources of information for the premise of Accidental Saviors.

            I am glad that I happened upon Jangfeldt’s excellent work about another savior of Jews, the Swede Raoul Wallenberg. Next to Oskar Schindler, whose heroic activity on behalf of Jews, after all, was the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie, Wallenberg is perhaps the best known “righteous Gentile”. At great personal risk, and with single-minded commitment, Wallenberg managed to save up to 8,000 Hungarian Jews from the occupying Nazis, their puppet Hungarian government and the state-sponsored terrorist organization, the Arrow Cross.

Because previously unused Russian archival sources have become accessible in the last decades, Jangfeldt is able to give a fuller and more detailed account than ever before of what Wallenberg accomplished and how he did so. As a Swedish diplomat appointed to Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg distributed so-called “protective passports” among the Jewish population that had even the least connection to Sweden. Not only that, he established a network of thirty-two “safe houses” throughout Buda and Pest where many other Jews were able to find refuge from the anti-Semitic authorities. He provided food for Jews who were herded into ghettoes and even established a Swedish hospital to treat Jews in his private flat.

3843601360

I picked up the book in order to compare and contrast Wallenberg’s clandestine career as a “savior” with those of the two principal characters in my novel. I also hoped for more insight into the question of why: why risk your own life in order to save the lives of strangers?

It turns out that like Kersten and Niska, Wallenberg didn’t ever explain what his motivation might have been to accept the risky mission in Hungary. By way of the thorough telling of Wallenberg’s story, however, Jangfeldt points to the many intertwined familial, social and psychological factors that seem to have played a role in Wallenberg’s decision to go to Budapest. Wallenberg was from a wealthy semi-aristocratic banking family in Sweden in which the expectations to succeed in business and accomplish big things were high. Raoul, however, enjoyed only modest success in the family business at best. Instead, he began working for an import-export firm owned by a Hungarian expatriate Jew in Stockholm, Kolman Lauer. Without initially being aware of it, in seeking to escape the limitations and pressures of the family banking firm, he wandered rather aimlessly into a relationship with an employer who, with the backing of American funds and moral support, was engaged in an effort to save Jews back in Hungary. It turned out to be a turning point in Wallenberg’s trajectory. He quickly grew bored and dissatisfied with Lauer’s mundane import-export line of work, but accidentally discovered a more challenging and constructive vocation.

Through Lauer, Wallenberg was recruited by the War Refugee Board, which had been established recently by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to support the work of Jewish organizations, resistance groups throughout Europe and diplomats of neutral countries like Sweden. Wallenberg was given a sizeable budget by both the War Refugee Board and the Swedish foreign ministry, and a carte blanche in organizing and managing the Swedish delegation in Budapest to conduct schemes to fulfill the mission of saving Jews.

16103648_401 (1)

Wallenberg’s marker at Yad Vashem  at the World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem

Jangfeldt makes sure the reader is impressed by at least three of his hero’s attributes: his exceptional organizational abilities; his genuine affability and gregariousness that enabled him to form relationships with both allies and the enemy, such high-ranking Nazis as Adolf Eichmann; and his tireless energy for the work of saving lives. Jangfeldt provides numerous examples of how Wallenberg makes personal sacrifices of time and energy to handle the seemingly most trivial details to ensure that a rescue operation should succeed.

It turns out that like Kersten and Niska in Accidental Saviors, it was in the process of saving Jews that Wallenberg was converted to a heart-felt love for them. That is the “triumph” in Jangfeldt’s subtitle.

A significant number of pages in The Hero of Budapest, however, is devoted to the second part of the subtitle, the “tragedy”, the irony, of Raoul Wallenberg. When the Russian forces were about to enter Hungary from the east and “liberate” the country from the Nazis, Wallenberg was filled with urgency to make contact with the Russian military leadership to negotiate compassionate treatment of the Jews, especially the ones in his safe houses or in the ghettoes. Against all advice, Wallenberg and a driver left Hungary hastily for a regional Russian military command post near the Romanian border. Fatefully, they tried to smuggle money, valuables and documents which had been stored in Wallenberg’s office, out of the country so that they would not fall into the hands of the Nazis before they evacuated and be used for nefarious purposes. They were welcomes to the Russian command post. However, their vehicle was confiscated and the concealed cargo discovered and confiscated. The content of the documents particularly, in which Wallenberg had meticulously recorded his conversations with high-ranking Nazis, resulted in his arrest as a suspected Nazi spy. The Soviets moved him from jail to jail and kept him in custody for two-and-a-half years before he reportedly died of a “heart attack” Jangfeldt provides plenty of evidence that Wallenberg’s death was not due to natural causes at all, but rather chemicals he had been fed by Soviet doctors that were intended to trigger a heart attack.

 

217801

Swedish researcher Bengt Jangfeldt

Wallenberg was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and named by Israel as one of the “Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations”.

Wallenberg’s story is an utterly fascinating one. Jangfeldt’s book is thoroughly researched and related to the reader in an engaging manner that is, frankly, quite user-friendly for such a work with such a broad scope of research. One cannot read about Wallenberg’s bravery and not be transformed and left with the questions: Who are the unfairly persecuted in our world today, and what will I do for their sake and on their behalf?

6ced06427272e32d6085320edfd3ff2c284c6f19

Until the next post, readers, this is the day you have been given as a gift. Cherish each unique moment of it.

JAS

PRAYER AND VIOLENCE

Posted November 10, 2017

Hi again, dear readers.

I’ll state up front that as I sit down to write this blog, I’m out of sorts

For one thing, I’ve come down with my first cold of the season. You know the drill: stuffy head, runny nose, achy muscles. an overall feeling of lethargy and irritability.

Current events have also led to my being out of sorts. The little boy in me lost one of his heroes this week. Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in the past two decades, died in a solo airplane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Roy was only forty; the husband of his high school sweetheart, Brandy; father of two young teenage sons, Braden and Ryan. I was fortunate enough to follow his award-winning career while he played for both of my “hometown” ball clubs: 12 years with the Toronto Blue Jays, and four with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a hero of the adult in me, too. Rarely does a great athlete come along these days who deflects glory from himself, shares it with his teammates, is abundantly generous with his time and money, particularly with children with special needs. I confess that in reflecting on Roy, I have wept tears of sorrow…and gratitude.

