Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Shadow Across Friendship

Writing in the 1980's, Sheldon Vanauken (“Van” to his friends, which I was lucky enough to be) observed the increasingly militant partisans of the homosexual “movement” pushing for more and more social acceptance. As an orthodox Christian Van didn't condone unchastity of any type, but he also sympathized with the legitimate point that all people should be treated with dignity and respect – particularly because he knew people with homosexual tendencies who'd been mistreated.

But allowing for that basic charity with which all men should be treated, Van was opposed to the widespread acceptance of homosexual behaviour as a social norm. A major reason he offered was one that I have never seen anyone else advance, but have seen come true in my lifetime. He contended that once homosexual attitudes and behaviour became accepted as normal, it would spell the death of normal, healthy same-sex friendships that had no sexual component. And he was dead right about that – as homosexuality has become more “mainstream”, close friendships between two men, or even two women, have become increasingly rare, and where they do occur, they are suspected of being – ahem – something more.

This was driven home to me recently when watching the holiday classic White Christmas. Most people know the story, but this time I took special notice that the film's plot pivots around the friendship and business partnership of two men, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. These guys were unmarried well into their '20s and possibly '30s, but nobody seems to question that, and romantic interests with women are a major driver of the plot. Their friendship is close, even intimate, but nobody thinks anything unusual about it.

Try telling me that a movie could be made these days with two male leads who were intimate friends, single well into their third or fourth decades (and in show business at that), that wouldn't have people assuming things about the nature of their relationship. This has been a poisonous side effect of the social push to mainstream homosexual behaviour – it has destroyed even the idea of simple friendship.

Van predicted this effect, and lamented it. Being classically educated he knew that close friendships between members of the same sex are not only healthy and normal, but the pinnacle of human relationships and one of the cornerstones of true civilization. In fact, there's something liberating about having the sexual dynamic removed entirely from a relationship – it enables partners to relate in perfect charity, without either seeking to exploit the other for anything. (This is one reason why cross-sexual friendships are more difficult – they always carry a germ, however small, of tension within them.) Van knew, because he had both seen them and experienced them, that solid friendships could exist alongside the most passionate love a man and woman could know, and the two would enrich each other.

I've had many good male friendships in my life. In fact, for a year before I was married, a friend and I shared an apartment just a few blocks from the college I was attending. We did almost everything together – attended church, went on outings, washed dishes, shared our problems, encouraged each other in our Christian walk. He even helped me through difficult times in my engagement, and was best man at my wedding. That was in the early '80s, before a shadow had fallen across such simple, generous friendship. These days, such closeness might still exist, but not without an occasional raised eyebrow or questioning glance. In generations past it was normal, common behaviour for men or women to share living quarters or close friendship with others of the same sex, for economy, companionship, and common goals. How many modern people will forego that enriching experience because they're afraid of what people will think?

What a loss that is! The highest and noblest of human relationships – simple friendship – is darkened by the political agenda of the radical homosexuals. They've even tried to stretch the shadow backward through history, suggesting (or presuming) that close friendships in past ages had to have had a sexual component. Van knew this was wrong, as do I. I pray that the deep reality of true friendship will survive the night which this culture is entering.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No change, little hope

Kissing the – ah – ring of the pro-abortionists who worked so hard to elect him, one of Barack Obama's first actions as President was against unborn children. As a largely symbolic action, within hours of his inauguration his staff had stripped from the White House website the document published by President Bush proclaiming January 18th National Sanctity of Human Life Day. In a practical action with direct and deadly consequences for the unborn, Obama is expected to sign orders reversing the Mexico City Policy which forbid Federal funds from going to organizations that promote or provide abortions overseas. This policy was first promulgated by President Reagan, sustained by Bush 41, reversed by Clinton, then reinstated by Bush 43. Now it will be reversed again by Obama, and American taxpayer dollars will once again support the spread of abortions around the world.

There is a symbolic aspect to this, as well: Obama plans to sign the order on Thursday, January 22nd – the 36th anniversary of the publication of the infamous Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton decisions which struck down all state-level protections for unborn children across America. While thousands of pro-life marchers clog the Mall for the annual March for Life, he will be signing his order putting the authority and resources of America behind the spread of the Culture of Death.

If this seems like a small thing, consider this: with increased federal funding, pro-abortion organizations will be able to hire counselors and clinic staffers, who will advise poor women in other countries that abortion is their best option. They will be able to hire lobbyists and policy advisors to guide lawmakers and bureaucrats on best ways to liberalize abortion laws. As they have here in America, they will work to undermine the authority of families, churches, and other protections for women. The resources of the country that is supposed to stand for liberty and justice will be used to further the cause of oppression and violence against the weakest in the world.

