Monthly Archives: July 2009

“A Policeman, A Professor, and the President Walk Into A Bar…”

            Barack Voice Over:  “This is the city:  Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It’s a nice place to live, even when it’s the epicenter of a race politics earthquake.  It’s got everything a Monday morning quarterback could ever want:  Experienced public safety professionals in need of condescending hindsight criticism; seasoned peacekeepers begging for an untrained second-guesser to critique their job performance; decorated policemen hungry for a procedural review from a backseat driver whose vast repository of law enforcement knowledge was amassed by watching the Season 1 DVD box set of “The Wire.”  Occasionally, one of those Cambridge cops will “act stupidly” by arresting one of my Harvard cronies.  That’s where I come in.  I don’t work here.  I don’t carry a badge.  Or even a long-form, hospital-generated birth certificate, for that matter.”

            Narrator Voice Over:  “The column you’re about to read is true.  The facts have been embellished to preserve the author’s status as an opinionated hammerhead.” 

(Music:  “Dragnet March”)

            Barack Voice Over:  “It was Thursday, July 16th.  It was warm in Cambridge.  I was working the day watch out of Amateur Armchair Internal Affairs Division.  My partner is Joe Biden.  My name’s Obama.  When a member of the Cambridge Police Department made the mistake of hassling my Ivy League confrère, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., it became the job of A.A.I.A.D. to offer uninformed, knee-jerk condemnation.”       

            Bomp-buh-bomp-bomp!  Well, it appears the presidential pie-hole has outrun that busy, busy brain once again.  It wasn’t Special Olympians or the séances of Nancy Reagan this time; it was Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley.  So brilliant is our president that he didn’t need to wait for the results of an official inquiry; quicker than you can say “Vero Possumus,” he had Crowley branded as a cross between a Keystone Kop and a Ku Klux Klansman.  Not since the Nixon administration awarded Elvis Presley a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs special agent badge have we seen such a stellar display of presidential insight into the realities of law enforcement.

            But it’s really what has happened since then that makes this circus of pain the delight that it is.  Here’s what the President actually said, in context, when asked about Gates’ arrest:

            “But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three,  that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”

            The comment in question is number two (pun intended) in that quote.  But there’s more where that came from.  Try to crack the code of this “clarification” offered by Obama at a White House press briefing on Friday:

            “I unfortunately, I think, gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically.”

            Let’s review.  July 22, 2009:  “Cambridge police acted stupidly…”

            Yes, Mr. President, I’m going to get totally crazy and agree with you:  Somehow, Americans were given the impression that you were maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically.  Now, I’ve carefully reviewed the tapes of the statement in question.  I’ve analyzed your sentence structure, word choices, facial expressions, body language, and vocal inflections, and now that I’ve thoroughly reviewed all the data, I think I’ve zeroed in on exactly what went wrong:  According to my research and calculations, there is a clear reason why Americans were left with the impression that that you were maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically:  The problem, it seems, stems directly from the fact that you were maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically.

                  Ron Popeil Infomercial Voice Over:  “Whew!  That was a close one!  Fortunately for his presidential legacy, Barack narrowly avoided what could have been a disastrous, first-ever encounter with – Yuck! – sincerity and apologetic humility.  How did he do it?  By offering Sgt. Crowley the patented Beltway Non-PologyTM! Why apologize, when you can Non-PologizeTM?  The new Beltway Non-PologyTM from Ronco is perfect for those occasions when words like “I’m sorry!” might jeopardize your media-hyped image as an infallible, omnipotent deity.  Don’t put yourself through the hassle of feigning contrition when you can dodge personal responsibility!    The Beltway Non-PologyTM does the work for you, creating the illusion of remorse while allowing you to maintain plausible deniability!”