14-3-e1476241129609-1024x942

We know that over 25 people of faith were gunned down in First Baptist Church in Sunderland Springs, TX. I admit that mass slayings have become almost the “new normal” so that they don’t make as deep an impact on my heart as I should allow them to make. However, I recognize that these victims are brothers and sisters in Christ with me as well as fellow humans.  I didn’t know a single one of the victims, of course, yet still, I feel a deep kinship and mourn their loss in a particular way.

1510039074455

The holocaust at First Baptist itself was bad enough. But the President of the United States made my grief and anger deeper (he never fails to do so) by saying, “This was a mental illness problem, not a guns situation.” Isn’t it almost a cliché after such shootings to attribute the event to some “deranged loner.” Are such statements aimed, as I believe they are, to ease our fear and salve our corporate conscience as a people? It’s a cop-out, I truly believe. It distracts us from looking closely and in a spirit of repentance at the culture of violence, particularly violence inflicted by guns, which we have allowed to thrive, if we have not actually encouraged and applauded it.

Besides, I would like to ask the President, “If you truly believe mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did your administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database?”

To top all that, a Lutheran clergy colleague, the Rev. Hans Fiene, polluted the discussion with some simplistic, distorted theological claptrap. The title of his post in his The Federalist blog was, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” His argument is based on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” His only understanding of deliverance is to be “saved” from this world (that “God so loves”, mind you) and transported to the transcendent realm of glory “where no violence, persecution, cruelty or hatred will ever affect us again.” He thus concludes that Devin Patrick Kelley “only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.”

Talk about putting the ultimate “good spin” on a tragic violent event which I believe breaks the heart of God! Following his ludicrous theological logic, couldn’t we argue that Mohammed Atta and the other 9-11 terrorists were serving God by delivering however many Christians were killed in the World Trade Center towers to their eternal peace and rest? Wouldn’t that or any other such act of violence please the heart of God in that God would be joined in heaven by a whole new slew of children while their time in this evil world was shortened?

It’s not that I don’t believe in that eternal realm. As a matter of fact, I rather look forward to it. But there’s plenty of evil right here in this world where we have been planted by divine design from which we need to pray to be delivered, and that I believe we are called to address and combat the best we can.

There. I’m not so out of sorts now at the end of my post. Oh, I’m still blowing my nose constantly; I still can’t believe Roy Halladay is dead; I continue to mourn the 26 brothers and sisters in Sunderland Springs; I’m not any better disposed toward President Trump’s explanation for the tragedy than when I began; and certainly Pastor Fiene’s misreading of Christian Scripture is a burr in my theological saddle. But as I said in my previous post about why I write, I knew that the exercise of simply sitting down and writing would be enough to make me feel better. And, it did.

Until the next time, cherish this unique and finite day.

 

JAS

 

 

WHY DO I WRITE, ANYWAY?

Posted November 1, 2017

 

My next-door neighbor, Janet Benton, author of the excellent novel Lilli de Jong, asked that question of the readers of her blog a few months ago (https://janetbentonauthor.com/blog/.) I’ve been pondering it at red lights, grocery store lines, and waiting to be reconnected to the internet ever since. Today’s post is an attempt to take a stab at an answer.

 

              If you ask me, “Why do you write, Jack?”, you might as well ask me why I eat, or why I breathe. I can’t help myself. I don’t know what I think until I have written the thought down on paper. The notion of making up stories and chronicling events has been a part of my make-up since early childhood. Like many of you, I published a neighborhood newspaper, however short-lived) on an old black Royal typewriter rescued from someone’s trash when I was seven or eight years old. I must have been less than nine-years-old when I wrote a “play” based on a Classic Illustrated comic book version of The Tale of Two Cities, as I recall. I asked my mother for the fare and took the streetcar down to the local CBC affiliate station on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Shy, introverted, self-conscious little Jack handed it to the receptionist, who kindly told me that she would pass it on. As far as I know, it never appeared on the CBC! 🙂

              It was in high school, though, that I fell in love with the inestimable power of words. I can still remember the day, as though it were just yesterday when I was transfixed and transported to Long Island as I read the last paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…and one fine morning–“

              “God, I want to write like that!” I exclaimed to my fifteen-year-old self. “I want to put words together like those that move readers, that make them believe in the green light and stretch their arms farther.

The Great Gatsby

              After that, the seeds of a novel, or actually, of many novels, were germinating in my fevered mind every time I read one like To Kill a MockingbirdJohnny Got His GunLook Homeward, Angel; Franny and Zooey; or The Power and the Glory, among so many others.

         220px-To_Kill_a_Mockingbird         Look Homeward, Angel     Johnny Got His GunFranny and Zooey          

 Retirement turned out to be the occasion for some of the seeds to sprout finally and emerge as my first novel, Beginning Again at Zero (http://www.lulu.com/shop/jack-saarela/beginning-again-at-zero/paperback/product-22899604.html) about which many of you have said kind words. The seeds of that project were sown back in 1971 when Diane and I saw the movie version of Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land.

Beginning Agani at Zero product_thumbnail

              The late, great sportswriter Red Smith is purported to have said, “Writing is quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein…” Frederick Buechner adds to that, “For my money, the only books worth reading are books written in blood…” My newest project is a second novel, Accidental Saviors,about which you will be hearing perhaps more than you wish in the next few months. Reading and seeing movies all these years about the horrendous plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe during World War II, like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, is what opened my vein to write that book. The pain I feel for them in my own blood I will try to transfuse into my readers’ veins.

              The novel won’t be all blood and pain, however, I promise. My two protagonists are based on two actual Finnish historical figures, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska, who happened to be in Germany just as the war was erupting in 1939. Though they didn’t set out with this in mind, each became an “accidental savior” of the lives of countless, perhaps thousands by the end, of Jews trapped in Germany.

              One writing mentor advised me that a writer’s aim is to make a similar thing happen inside the reader as happened to you in writing. Though by no means 100% admirable, Kersten and Niska inspire me to be more courageous, more cognizant of, and possibly more willing to advocate for, those in my world today who are oppressed or marginalized.

              When they get to the last page, I hope that to make the readers of Accidental Saviors be that way, too.

 

Until the next time, dear Reader, cherish each moment of this unique and finite day.