Those Christians who voted for Obama – especially Catholics – should take careful note. Those of us who listened beyond the “hope” and “change” mantras knew full well that Obama would do this – he promised his pro-abortion supporters several times that he would. If you voted for him despite this public promise, if you were so dazzled by the fawning media adulation and the glitzy aura built around him, I'd love to know how you think you're going to answer before the Throne of Christ for helping put this man in the Oval Office.

Because you will have to.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A look back at strategic thinking

I'm not much into lifting blog posts from other sources, but in this case I couldn't resist. The Joint Operating Environment 2008 report is published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a high-level evaluation of global trends, and contains very high-level thinking about factors and scenarios facing the world. One thing they stress is that too much focus on "predicting the future" is unwise, since nobody can do so, and the important thing is to be flexible and agile in your thinking so as to be able to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.

As an object lesson in this principle, they had a sidebar in the report noting how strategic thinking looked at approximately 10-year intervals through the 20th century. It's instructive to note not only what changed, but how swiftly. This is a helpful exercise in a time when the media has everyone thinking that everybody has always thought the way we think, and will always think that way.
Strategic Estimates in the Twentieth Century:

1900 - If you had been a strategic analyst for the world’s leading power, you would have been British, looking warily at Britain’s age old enemy: France.

1910 - You would now be allied with France, and the enemy would now be Germany

1920 - Britain and its allies had won World War I, but now the British found themselves engaged in a naval race with its former allies the United States and Japan.

1930 - For the British, naval limitation treaties were in place, the Great Depression had started and defense planning for the next five years assumed a “ten year” rule -- no war in ten years. British planners posited the main threats to the Empire as the Soviet Union and Japan, while Germany and Italy were either friendly or no threat.

1936 - A British planner would now posit three great threats: Italy, Japan, and the worst, a resurgent Germany, while little help could be expected from the United States.

1940 - The collapse of France in June left Britain alone in a seemingly hopeless war with Germany and Italy with a Japanese threat looming in the Pacific. America had only recently begun to scramble to rearm its military forces.

1950 - The United States was now the world’s greatest power, the atomic age had dawned, and a “police action” began in June in Korea that was to kill over 36,500 Americans, 58,000 South Koreans, nearly 3,000 Allied soldiers, 215,000 North Koreans, 400,000 Chinese, and 2,000,000 Korean civilians before a cease-fire brought an end to the fighting in 1953. The main opponent in the conflict would be China, America’s ally in the war against Japan.

1960 - Politicians in the United States were focusing on a missile gap that did not exist; massive retaliation would soon give way to flexible response, while a small insurgency in South Vietnam hardly drew American attention.

1970 - The United States was beginning to withdraw from Vietnam, its military forces in shambles. The Soviet Union had just crushed incipient rebellion in the Warsaw Pact. Détente between the Soviets and Americans had begun, while the Chinese were waiting in the wing to create an informal alliance with the United States.

1980 - The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, while a theocratic revolution in Iran had overthrown the Shah’s regime. “Desert One” -- an attempt to free American hostages in Iran -- ended in a humiliating failure, another indication of what pundits were calling “the hollow force.” America was the greatest creditor nation the world had ever seen.

1990 - The Soviet Union collapses. The supposedly hollow force shreds the vaunted Iraqi Army in less than 100 hours. The United States had become the world’s greatest debtor nation. No one outside of the Department of Defense has heard of the internet.

2000 - Warsaw is the capital of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nation. Terrorism is emerging as America’s greatest threat. Biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, HD energy, etc. are advancing so fast they are beyond forecasting

2010 - Take the above and plan accordingly! What will be the disruptions of the next 25 years?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Slavethink in action

We recently rented The Lilies of the Field, which I hadn't seen since my youth. If you have never watched this 1963 classic starring Sidney Portier, you should, and if it's been a while since you've seen it, find it and watch it again. It's a beautiful, simple story with surprising depth to the characters and forthright expression of faith of the type that could not be found in a modern movie.

Though it's easy to focus on Portier's character, Homer Smith, I found myself paying more attention to the character of the Head Mother of the small convent, Mother Maria. Portrayed as a stiff and imperious dictator, Mother Maria is a severe contrast to the easygoing, down-to-earth Homer - something that causes much of the tension of the story. Their relationship of misunderstanding begins when she's convinced that God has sent her convent a good, strong workman while he's thinking of a pickup day job to earn some spare cash. Things go downhill from there, but somehow the essential goodness of everyone involved comes out and the chapel gets built.

