August 25

Why Domino Theory?

Cover Preview1

Most of my books explore in some way the topics of spirituality and peace work. Domino Theory is different. It tells the story of a drug addict named Danny McCabe who’s been framed for murder. And it explores the workings of the brain of an addict in frightening, first-person honesty. I know this, because I was there.

I don’t want to use.  I really don’t.  For one thing, heroin and alcohol is a bad mix.  You never know when you’ve done too much.  You’d suddenly pass out and quit breathing, and if there isn’t someone around to wake you up again, you’re dead.

I remember the first time it happened.  I came to and my buddy Pete was slapping me in the face.  I was like, “What the f***?”

“You weren’t breathing,” he said.

I thought about that for a sec.  Then I told him the truth.

“So what?  I don’t care.”

I think that’s what scared me the most when I woke up the next day.  I almost died and I didn’t care.

What does it matter if I do some while I’m drinking?  Even if I died, it would just end the misery.

But the misery isn’t as bad now as it was when I kicked.  I’ve been off the sh*t for three weeks.  Well, almost three weeks.  Two and a half, anyway.  My body doesn’t ache any more.  I’m starting to be able to sleep at night, if I drink enough.  Yeah, I drink more, but I’m off the dope.  I’m clean, and that’s something to be proud of.

So what am I doing with a bag full of dope in my room?  I don’t want to use it.  Really, I don’t.  It was too hard to get off of it.

But the sh*t is calling to me.  That goddamn heroin is calling my name.

I drain the third Moosehead and reach for the fourth.  Two thirds gone now.  I’m pretty drunk, but not drunk enough to ignore the dope calling me.  I suck down half the bottle in one swallow.

Damn it, I hate that shit!  F***ing heroin.  For months I couldn’t not do it.  Now I’m clean, and it still wants me back.  It’s like an evil woman that won’t let go of me, and I can’t say no. 

That’s the thing.  I know I can’t say no.  I always go back to it.  I always have, and I always will.  Yeah, I’m clean right now, but that’s temporary.  I know it.  You know it.  The dope knows it.  It’s calling my name.  It knows that sooner or later I’m going to give in.

I drain the fourth bottle and reach for the fifth.  Only one left after this, and I’m still not drunk enough.  I light another cig.

The heroin calls.  I hate being dope sick.  I f***ing hate it.  I don’t want to go back.

But we all know I’m going to.  I can’t say no.

I chug the fifth beer and open the last one, desperate to block out the Siren’s call.  That’s exactly what it is, calling me to jump back in the dark, cold water.  Calling me to die. 

I can’t say no.

I reach under the mattress and pull out my works.  I thought about throwing it out, but I couldn’t.  I knew, even then, that I would come back.  The dope is too strong.

I could throw it away now.  I could open the window and throw the spoon and the syringe out into the alley with the rats.

But I won’t.  I can’t.  No matter how much I try to deny it, I’m a junkie.  Once you cross that line, there’s no going back.

I drain the last beer, slide the empty back into the six-pack, and reach for my knapsack.  I pull out the zip lock bag and look at it.  I feel my soul drain out of me.  Once again I am hooked.  I haven’t even opened that bag yet, but I’m going to. 

I don’t have a choice.

Why did I write such a seemingly uncharacteristic novel? The answer is simple. All my books seek to overcome misunderstanding. They seek to reconcile. For many people, a drug addict is unpredictable, incomprehensible, and not worth spending time on. I sought to show the interior workings of the addict mind in the hope of helping people understand why we do what we do.

I tried to do this without glorifying the addict lifestyle. Danny’s life is miserable. He has nothing to live for but his next fix, and the vague hope that someday things will be different. But, at least in his mind, he has no choice. Regardless of the consequences, and even though he knows it will make him more miserable, he continues to use. The lies addiction tells him are so deeply ingrained that he believes them without question.

Despite Danny’s hopelessness, I also tried to write a novel that provides hope, because there is hope. I’ve been clean over thirty years. There are millions of people like me who finally got clean and sober, and who are now productive members of society. A lot of people don’t believe an addict can change. Even Danny doesn’t believe it at the beginning. And admittedly, it usually takes a huge upheaval, usually a terrible loss, for an addict to take the chance of really trying to get clean. Sure, they make promises. There was a period when I made such promises every day, but I almost always broke them before the day was over.

But once in a while, something changes. Something gets in through the lies, and we hear hope.