JAS

 

 

TIME TO STEP UP

Posted October 10, 2017

 

I was very near Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, at the Massanutten Resort in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, in fact. I was enjoying the company of five valued former colleagues who comprised the Churchwide Campus Ministry Team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Together, we oversaw and serviced the 140 or so ELCA ministries on college and university campuses across the nation. We were together as a unit for the first time since the CCMT had been disbanded in 2009 because of the acute fiscal condition of the ELCA.

We were reminded of our mortality by the conspicuous absence of the one colleague who had died since 2009.

We drove to Monticello, the plantation owned and designed by the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is located less than 10 miles (much less as the crow flies) from the august institution of higher learning which Jefferson founded, the iconic University of Virginia.

As the six of us enjoyed wine tasting at a local vineyard, good food in local restaurants, and much laughter and reminiscing over more wine back at our digs, the University of Virginia was in the news once again. We were blissfully unaware of the happenings in Charlottesville just a few miles away until we got to our various homes.

For the first time since August 12, several dozen torch-bearing white supremacists gathered to vent their hot air near the UVA campus. Thankfully, there were fewer of them this time, and no counter-protesters [present as a couple of months ago to inspire even more hatred in their polluted hearts.

Over the past two years, Donald Trump has almost single-handedly mainstreamed racism, tribal hatred, xenophobia, and suspicion of anyone or group different from the white majority in the United States. (There are echoes of the same in Canada, as well, the country of my citizenship.) Formerly fringe organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other overt hate groups have been emboldened by the President’s insensitive speech and mindless tweets. One mother I read about said that her South Asian adopted daughter had never heard a fellow student harass her because of her ethnicity and skin color before the last presidential election campaign. But since then…

d74ec895d2bed3c3984ba877bb1aff1e

It’s not enough for me to simply point my finger at an uninformed and unprincipled President or express my rage at the white supremacists. That’s too easy,  and ultimately unproductive. I must, rather, seek some way to build bridges to those different from me.

That bridge-building begins with self-examination. We Christians call it “confession”. What racial prejudice, for example, still finds a dark corner in which to exist in my ownheart?  In what ways do I make judgments about persons, their actions or attitudes, with the self-righteous assumption that my own unexamined actions and attitudes form the standard by which to make those judgments? Why is it that I allow myself to feel discomfort whenever I must travel through a primarily African-American neighborhood, and then feel a sense of comfort as soon as I reach my destination in a primarily white neighborhood?

I confess I feel profound anger and downright disgust whenever I see photos of the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville.  My stomach begins to turn whenever I hear even a faint hint of the President’s voice from the television in the other room. Are these feelings themselves, in fact, telling symptoms of hatred within me?

After confession comes “repentance”. Not just feeling or manufacturing remorse for my sins. More than that, a “turning” towards new attitudes and behaviors. To see whoever is “other” in some way as more similar to me than different. To see the struggles of “others” as my own, and their successes as mine, as well. To remember that the “other” is, like me, a child of God. To remind myself that there is dignity, beauty, and truth in every human life. To dare to venture out of my liberal, “progressive” bubble and talk with—or more importantly, listen to, someone who is in a conservative, regressive bubble of his or her own. Who knows?  We may discover that we strive for the same goals, only by different means. Would I have the courage and love to do so over a cup of coffee with one of those white supremacists carrying a torch or wearing the white KKK bedsheet?

Suddenly, we may hear a wall between us begin to crumble and rejoice that we’ve started to build a bridge of love and understanding.

Until the next occasion, live this day to the fullest.

JAS

 

 

BORROWED WISDOM WHEN OUR OWN FAILS US

Posted August 25, 2017

Hello again, dear reader. It’s been a while.

During that time, I have been rehearsing, writing, and re-writing in my mind what I might say as a response to the recent rally of white nationalist and their counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA. But it seems that the words I come up with seem trite, and do not bear the weight of the gravity of the situation and the hatred, racism, and white supremacy revealed there.

I’m also aware that in my visceral reaction to President Trump’s statement in the wake of the events, I may so something I regret later.

Therefore, I am going to borrow the words and wisdom of songwriter and storyteller Courtney Ariel. My blog post this time consists of an almost entire reproduction of her essay For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies published on the website of the Sojourners Community in Washing ton, DC-www.sojo.net. In this essay, she gives some sage advice to white people (most of the readers of this blog are, indeed, Caucasian) as to how to express our support for and alliance with African-Americans, Jews, Native Americans and First Nation Canadians, other marginalized groups, and others targeted by the white supremacists.

 

FOR OUR WHITE FRIENDS DESIRING TO BE ALLIES

“I’m not going to do much coddling here; I don’t know that I believe that love requires coddling. Here are six things you can do to be stronger allies.

  1. Listen more; talk less.You don’t have to have something to say all of the time. You don’t have to post something on social media that points to how liberal/how aware/how cool/how good you are. You are lovely, human, and amazing. You have also had the microphone for most of the time, for a very long time, and it will be good to give the microphone to someone else who is living a different experience than your own.
  2. For one out of every three opinions/insights shared by a person of color in your life, try to resist the need to respond with a better or different insight about something that you read or listened to as it relates to their shared opinion. Try just to listen and sit with someone else’s experience. When you do share in response to what someone has shared with you, it can sometimes (not always) feel like “whitesplaining” — meaning to explain or comment on something in an over-confident or condescending way. This adds to the silencing of the voices of people of color.
  3. Being an ally is different than simply wanting not be racist (thank you for that, by the way). Being an ally requires you to educate yourself about systemic racism in this country. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and so many other great books and articles that illuminate oppression and structures of white supremacy and white privilege. Use your voice and influence to direct the folks that walk alongside you in real life (or follow you on the internet), toward the voice of someone that is living a marginalized/disenfranchised experience.
  4. Please try not to, “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” your way into being an ally when atrocities like the events in Charleston, S.C.,and Charlottesville, Va., happen. People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome you. I want for you to come into a place of awareness. However, your shock and outrage at the existence of racism in America echoes the fact that you have lived an entire life with the luxury of indifference about the lives of marginalized/disenfranchised folks. Please take several seats.
  5. Ask when you don’t know — but do the work first. This is nuanced. Some marginalized/disenfranchised folks will tell you not to ask them anything; don’t be offended by that. Folks are tired, and that is understandable because it is exhausting to be a marginalized person in this world. However, there is something special that happens within human connections and relationships. In a nutshell, don’t expect for people to educate you. Do the work to educate yourself. Ask questions within relationships that feel safe, and do so respectfully.
  6. And finally, stop talking about colorblindness.It’s not a thing. Colorblindness is totally impossible in a nation whose land was taken from the indigenous inhabitants through an attempt at genocide and horrific colonization. The same nation that enslaved humans and exploited them in every way imaginable built a nation on their backs, hung them, hunted them, and for centuries kept them from their basic inalienable rights and still does. The same nation that exploits and deports immigrants who were promised refuge within the American Constitution. The same nation that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and continues to promote bigotry, exclusion, and violence against LGBTQ/gender non-identifying folks. This nation that allows swastika-wearing, Confederate-flag-toting, anti-Semitic racists to have a platform for their hate. The same nation that promised religious freedom, yet targets those who do not believe in a white, capitalist Jesus.