The big question for most people watching the film is, why is Mother Maria so prickly? She's bossy, ungrateful, insensitive, and terribly demanding on those around her. She takes everything for granted, including Homer's generous help, which he is under no obligation to provide. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she has alienated everyone else who has tried to help the convent, and she does the same to Homer a couple of times.

When I saw the film in my youth, Mother Maria's rudeness was simply a mystery to me. Why was she, a nun, supposedly a minister of God's grace and love to the world, so mean to Homer and everyone else? I think I have the answer.

Mother Maria saw herself as a slave. God's slave, of course, but a slave nonetheless. She saw her only value to God as being what she did for Him. She did not see herself as a daughter belonging to a family, but rather as a worker whose only value was her function, her productivity. This comes through clearly toward the end of the movie when she brings to the chapel the itinerant priest who serves her region. He's speechless at what Homer and the local parishioners accomplished, and gazes around the humble chapel as if it were the Cathedral of Chartres, grateful that he doesn't have to say Mass out of the back of a pickup any more. But all Mother Maria can mutter is, “there is so much to do, so much to do...” She doesn't take time to appreciate what has been done, she just looks forward to the next task on her list.

She views everyone else through this perceptual lens as well. People are there to be put to work, and once Homer actually refers to her as a slave driver. She's very even-handed, of course – she doesn't treat anyone any better than she treats herself, but it's clear from the story that she treats herself brutally. Why should she show herself – or anyone else – courtesy, consideration, or compassion? She doesn't see herself getting any of that from anyone – especially God. For instance, she never thanks any human for anything. She'll thank God, but never another human, because she doesn't accept any thanks herself.

This story reconfirmed one of the most important lessons that God has taught me in my life – one that He's still teaching me: that He wants people who think like sons and daughters, not slaves. For me, the basis for this lesson is the elder son in the famous story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. Reading the story, most people focus on the Younger Son, the Prodigal, who squanders his inheritance. But the Elder Son is also a critical player in the story, and his self-perception slips out in the furious monologue he unleashes on his father (v.29-30): "All these years I have slaved for you..."

I could (and probably will) unpack in much more detail all the things God has taught me over the years on this topic. It's the central theme of a story of that very name - I Have Slaved For You in my book, The Last Ugly Person. But to focus on Mother Maria as an example of the type, her stiff and prickly personality stems from her perception of herself as a creature valued solely for how much productivity she can pack into a workday. It also causes no end of conflict and misunderstanding with nearly every other character, especially poor Homer.

My biggest emotional memory of Lilies of the Field from my youth is how sad I felt to see Homer's wagon driving away down the road as the closing credits rolled. He'd done so much there, he was so beloved by the sisters and the community! He had an offer of a good job and nowhere better to go - why couldn't he stay? Sadly, the answer is Mother Maria. In the final scene of the film, it slowly becomes clear to him that no matter how fond he is of the little community, and how much he wants a home, he'll never get past the Mother's demanding and thankless personality. That same reality seems to be dawning on Mother Maria as well, as he starts the sisters singing the film's trademark "Amen!" spiritual while he backs out of the room and packs his station wagon. She's sitting at the table, slowly coming to the realization that her brusque ingratitude has driven this man from their lives. The saddest thing is that it didn't need to happen. Had Mother Maria been able to see herself as a beloved daughter in the household of God, she would have been able to view and treat others the same way. Instead, she viewed herself as a slave, an appliance with a pulse, only valued so long as it performed its function. Why should she view those around her any differently?

Am I any different? Do I understand how my self-perception affects my view and treatment of others? Do I see that I can love only to the degree that I understand that I am loved?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Showing Forth the Light

“Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising.”
Isaiah 60:1-3

The Old Testament passage for Epiphany is drawn from Isaiah 60, where the Lord speaks of the future glory of Israel, and how light will shine on Jerusalem while darkness and mist (or fog) covers the nations (goyim). Further into the chapter it speaks of the wealth of nations being brought by foreign kings, even naming gold and frankincense, and how camels would bring this abundance of wealth (hence the camel theme so common with the Wise Men).