Up jumps the cute girl who read Chapter Five.  She’s way too perky.  I listen to see if her name is Teresa or Shawna.

“I’m Jamie and I’m an alcoholic,” she says.  I wasn’t even close.  Anyway, she’s way to pretty to have anything good to say.  She probably sipped wine after class at the university, maybe got a DUI or something.  I don’t care what she has to say, I just like the way she looks so clean.  I bet she smells nice.

“Sixty-four days ago I was lying on the floor of a jail cell down the street here,” she says, gesturing.  “I was puking my guts out, dope-sick, and wishing I could die.  They arrested me for writing bad checks, but I don’t remember doing it,” she says.  “All I know is, I was driving down PCH, and I was driving too fast because I needed to get loaded.  This cop pulls me over and takes me in.  My car got impounded, I lost my job, and my family wouldn’t bail me out.

“At the time, I thought it was the worst day of my life.  But it wasn’t.  It got worse for a couple more days.  And I finally came to laying on the floor of that jail cell, covered in my own puke.  That was the worst day of my life.

“When the cop came to let me out, I was crying,” she says.  “I told him I didn’t know how I got that bad, and I asked him, ‘What can I do?’  He gave me some change and told me to call Alcoholics Anonymous.  He even looked up the number for me.  So I called.  They told me there was a meeting here.  I walked over from the jail.  I looked like sh*t, and I was still shaking pretty bad, and I know I must have stunk.  Clint was sitting in that chair right there,” she gestures toward the front row.  “When he saw me come in, he came over to me and shook my hand and welcomed me.  And he told me it was going to be alright.

“I didn’t believe him.  But he was telling me the truth.  Because, you know, my family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me now, and I still don’t have a job, and I can’t afford to get my car out of the impound yard yet, and that costs more every day.  But I haven’t had to drink or use since I got out of jail.  For someone like me, that’s a big deal.  I haven’t had to sleep with anyone for drugs or alcohol.  I haven’t woken up in a place I didn’t know, with a person whose name I couldn’t remember.  That used to happen a lot.  Not every day, but a lot of days.

“That cop saved my life.  I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I believe it’s going to work out.  Preston, you mentioned hope, and that’s become an important word to me.  I know some of you guys were a lot worse than me, and this worked for you.  So I know it can work for me, too.  But I have to be the one who does it.  No one is going to do it for me.

“Thank you,” she finishes.

The room applauds, as they always do.  I find that my mouth is hanging open.  I close it, and I clap too.

Somehow, I believe her.  I know she didn’t just say all that for my benefit.  She’s real.

But Danny doesn’t get struck sober. He struggles with his demons. Despite the mess he’s in, he’s terrified to give up the only thing that ever made him feel better. He knows he needs to get clean. But he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he’s more afraid of using than he is of being clean.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to drug addicts, except one: in the absence of some kind of spiritual intervention, they will continue to do what they’ve been doing, and it will get worse. The disease of addiction is deadly, and most addicts die from it.

But there is also hope. A lot of addicts do get clean. I’m one of them.

If you want to know whether Danny is one of them, too, read the book!

August 24

Of God and Country

The theme of “God and country” is indelibly etched in our national culture. Only a few proclaim “I support God and country.” But most of us proclaim “one nation under God.” License plates, bumper stickers, and even our currency proclaim, “In God we trust.” There’s an underlying assumption that the two are, if not identical, at least compatible.

But what happens when the interests of our nation diverge from the demands of our God? In one most glaring example, if it’s true that “In God we trust,” why do we need such a huge military?

“But wait,” you say. “Our enemies aren’t Christian. They won’t trust in God, they’ll use guns. What are we supposed to do?”

Therein lies the problem, because the Bible tells us exactly what we should do.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-22, see also Proverbs 25:21-22)

But we’re not so good at feeding people. According to Oxfam, we spend about 0.7% of our federal budget (and 0.19% of our national income) on foreign aid, and rank 19th in giving, far behind most industrialized nations. And nearly 25% of that aid goes for military support. Meanwhile, I am at a loss to think of a single enemy we have today that we haven’t created ourselves through short-sighted foreign policy. Iran, ISIS, and the Taliban are but three examples.

But let’s ignore foreign policy for a moment. What does the Bible say about how we should treat people here at home?