I love Jesus. And promise, Jesus was not white (literally brown, and wonderfully Jewish) and would have never been a capitalist.

It will never be possible for us to be colorblind, and we shouldn’t ever want to be.

I heard a saying once at an Al-Anon meeting that offered me liberation: “We are only as sick as our secrets (and our shame).” Shame can only live in the darkness; it can live within the systems of denial and defensiveness that we use to cover it up. We have to name these things, acknowledge them, and begin to do the deep work of transformation, restoration — and reparation.”

Sage, thoughtful advice, indeed, Courtney. Readers: until the next time, live today to its fullest.

JAS

 

A SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT FOR A MAN

Posted July 8, 2017

I must begin this post with a confession of sorts: for the last week and a half, I have been living with another woman. Oh, to be sure, I continue to cohabitate with Diane, my wife of almost 46 years. She actually knows this other woman, in fact, perhaps better than I do.

There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

 

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

 

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

 

Lilli’s is a harrowing yet inspiring tale. She is a Quaker in 1883, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia Lilli is educated enough by the Quakers (Society of Friends) to become a schoolteacher. Her mother dies when Lilli is still living at home, and her widowed father romances another woman, which earns him, and consequently Lilli and her brother Peter, not just censure, but expulsion from the Quaker Meeting as well.

 

Lilli has a one-night encounter with Johan, the good-looking, smooth-talking guy mothers warn their daughters about. Wouldn’t you know it, but Lilli gets pregnant. Johan pledges his intention to marry Lilli, and promises to send for her from Pittsburgh once he finds work there and is settled. Of course, Johan is gone with the restless wind.

 

There weren’t a whole lot of choices for unwed pregnant women, either in Philadelphia or anywhere else, for that matter, in 1883. Jodie Foster will have a much easier time of it in 1997. For a fleeting nanosecond, Lilli considers the option of abortion, which in the late 19th century was a crude, primitive and eminently perilous procedure. Besides, it violates her deep Quaker principles. Instead, she finds respite of sorts at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants.

 

She was to surrender her infant within three weeks of its birth to the well-meaning staff of the charity, who would then find adoptive parents. However, Lilli develops such an almost unhealthily boundless bond of love for Charlotte, that she is determined to keep her. Not an easy decision, by any means, in Victorian society. Lilli secures one of the only forms of employment available for an unwed mother: she becomes a “wet nurse” for the child of an affluent family. Meanwhile, she is forced to “farm out” her own daughter to an anonymous wet nurse elsewhere, with almost disastrous results.

 

That’s as far as I have gotten so far in this riveting novel, however. But I can tell that my literary neighbor has set me up to witness more heartrending hardship for Lilli, and undoubtedly for little Charlotte as well.

 

Having attended a book talk Janet gave at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got the distinct impression that most of those present who had already read Janet’s novel, or who lined up to purchase a copy after the talk and have Janet sign their copy, were women. That’s to be expected in a way. I’d wager many of those women in attendance were mothers, or were hoping to become mothers, and certainly had their own, undoubtedly often ambivalent relationship with their own mothers.

Lilli de Jong cover

But I have to say, that reading Lilli de Jong as a male, a husband, and a father of two sons, has been very enlightening. Much of the prejudice that Lilli encounters in her society, and the judgment she endures from religious leaders, was not new to me. By her decision to keep Charlotte, Lilli is rendered impoverished and powerless. The self-serving phenomenon of blaming the poor for their own situation remains with us today. Just listen to Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania talk derisively about Medicaid and its recipients.  I came to see in the course of the story, however, how even her mistress, her boss, Clementina, although wealthy and privileged, has only very limited choices and is virtually powerless in her own right. Powerlessness is a woman’sthing in the 1880s, not just a poor woman’s thing – even today, to be sure.

 

I’m personally proud of my author-neighbor Janet Benton. The advice often given to budding authors (like myself) is to hang out with more established writers and absorb the wisdom. So, how fortunate I am to be able to talk books and writing with a skilled novelist from my front porch to hers ,whose debut novel wasn’t merely selfpublished like my own, but by a real grown-up publisher,. I feel a kinship with Janet because we both like to read and write historical fiction.

 

Kirkus Review concluded its review of Lilli de Jongwith the following assessment, and I end this blog with the same words: “Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.”

Janet Benton portrait

Lilli de Jong is available as a e-book for $12.99 on http://www.BarnesandNoble.com. Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites sell the hardcover book at a discount. Philadelphia area friends: signed copies are available at local Barnes and Noble and Indie bookstores. If you are not near Philly, Janet would be happy to send you a signed bookplate. Let me know and I’ll shout your name and mailing address to Janet from my front porch.


Until the next post, live each day to the fullest because today is he only day that you are guaranteed to have.             JAS

 

 

AN EVENING WITH A WOMAN WHO TELLS THE TRUTH

Posted June 13, 2017

I had the privilege last week once again this year of attending the Frederick Buechner Writers’ Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. We were a moderately diverse group of men and women brought together by our deep desire to write, our Christian faith (delightfully heavy on the progressive side), and our love for Fred. Buechner, now 91 and retired in Pawlet, Vermont, is a Presbyterian preacher, memoirist, and novelist who writes about life and faith in an inimitable way. People who have sat in the pews of congregations I have served have heard a lot of Frederick Buechner in quotes.