            My favorite chapter in this surreal tale, however, is President Barack “Common Man” Obama’s plan to sit down with Professor Henry Louis “Regular Guy” Gates Junior and Sergeant James “Yo’ Mama” Crowley “over a beer.”  (“Whip us up some wings, Michelle!  The boys are comin’ over!  UFC’s on Pay-Per-View!”)  Yep, a few cold ones in the White House basement bar, T.G.I.Franklin D. Rosie’s – “Where Commanders-In-Chief Have Nothing To Beer But Beer ItselfTM” – that ought to help everyone drunkoncile their differences.

            Does this column seem a tad cynical, or is it just me?  I guess I could have calibrated those words differently.

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“FWD: Don’t Be a Dope”

I believe that few things have drained more credibility from the evangelical community than the willingness of some of us to jump on any bandwagon that comes down the pike, just so long as it hits our e-mail inboxes with “FWD:” in the subject line. While I strongly disagree with the media’s portrayal of all theologically conservative believers as provincial rubes, I must admit that I feel like I’m swimming against a current of Christian fingers that are clicking “send” faster than a deacon dashing for the dessert table at a potluck.

When I was growing up, if you wanted to start an urban legend that duped large numbers of people, you had to do it the old fashioned way — word of mouth. How did a generation of Americans unquestionably accept the notion that mixing Pop Rocks and Pepsi caused a lethal atomic mushroom cloud to burst from the belly of Mikey, the kid from the cereal commercial? Word of mouth. Back in my day, you sassy little jackanapes, we didn’t have Outlook Express! 

How did the news get around that Proctor & Gamble’s “Man in the Moon” symbol was a satanic emblem, personally confirmed by P & G’s CEO himself, when he appeared on the Phil Donahue show to sacrifice a goat and predict the future by gazing into its entrails? We didn’t have your fancy Blackberry textification phone e-mail dealies! We had to do it the old-fashioned way: Word of mouth! We had to concoct a bizarre chain of relationships linking us directly to the source: “My cousin dates a girl whose sister’s roommate was maid of honor at the wedding of the manicurist who does Marlo Thomas’s nails, and Marlo Thomas told her that Phil Donahue himself says Crest is the only toothpaste Beelzebub will use.”

And in my day, how do you suppose we nearly killed the travel industry? Why, it was with dramatic accounts of drugged tourists waking up in ice-filled hotel bathtubs, only to realize that black-market organ brokers had not only harvested their kidneys, but had also racked up over 75 dollars in mini-bar charges! And we didn’t have us any of those new-fangled, dot-com, rumor-mongerin’ Web sites you young punks use! It took years of verbally repeating the same unfounded, ridiculous tall tales, over and over again, with diehard conviction! Word of mouth, I say!

In 1999, I first witnessed how easily and powerfully an e-mail hoax can trigger a torrent of evangelical fury. I was working as the news director of a Christian radio station in Blue Earth, Minn., and my inbox was suddenly filled by dozens of desperate listeners, each begging me to alert church-goers everywhere that the only decent television show since Michael Landon died – “Touched by an Angel” – was about to be cancelled because atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had filed “Petition 2493” with the FCC, calling for an end to all T.V. shows that mention God. Of course, this was an old urban legend, dating back to the mid-1970’s, so I double-checked with an FCC spokesman and then ran a news story debunking the rumor. One woman called me to say she was going to start a petition anyway, “just to be on the safe side.” (Incidentally, “Touched by an Angel” was, in fact, cancelled in 2003. However, the show wasn’t killed by the legal machinations of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but rather by the titanic overacting of Della Reese.)

Since then, I’ve seen dozens of celebrity conversion whoppers: “Steve Irwin answered an altar call two weeks before that sting ray killed him. In fact, he was witnessing to the creature when it attacked.”

I’ve seen far too many sentimental charity rip-offs. Most recently, there was Rebeccah Beushausen, whose blog featured tearjerker pictures of “April Rose,” her disabled daughter. Well-meaning Christians started sending money and gifts. Later it was revealed that “April Rose” was actually a lifelike “Reborn Doll” whose only disability was “batteries not included.” 

And of course, there’s the passionate “Onward Christian Soldiers” call-to-arms. I recently received another breathless warning about that old chestnut Petition 2493, this time it had been updated with names like Dr. James Dobson.