The darkness and mist was the darkness of sin, and the light was the revelation of the Incarnate Son of God, which was to illuminate not only the people of Israel, but to dispel the darkness that covered the nations. Listening to that reading this year, it struck me as it never had before: I am of those nations, those goyim who dwelt in darkness, far from the revelation of God. My ancestors had no claim to the promise, to the covenant of God. At the time of Christ, and certainly at the time of Isaiah, they probably didn't know there was such a nation as Israel. Yet God's mercy is so great that the Light made its way to the land of my forebearers, and they responded, and laid at the feet of the manger their treasures: a will submitted to God, which is more precious than gold or frankincense, and the only thing we can really give Him. Because my fathers were drawn out of the darkness of sin into the light of salvation, I can know eternal light.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like, living in that darkness. Dreary year after dreary year, no hope, no light, nothing but petty superstitions and legends, the dark maw of death ultimately swallowing all. Chesterton offers a glimpse, and studies can suggest some of it, but so long as I stand in the light, I'm only studying that from the outside.

What amazes me is how many people today want to turn their backs on the light and plunge back into the darkness. They think it's a better life, somehow. They forget how many stumbled about for centuries – millenia – in the darkness seeking the light. They don't think about the Wise Men, and why they took that long and arduous journey. What did the Wise Men expect to find, and why did they expect it to be any greater than what they had? They were magi, the wise – people came to them to get answers. Yet they undertook a dangerous journey to come before Wisdom Himself. Their spiritual forefathers, the Wise Men of all ages, had expended their lives in search of what the magi were given freely. No wonder they lay down their rich gifts – the Gift they got in return was of much greater value. Yet so many today want to turn their back on that Gift.

If anything, that makes me appreciate the Gift even more. I'm sorry that so many find the darkness enticing, and want to return there. My fathers waited long and worked hard and paid a high price to come to the light. I'm staying here.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year Profundity (or not)

Expectations are that the first post on the first day of a new year should be profound. Perhaps a thoughtful retrospective on the year gone by, or meditations regarding the days to come. When the date rolls around to "1/1", such things are de rigueur.

I'll try not to disappoint, but no guarantees.

Things are rather low-key around home today - we had our New Year's Eve party last night, and today the kids are mostly recovering by sleeping. The day began on a chilly note when I rose to find that the furnace had been switched off the night before (fortunately it just needed to be switched back on). After that I dealt with balky tub drains and balky routers (for some of my household, the router is the greater of those problems), and then got some pizza and watched a movie we rented. After I post this, I'm going to get around to some thank-you notes. A quiet day all in all.

But morning prayers provided an opportunity to do some thinking. Every year as I swap out my old ordo (i.e. schedule of readings) with the new one, I look at the thick bulk of pages covering the upcoming year and wonder what those days and months will bring. I've done this for years, and it seems like just yesterday that I was looking at the pages for 2008, wondering what experiences would accompany those readings. Now I can look back on them and attest: the experience of God's goodness and provision. I honestly don't know how we made it through this past year financially (as my tax return can witness), yet somehow here we are. Of course, it's been this way for 2½ years or so now - maybe I'm supposed to get accustomed to it. I'd like to be able to stop fretting and sweating over financial matters, but that's very hard, even when the Lord is giving extensive practical lessons in His provision. Maybe that'll be something I can focus on in 2009 - being less fidgety about how or when God is going to provide and simply trusting that He'll keep doing so, as He's proven He can do (however He does it). Not that I'd be casual about any work He put before me, or ungrateful to friends and family who have helped us out, but I'd work on trying to be a bit less frenzied about living so close to the edge. It seems to be where the Lord wants me living.

Of course, looking at the pages of 2009 made me wonder about the year to come. Many are gravely concerned about the upcoming year - financially, politically, socially, and in many other ways it looks like a very challenging time. As someone whose small business has been struggling for nearly three years, living in a state that never emerged from the last recession and whose major industries are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it would seem that I have more cause for worry than most. As mentioned, I hope the lessons of the past years will help me be more trusting about God's provision - in fact, part of me wonders if these past years have been faith toning lessons, for my own sake and for the sake of others who I might encourage. But more than even this, I wondered what I'd like to accomplish in this upcoming year.

For me, the answer is simple: I'd like to reflect Christ better to those around me. I'll consider it progress if toward the end of the year, when others look at me, they can see Christ more clearly than they did at the beginning. My great example is St. John the Baptist - the man who knew that he was a herald, and that he didn't matter; that his message was everything. It was he who rejoiced to see Christ's coming, and trumpeted to his disciples, "He must become greater, and I must become less!" What total self-abandonment and unselfconsciousness! What abasement of pride and ego! What utter trust in his Master, that he didn't worry about his ministry or impact or résumé, but threw himself recklessly into his mission, leaving it to Jesus to sort out the final details. That's the attitude I'd like to have. Maybe I'll get more of it in the year to come.