Older Buechner

One of the keynote speakers was Anne Lamott. Among her other works, Anne has written several amusing, appropriately self-deprecating memoirs of her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her years of alcoholism and drug addition, her coming to Christian faith, and her honest reflections on the joys and heartaches of being the single mother of Sam, now also a published author. The first in the series of charming, witty, but at the same time biting, memoirs are Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually. 

            Speaking to a room full of writers who aim to communicate faith and hope in their work, Anne pointed out that the most important item in the writer’s toolbox is “your butt”.

I was a little stunned by that, but having several of Anne’s books I should not have been distracted by her irreverence. What she meant, she went on to explain, was “keeping your butt in the chair, no matter how blank is the page in front of you. “You can’t take the easy way out and get out of the chair. You’ve got to stick to it, even if all you write that day are a few lonely words.” Goes for life in general, doesn’t it, as well as writing?

anne_lamott-e1496888007485

A couple of other gems she shared with us:

I try to write the books I would love to come upon that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness – and that can make me laugh.

About her insistent self-revelation in her books, even of the painful times:

Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.

Another remark that spoke to how we live our lives as well as to how we approach our writing:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.

 

Anne is a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, and much of her wisdom about life and God she gleans from A.A.:

My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way, I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.

 

I am not writing to try and convert people to Christianity. I am just trying to share my experience, strength and hope, that someone who is as messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared as I can be fully accepted by our dear Lord, no questions asked. 

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for an evening of hearing the truth spoken, and for the years of being surprised by grace in your books as a reader who oftentimes, also feels “messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared.”

Until next time, friends, live each day to the fullest.

 

 

HILLBILLY ELEGY: PEOPLE WHO LOOK TO TRUMP FOR SALVATION

Posted  May 26, 2017

One of the more eye-opening books I have read recently is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly

Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book club at my church read and discussed it. Some, like me, read it in the context of trying to wrap our heads around what to many of us was Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph in the 2016 presidential election.

Vance, now a Silicon Valley investment lawyer, began life in rural Kentucky a little over thirty years ago. His childhood family was what one could call a textbook “dysfunctional family”. He shuttles back and forth between his ne’er-do-well mother who is addicted to prescription pain medication and prone to hysteria, and his grandparents – Pawpaw and Mawmaw – plagued by alcoholism, rage, violence . . . and, it must be said, love.

After barely graduating high school, Vance enlists in the Marines, where he begins a life transformation. When he returns to civilian life, Mawmaw provides surprising encouragement for her grandson to continue his education. She feels he can transcend the “dead end” environment and lifestyle that his classmates embrace, thoughtlessly and almost by inertia. From Ohio State University, he proceeds to Yale Law School, where he succeeds despite feeling like a fish out of water. At the dean’s dinner in the first week of his Yale career, for example, he needs to be shown by a fellow student which fork to use first.

But Vance “made it”, despite what he calls “skyscraping odds”.

During his childhood and youth, his family relocated some 100 miles north to Middletown, OH. There the men take jobs at the local steel plant, which was going great guns in the 1950s (though not so much in later decades). With the generous steel industry wages at the time, the family achieves the material comforts of the middle class for the first time. Vance, however, discovers that the family had brought their Appalachian values with them into the suburbs. Some were wonderfully positive, like fierce family loyalty, profound love of country and respect for the military. But others, like a tendency towards verbal abuse and violence as the default method for resolving differences that were inimical to family life.

As he grows in years, Vance lives increasingly in two cultures: the hillbilly culture, for which he has a love-hate relationship, and the new upwardly-mobile worldview of white privilege in New Haven and San Francisco (more about my own white privilege in a future post).

It struck me in reading Vance’s tale that the “hillbilly culture” is not terribly different from that of blue collar working class and former mining communities in northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania, the “Rust Belt” and poor, former mill towns in the South.  A primary quality of hillbilly culture is what Vance describes as a kind of “learned helplessness”: economic insecurity and poor self-image caused by an inescapable reliance on jobs in the mines, mills, and factories, which of course in recent decades have gone the way of 78 rpm records and manual typewriters. “My friends and relations are convinced that the mainstream media lies unabashedly; that politicians lie; there are no jobs; and the universities are rigged in favor of the city “elites” and against the likes of us.” “What’s the point of trying and making an effort when it’s useless? Nothing can be done to change our lot.” So those around Vance reason understandably.

Until Donald Trump, that is. Vance wrote his book before Trump declared his candidacy for president. But a reader in 2017 feels his presence, nonetheless.

You’ll recall that Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky were in the Trump column this past November. It seems to me that the populations of Appalachia, the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt are easy targets for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” contrivance. Though the private-schooled, Penn-and-Wharton-educated Trump is as “elite” as they come, somehow he has duped Vance’s people and others into looking to him to resurrect the coal mines, for example, and reopen the shuttered factories, make all the vanished blue-collar jobs come back from China, and like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the bursting dike, hold back the inexorable, decades-long swelling tide of globalization and mechanization in the workplace (robots).

False, cynical promises. False, naïve hopes.

Until next time, live each day to the fullest.  JAS

 

 

A DOUBLE-HEADER IN ARKANSAS

Posted May 4, 2017

Sorry, Mr. Hutchinson. The deadline was April 30. Time’s up.

That was the expiry date of Arkansas’ supply of the controversial sedative, midazolam. The state of Arkansas uses midazolam to numb death row inmates before their execution so that they suffer less pain when the actual “death drugs’ take effect and perform their fatal function. In fact, midazolam has been shown to work as promised only some of the time.

The expiry date lit a fire under Governor Asa Hutchinson. In order to execute as many inmates on Arkansas’ death row as possible before the deadline, he signed death warrants for eight of them, nearly 25% of the entire death row population. That would have been a third as many people as were put to death in all fifty states in 2016.

The first execution was scheduled for April 22, just eight days before the deadline. Because the courts intervened (Mr. Hutchinson, no doubt, would say interfered) and caused a delay, it was no longer possible to have one execution per day before April 30. So, the state performed the execution of two inmates on the same day, a dubious kind of “double-header” if there ever was one. That’s not surprising, I suppose. Arkansas carried out triple executions in 1994 and 1997 – a model of efficiency in the annals of state-sanctioned murder.