I know we need to be salt and light, but may I suggest checking the story out before forwarding it? Try consulting the archives at Snopes.com – that’s a good place to start. Jesus said in Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

I’m glad we settled that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to e-mail my bank account information to the widow of Nigeria’s former treasury secretary so she and I can divide the seven million American dollars her late husband deposited in a Grand Cayman off-shore bank account.

“Welcome to the Jungle…Bungle”

According to the home movies my mother took with her Kodak Brownie II, my second birthday party was held on the surface of the sun. It was 1969, and if you were going to capture indoor footage back then, you mounted that 8mm relic on the Mov-E-Lite lightbar. With the flip of a switch, four Sylvania Superflood 375-watt bulbs scorched your squinting subject with candlepower rivaled only by the Einstein Cross Quasar.  

The movies were silent, so Mom would always narrate them as we watched them over the years. Every time, she’d ask the same question: “Aw, look, Honey – you blew out both candles in one breath! What did you wish for?”

My answers varied over the years. “New retinas.” “A welding helmet.” “Braille lessons.” 

Ah, the memories of simpler times: Cake and ice cream, some presents, and the traditional emergency room visit after the annual piñata incident. But today, children’s birthday parties are much more sophisticated. My grandson Asher — who, just so you know, is much more adorable than your grandson — turned 2 recently, and I simply wasn’t prepared for the glitzy spectacular his parents had orchestrated.

First off, like all things of grave historical consequence, Asher’s second birthday party would require an arduous pilgrimage. Evidently, my daughter and son-in-law, after months of research, concluded that no establishment in Henderson, Warren, Knox or Mercer counties could provide the level of awesome that an occasion of this magnitude obviously requires.

The Mrs. informed me that we were off to the Quad Cities, to some place called “Jungle Bungle.” That name did not bode well, by the way. Years ago, when I was a young Marine aboard the USS Tarawa, the Navy corpsmen had us watch a rather disconcerting educational film of the same name before we were given liberty in port. But even more horrifying to me was the fact that Jungle Bungle features a giant indoor play facility. I suffer from a paralyzing fear of those.    

There was a bright spot, however. The longer drive meant I would finally get a chance to break in my new GPS. Soon we were off on a satellite-guided journey to celebrate my grandson (who, incidentally, is destined to double your grandson’s score on the S.A.T.’s).

What I didn’t know about my new device was that, along with the typical language settings for English, Spanish, and French, it also had an inexplicable “D.U.I. Frat Boy” setting. I guess I should have known something was wrong the minute it started providing turn-by-turn directions with prompts like, “Left, Bro! Left right here! Seriously!” and “You know what would be, like, epic right now? Taco Bell! In 500 feet, turn right.”

We arrived at the Jungle Bungle a full 30 minutes late. Our daughter was having a meltdown, as was the ice sculpture bust of Asher she had commissioned.

“I hope you realize you’ve missed the close-order drill team, the fireworks display and the release of the doves,” she said, testily tapping her watch. Then she uttered the words I had been dreading: “You might as well just head down to the play area while I radio the Blue Angels to get ready to do the flyover.”

Now, I understand that facilities like Jungle Bungle are fun for kids, but they terrify me. I stepped down the staircase like Dante Alighieri entering the fourth round of the ninth circle of Romper Room. It was worse than I feared. I started to perspire.

A twisting network of tubes was filled with screaming children. They were merely enjoying an afternoon of play, of course, but in my agitated state I saw a generation condemned to an eternity in hamster hell. The ball pit – well, they call it a ball pit, but it’s really a meningitis incubator – looked like a cage match featuring the characters from “Lord of the Flies.” Raffi had been singing “Baby Beluga” over the sound system, only to morph into the mocking shriek of Axl Rose: “Do you know where you are? You’re in the Jungle Bungle, baby! You’re gonna die!”