I have hesitated to post anything about this matter since it’s difficult for me to contain my anger. I am nothing less than passionate about abolition of the death penalty, so passionate that some have said I have lost all sense of proportion and perspective on the subject. I display very little patience and sympathy in conversations with people who advocate for the death penalty. No credible scientific evidence has emerged to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. The application of the death penalty is uneven, with minority inmates, the poor, and those of borderline intelligence and mental health being the most likely to be executed. If it brings “closure” for the survivors of the murder victims, it creates new survivors of a person put to death violently.

My opposition to the death penalty has been a lifelong passion. It was sharpened, however, since I became pastor to five inmates on Florida’s death row in Raiford, just thirty miles from the congregation I was serving in Gainesville. Since 1989 when I was invited to provide spiritual care to these five, the sentence of three of them has been changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One remains on the row, where he has been warehoused since 1987.

That leaves one, Ray. In 1990, I accompanied Ray to his execution in “Ole Sparky”, as Florida’s electric chair was ghoulishly referred to. That night and the following morning, I was sickened by the bizarre notion of the scheduled death of an individual. I was traumatized for months afterward. Even now, 27 years after the execution, my pulse beats faster and the adrenaline rushes. The barbarity of the practice is still overwhelming to me.

In the Arkansas case, there are features that make the occasion even more brutal and base. The fourth victim, Kenneth Williams, executed on April 27, had been determined by health care professionals to be “intellectually disabled”. He was executed, anyway. He may not even have been cognizant of why he was being killed. Can you call something “punishment” if the one being punished is not aware of why?

Even people traditionally in favor of the death penalty would agree, I daresay, that eight executions in a space of eight days is the epitome of irresponsibility and the trivialization of death. Why the rush when all eight had been sitting in 6’ x 9’ cells 23 hours a day for years, in a few cases, decades? Public defenders argued that the rushed schedule did not allow them time for essential parts of the legally-sanctioned defense process, such as applying for clemency, which cannot be done until the death warrant has been signed. Several of the public defenders were working on the case of more than one inmate, an impossible task under even the best circumstances, much less under the duress of eight or fewer days.

The state of Arkansas paid little heed to the psychological and spiritual health of the numerous individuals assigned to perform an execution. A state investigation, resisted, by the way, by Governor Hutchinson,   found that the extremely tight schedule caused “untold stress” on the staff, and recommended that future executions be spaced apart. The report pointed to the higher risk of mistakes in such hurried executions. More than two dozen former corrections officials from across the country signed an open letter to draw attention to the impact on the executioner, a forgotten person in the process, also a victim of the barbarity.

It’s interesting that for the four executions that were not blocked by the courts, at least one was put in jeopardy when the Rotary Club was unable to find a sufficient number of volunteers to witness the act, which are required by law. In Florida, I recall that folks were lining up to volunteer whenever an execution was scheduled. Perhaps times have changed, and people have grown more repulsed by the practice. Probably wishful thinking on my part, I admit.

A personal heroine of mine, Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana (See Dead Man Walking)has called upon those who, like me and her, oppose the death penalty, to continue the effort to work towards abolishing it. She hopes that the obscenity of eight, or even four, executions in eight days, will wake people up to the horror that is committed by the state in the name of all its citizens.

A dark subject this week, to be sure. But nonetheless, until the next post, live each day to the fullest. If you favor the death penalty, I promise to patient and receptive to your comment if you wish to leave one.

JAS

 

 

“ANTS IN THE PANTS OF FAITH”

Posted April 26, 2017

 

The Pew Research Center reports that the fastest growing religious group in North American is the “Nones” (not “nuns”, though the way things are going, there may be none of them in the foreseeable future, sorry to say). “Nones” are those, primarily among young adults but not exclusively so, who do not identify with any organized religious group. Neither do the “Nones” embrace any particular creed or champion any particular body of theological tenets. If they do, it’s the view that since all theological systems have their valid points, it’s not particularly desirable, therefore, to espouse any one body of doctrine.

As a pastor and chaplain on college and university campuses for a quarter of a century, I encountered many “Nones”. They weren’t difficult to find on campus, but they were hard to engage in a conversation about religious manners. The idea of religion simply didn’t appear on the iPhone screens and so was pretty well irrelevant to most.

However, every once in a while, I’d manage to get a “None” to sit down with me and carry on a conversation over a cup of coffee. A couple of those conversations come to mind now. In both cases, the young person indicated to me, somewhat wistfully, that he/she had been taken to a Sunday school by his/her parent or parents, but felt they had “graduated” and moved on.

“Do you think anything you learned in Sunday school had stuck with you?” I asked.

“Sure. The idea that God was a big judge up there whom I had to please, or else. I did like Jesus, though. He seemed like a nice guy, somebody I’d like to have a beer with.”

“Do you talk to him regularly now?”

“No. When I got into my teens, I found I just couldn’t believe wholeheartedly in many things I’d been taught about the Christian religion.”

“Can you say more? What kind of things didn’t make sense for you?”

“Gee, I haven’t thought about these things for a long time. It’s hard to remember one just now . . . I suppose the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin, for one. That was too much of a stretch. At my childhood church, we used to say ‘We believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary”. I couldn’t say that, or else I’d be a hypocrite. So, I kept silent during that part. After a while, I just stopped going to church completely since I couldn’t buy the whole package of goods they were selling.”

A shame, really, to abandon one’s religious quest just for the sake of what I consider a side issue in the Christian faith. It seems this person got the idea somewhere that by faith, Christians mean for one to give intellectual assent to certain doctrines. Therefore, if one cannot give such intellectual assent to something like the virgin birth, then one is being faithless, a “None”. So goes that line of reasoning.

I recall thinking that way myself when I was younger. I almost panicked as a college freshman when I couldn’t incorporate some things I’d learned at church into my developing intellectual worldview. The virgin birth was one of those things, though there were others. What would my pastor or parents say if I told them I had doubts? How could I even consider becoming a pastor if I couldn’t accept unswervingly every doctrine contained in or suggested by the Bible? Secretly, I feared I was disqualified from being a Christian, much less a man of the cloth.

It was my own campus pastor, the late Larry Martin, who helped me understand the nature of faith. “If you know something for a certainty,” he would say to me over our own cups of coffee, “that’s knowledge, information, not faith. Faith is to trust in the reality of something when you don’t know it for certain.”

“Do you believe that all that is has been created by a loving God?” he asked me once.

“Yes,” I said, “provided we can agree that God didn’t literally fashion it all in six days, but is somehow a power or force that is embedded within and perhaps guides a process of evolution.”

“Agreed,” he said. “Well, then, don’t you think the Creator of it all, by whatever means, can arrange to be incarnated in the womb of a virgin, or anybody God chooses?”

“Good point,” I conceded.

“Besides,” he continued, “I’m surprised that as an English literature major you can’t appreciate the poetry of the Bible when it talks about things like the virgin birth.”

I felt a little slighted. But also liberated. For one thing, Larry didn’t chastise me for any doubts I had about the virgin birth and any number of other matters that troubled me that he and I discussed during my college years. Secondly, I could apply my brain and use reason in reading the Bible? That was a novel concept for me at the time.

Larry was the first to teach me that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather an essential part of it. Doubt is as unavoidable for faith as is our own shadow on the sand at the beach on a brilliantly sunny day. It comes naturally and unavoidably with the territory.

My second novel, currently nearing the end of the first draft, deals with the fate of Finnish Jews and Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I have been able to weave thoughts about profound doubt into the story. As Jews in Finland begin to hear about Nazi atrocities in Europe, their faith in the God of the covenant with Abraham is sorely tested by doubt. I help my character’s struggle with faith in the shadow of Auschwitz.

A few years after college, I discovered Frederick Buechner, novelist and preacher extraordinaire, who has been my bookshelf companion ever since.  He called faith “the ants in the pants of faith”; hence, the title for this post. “They keep faith alive and awake and growing.” For other such gems of religious and practical wisdom, see http://www.frederickbuechner.com/wishful-thinking-a-seekers-abc/ 

Until next time, live each day to the fullest

 

 

WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT GOOD FRIDAY, ANYWAY?

Posted April 19, 2017

 

The front page of this past Saturday’s Inquirer (that’s the Philadelphia daily newspaper, not to be confused with the notorious purveyor of fake news and “alternative facts”, the National Enquirer), featured a color photo of the bloodied face of a bearded young man carrying a large wooden cross. The young man, compete with a crown of thorns, was a Mexican immigrant portraying Jesus in a live re-enactment of the Good Friday passion in Bensalem, PA the previous evening.

I thought it significant that the great majority of the 300 or so who followed Jesus’ progress along the Via Dolorosa were also immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador – many of them, according to the accompanying article, undocumented. They came into the open to witness the re-enactment, in spite of President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigrants.

It’s not at all surprising that in the current political climate in the United States, immigrant communities, like the one in Bensalem, is under duress. Many, especially children and youth, are fearful for their future, or that of their parents, even if they are in the United States legally.

It makes eminent sense to me, therefore, that such painfully realistic re-enactments of Jesus’ suffering and death have a particular appeal for immigrants, especially ones who have fled from oppression or violence in their native country, and now may be made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by many in their adopted country.

German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was sentenced to prison by the Nazis during the Second World War. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote that “God helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”  As the bewildered, often guilty German people were trying to make sense of the rubble of defeat as the war was coming to a close, Bonhoeffer said, “only the suffering God can help.”

As my pastor was doling out reading parts for Holy Week and Easter services last week, she assigned readings from Good Friday to me. Because she and I had discussed earlier my positive feelings about Good Friday, she added with a smile, “It’s your favorite service, anyway.”

She’s right. In the rather earnest Lutheran piety in which I was raised in northern Finland, Good Friday was the liturgical pinnacle of the church year. One got the impression, in fact, that Easter was merely a necessary add-on to make us conform to the rest of Christendom. But Good Friday was where it was at.

A little historical background about my native country might help explain. For most of its post ice-age history, Finland has been a land of oppression, suffering and poverty. For five centuries, the Swedes lorded over the Finns, and after 1809, it was the czarist Russians. Even after independence in 1917, the country was racked by a bitter and bloody civil war. In 1939-40, and again in 1941-1944, the Finns fought the invading Russians valiantly, but both times had to surrender and accept punitive terms for peace.

When my family and I left for Canada in 1955, before the ascent of Nokia, Kone and Marimekko, Finland was still a chronically poor agricultural economy.

So, it’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Jesus’ radical vulnerability and apparent defeat on Good Friday speak so profoundly to the Finnish psyche. Don’t misunderstand me: Finns celebrate Easter, too. But, Finns know that “only a suffering God helps” a people acquainted for much of its life with grief.

There is suffering in other places and among other peoples as well, of course. Boy soldiers in the Congo; girls abducted en masse by terrorists in Nigeria; mass starvation in South Sudan; refugees drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to flee a dictator who poisons his own people with sarin gas.

I am almost to the point some days where I am tempted to tune out the daily news – uncharacteristic for a newshound like me. The juvenile “mine is bigger” contest between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seems, at first blush, a matter to chuckle about until one realizes the unspeakable suffering and destruction if one or the other doesn’t blink, turn down the volume of the bellicose rhetoric, and walk away.

So, immigrant or not, documented or not, we live in a world where there is plenty to fear. Don’t we feel hopelessly vulnerable much of the time? In that kind of world, nothing short of God’s submitting his own heart to be broken will enable God to reach the terrified hearts of the people God loves. Only a God willing to be totally vulnerable in the person of Jesus on the cross will help.

Yes, my pastor had it right. I thoroughly enjoyed Easter service this past Sunday. The world surely needs the good news of life in the midst of death, of hope beyond despair. But the news of resurrection and victory would be infinitely less credible for me and have a less profound impact on me, if I were not convinced that the one who was raised on Sunday was first crushed on Friday.

 

That is why Good Friday remains at the top of my personal theological pinnacle.

 

 

THE TRAGIC INTERSECTION OF EASTER AND PASSOVER

Posted April 12, 2017

It shouted out at me from the page in the worship bulletin this past Sunday. It was in bold print, and we recited it together. The verse. The fateful one. The 25th verse of the 27th chapter of Mathew’s gospel: “His [Jesus’] blood be upon us and on our children!”

 

I wonder if Matthew could have known in the middle of the first century what havoc, what tragedy, his inclusion of this verse in his gospel will cause, would he have simply omitted it? I dearly wish he had.

 

Matthew 27:25 has been called “the blood guilt text”. It’s been cited in every generation since by Christians as justification to continue to punish the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus.