Relief is too small a word for what I felt when I was finally summoned back to the birthday party. I got there just in time for the big song, only to find that rather than have us sing “Happy Birthday” to the boy, my daughter had flown Susan Boyle in from Scotland for the task.

It was quite an affair. But when I finally was able to make my way through the paparazzi to get a moment with the guest of honor, as I held him on my lap, I realized two things. First of all, once I looked into that little face, I no longer minded the journey to get there or the horrifying descent into the play-place maelstrom. And secondly, I realized that my grandson could totally beat up your grandson.

“Your Arm’s Too Short To Box With God”

I was in a meeting with a group of teenagers recently, and we watched a sobering documentary entitled “Invisible Children.”  The film addresses the plight of children in Northern Uganda, many of whom are abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers in a terrorist faction led by a madman named Joseph Kony.  Hoping to avoid capture and conscription, some of the children have taken to traveling at night, staying on the move and living under unimaginably dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

As the end credits rolled, a leader asked the group to react to what they had seen.  A young woman abruptly stated that what she saw made her angry at God.     

As a pastor, I hear this frequently.  I’ve asked other pastors how they respond when a person states he or she is angry at God.  To my surprise, most told me they affirm the anger, assuring the furious individual that it’s okay with God if we shake our fist at Him.  These pastors invariably point to David’s Psalms of Complaint and then give a comforting pat on the shoulder.

I guess I’m a hard case, because I don’t believe God sits behind a customer service desk.  Frankly, I’ve grown weary of hearing people say they’re angry at God.  It usually boils down to the fact that the Creator and King of the Universe isn’t doing what they’ve been telling Him to do.

The youth leader conducting the discussion asked me to respond to the young woman’s comment.  While I had the ball I decided to run with it.

“Is it a sin to abduct and murder children?  Is it a sin to force a child to kill?” I asked.

Heads nodded.

“Who defines sin?” I asked the group.

“God,” a young man murmured.

“Who prohibits sin?” I asked.

“God,” another young man said, with a sigh.

“Who judges sin, condemns sin, and punishes sin?” I continued.

A chorus of exasperated teenaged voices intoned, “God!”

“If God defines, prohibits, judges, condemns, punishes, and warns against sin,” I continued, “and if Joseph Kony and his confederates are engaged in sin, at whom should our anger be directed?”

Blank stares are interesting things.  When I receive a blank stare from a small child or an adult, I assume my point has been missed, but with teenagers, the blank stare is a mystery.  It certainly could mean I have failed to persuade, or it could mean those adolescent brains are processing.  But it also could mean they’re just wondering if everyone’s staring at that big pimple on their chin.

“Who does God authorize and empower to do His work in this world?” I asked.

A bright young lady said, “Us.”

“Right.  If God has authorized and empowered the church to do His work, and if His work is undone, at whom should our anger be directed?”

More blank stares.  Incidentally, it was at this point in the conversation that I realized that I’ve grown too old to be relevant to teenagers.  I looked at myself through their eyes and saw a hunched fossil who held an ear trumpet to his ear with one trembling hand while clutching a bottle of Metamucil with the other.

Needless to say, I guess I’m not the most sympathetic preacher to turn to if one wants to vent anger at God.  When Job, who went through a lot more than most of us ever will, questioned God’s justice, “The LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?  Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.”  Yeah.

 Today is the birthday of a man I deeply admire.  On July 7th, 1851, Charles Albert Tindley was born to a free mother and a slave father.  Though legally considered free, he was sent to the fields as a child after his mother’s death.  Tindley got his seminary education through correspondence, became a Methodist minister, and was called to pastor the same Philadelphia church where he had once worked as a janitor.  130 people were attending when he started; by the end of his ministry, the congregation was a multiracial megachurch with 10,000 members.  Tindley wrote a hymn that I commend to anyone who feels entitled to be angry at God:

            “Trials dark on every hand,
            And we cannot understand
            All the ways of God would lead us
            To that blessed promised land;
            But he guides us with his eye,
            And we’ll follow till we die,
            For we’ll understand it better by and by.”

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