 

We Christians will continue to hear other similar verses in our Holy Week services. Some of what we hear will be ironic since Jews celebrate their grand festival, Passover, this week as well.

 

The gospel of John, especially, has long provided anti-Semites with grist for the racist mill. There are 31 instances where John uses the word Ιουδαίοί, the Jews, in a hostile, if not provoking, sense. John lumps all Jewish groups of the time together, with no distinctions made between different parties and factions. The Jews were no more uniform then than they are today. There is some credibility, to be sure, in the suggestion among scholars that by the word “Jews”, John is referring to the religious leaders who worked together to present Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion. But when we hear potentially inflammatory verses from John’s gospel in the pew, it’s too easy to hear them as his ascribing to “the Jews” en masse the unjust death of Jesus.

 

Jews have been paying en masse with their lives for such an incorrect, if not willfully incorrect, interpretation of history. Though much of what I discovered was not entirely new to me, my research for my second novel (which will deal with the ambiguous fate of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II) overwhelmed me with the crushing catalogue of instances of unthinking, spiteful violence against Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. (For the record: the treatment of Jews by the Finns was largely free of violence, but as those who read the book when it comes put will see, there were other issues.)

 

Of course, not all Christians have participated in such ruthless behavior against Jews. But more than we can count have been silent, (and therefore complicit, wouldn’t you say?) when many of their brothers were committing vindictive acts.

 

As a Lutheran Christian, I have to acknowledge, sadly and embarrassingly so, that the one for whom we are named, Martin Luther, had a shocking, merciless, difficult-to-read anti-Semitic streak. In his pamphlet, On the Jews and their Lies, he excoriates the Jews, particularly those who stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity, as “venomous beats, vipers, disgusting scum, devils incarnate.” He encourages the princes to engage in pogroms. “Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them be forced to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs.” Sure, you can say that Luther was merely a product of a dark, particularly anti-Semitic age. But since some four centuries later, Adolf Hitler read Luther’s pamphlet and quoted from it, Luther’s harsh and bigoted words were a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust.

 

We Christians need to be wise and judicious hearers of the Holy Week texts and thoughtful doers of the gospel of compassion and tolerance. We need to listen in a spirit of penitence for the anti-Semitic and other prejudicial elements of our heritage and a willingness to expose our hearts to God’s correction.

 

The ending of the Martin Luther story, by the way, is a good one. In his very last sermon before he died in 1546, he proclaimed, “We want to treat [the Jews] with Christian love and to pray for them. . .”

 

Pretty good advice for Holy Week.

 

Until next time, live each day to the fullest.

 

 

MAY ACT OF WITNESS, RESISTANCE AND DEFIANCE

April 5, 2017

 

No matter how recently or how long ago you were in high school, my advice is that you try to retain as much of what you learned – because you never know when that knowledge will be needed.

Shortly after I retired in 2015, Ben, a local pastoral colleague, contacted me about volunteering as a mentor to a refugee family from the Congo. The family was being housed temporarily in “Welcome Home”, a small house near his church which the congregation rents in order to welcome newly-arrived refugees for the first month or so of their stay in the United States.

“Jack,” he said cheerily over the phone. “You’re Canadian, aren’t you? You must speak French, then.”

Ben didn’t know that I came to the U.S. from English Canada. But I did take five years of French in high school (Ontario high schools had five, not four, grades at the time.)

“Well, sort of,” I answered. “But my last French class was 48 years ago, in 1967!”

“You’ll do just fine,” he said, more confidently than I felt.

The Congolese family speaks no English, only Swahili. The father, 54, however, had studied French in school. Therefore, Ben needed someone who could communicate with the family using Swahili or French, take your pick.

 

I have been the family’s mentor since November 2015. The French vocabulary has slowly crept up from the back of my mental hard drive closer to the front. I get by.

There were three in the family at the start: a father, mother, and a daughter, 13.

They had fled war-torn, violence-prone eastern Congo to neighboring Uganda in 2002. The United Nations accepted them into a refugee camp – and that was their home until 2015. They waited for a chance for a new, safer life for 13 years in a not-altogether secure and safe environment! During the last 4 of those years, they were being vetted by numerous intelligence arms of the United States government.

They were joined in Philadelphia some seven months later by their adult son, his wife, and their four young children, who had had to remain in the refugee camp temporarily to clear up some medical issues that prevented them from being accepted by the U.S. with the rest of the family in 2015.

Outreach and welcome to refugees has become a major plank in my unwritten mission statement for retirement. My second novel, currently under construction, will deal with the plight of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I was happy to respond affirmatively to Ben’s invitation to mentor this refugee family for various reasons:

 

  • Hospitality to strangers and “outsiders” is a primary value of the Christian faith which I espouse.
  • The protagonist in the Christian story was forced to flee suddenly from his hometown with his parents as a toddler to escape the insane violent jealousy of King Herod. My driving the family to the bank and grocery store, and helping them navigate their way in a new and highly complex environment, is therefore, an act of Christian witness.
  • My relationship with a family from a distant part of the world and a culture unfamiliar to me is also an act of There is a disturbing tendency in our society to fear the “other”, to be suspicious of people who look different from ourselves, particularly if they have a darker skin color than we ourselves. The current presidential administration in the U.S. has, it seems to me, stirred up fear and anxiety, normalized xenophobia, and unintentionally, (or, perhaps not s unintentionally?) created an environment where acts of hostility, or even violence, against the “stranger” are tolerated. Reaching out to one refugee family is my way of challenging and countering that disturbing trend.
  • Furthermore, I consider my sharing in a relationship of give and take with these none individuals from the Congo to be an act of downright The current administration has, twice now, attempted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the country annually by 50% from the number accepted under the previous President. The administration has attempted to order a temporary halt to accepting refugees. (Who is to say that the 120-day halt will not be extended?) The President’s executive order in January ordered the denial of all refugees from Syria. Thankfully, in each instance, a federal judge put a temporary halt to the President’s order. Refugee resettlement agencies, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, can continue their work of mercy, and refugees can taste freedom – at least for the time being.

 

After seeing ugly, distressing video of Syrian children writhing in agony after the government of President Bashar al-Assad attacked them with bombs containing deadly sarin gas, don’t we have a clearer, more pressing picture of just what awaits desperate Syrians in refugee camps who are barred from our country.

Till next time, live each day to the fullest. A penny for your thoughts