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. (Romans 14:1)

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not [feed and clothe] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:45-46)

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. (Exodus 22:25)

Can we even imagine a society in which those who are weak in faith are welcomed rather than shamed, in which everyone is fed and clothed, in which foreigners are welcomed regardless of their country of origin, and in which pawn shops are illegal?

There may be such a nation, but it isn’t this one.

And let’s be clear: sexuality may be the measure of immorality promoted by the media, but Jesus never said anyone would go to Hell for being gay.  He did say we’d go to Hell for not feeding the poor.

“But we don’t have the money,” you protest. “When so many of our veterans aren’t fed, how can we feed the poor and the refugees?”

But we do have the money, and we certainly have the food. Let’s leave aside for the moment the suggestion that if we fought fewer wars, we would need to care for fewer veterans. We’re the ninth-richest country in the world, mostly behind oil-producing states of the Middle East. And we waste as much as 40% of our food, $161 billion dollars worth in 2010, which makes food waste the largest component of our landfills. Not to mention that 35% of our population is obese, suggesting we consume more food than we need to. Our nation has the resources to help, but too often chooses not to.

Clearly our nation’s policies diverge significantly from God’s.

What do we as individual Christians do about it? Do we remain silent, cheering our nation right or wrong? Or do we speak out and risk being labeled as anti-patriotic? Do we put the needs and desires of the nation above the commandment of God?

The answer depends on our response to this simple commandment:

I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3)

Which do we put first, God or country? The Bible leaves little room for elevating nation above God.

August 22

Deliverance

Who do you talk to about being plagued by demons? Most people are going to think you’re crazy. But our experiences with them were real and, as far as I’m concerned, incontrovertible.  In Utah, we’d spoken to some Pentacostals who suggested that we could get rid of the demons ourselves by just ordering them out in the name of Jesus. That was only partly true. The demons would leave, but they wouldn’t stay gone. My pastor in Denver suggested that someone here in Harrisonburg could help. After our move, we talked to him, as well as to another couple we trusted.  Both suggested that if our problems were severe, Isaiah 61 Ministries might be able to help.

Our problems were severe, disrupting our daily lives with illness, depression, and despair. So we contacted Isaiah 61 and spoke with Roger. He warned us that if we pursued deliverance, the demons would try hard to stop us.  He was right. By the time we had completed the application process, I was beginning to wonder if I belonged to the demons and was beyond help.

The deliverance process began with a 15-page application. I submitted my genealogy, information about sins I know my ancestors committed, my own history, and my own sins and infirmities. My past is less than clean, so I was somewhat encouraged to see that there were sins listed on the checklist that I had never heard of. I filled out the application as thoroughly as I could, withholding nothing. Some of my history I felt embarrassed to share with people I barely knew, but I was desperate, and what’s the point of the process if I’m not going to be honest?

The deliverance itself took three 5-hour sessions for my wife and me. Everything the four-person team did or proposed was firmly based in scripture, though I have to admit much of it was foreign to me as a Mennonite. And, as the sessions approached, I became quite nervous.  I was about to bare my soul to four strangers. But, more importantly, what if my faith was insufficient?

My first session began with a prayer, which among other things acknowledged the team’s power and authority over demons before God as justified in the Gospel.  Then came the first part, a lengthy interview to clarify my answers on the application. In the second part, I repented and renounced my sins and the sins of my ancestors, renounced my vows to other religions, and acknowledged my broken vows, including my marriage vows to my first two wives. The team also broke any and all curses that may have been upon me.

Curses? Really?

Yes, really. Though I have no intellectual framework to support the idea, I now accept that curses exist, and that they pass down through generations. (Not long ago, a psychic told my wife she was under a multi-generational curse that was over 400 years old. Ironically, though she was correct, consulting her worsened the infestation of demons.) There are specific curses mentioned in the Bible, such as that of Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God, and that of the Jews, who claimed responsibility for the blood of Christ when they demanded His crucifixion. There are curses spoken or written, some even by our own selves as when we “claim” a certain negative characteristic through our self-talk. And there are curses associated with specific actions. Roger claims that the French are under a curse for the killing of the Hugonots. I also discerned a curse associated with the House of David I of Scotland, though for what specific act I could not tell.

In the third part, the team “tested” for spirits. This involved the team leader, Roger, calling out the spirits one by one and commanding them to leave. I was amazed at how many of them came out. There were at least dozens, possibly more than a hundred, though I have no way of counting them. Most surprising to me was a strong Norse presence, which I saw manifested as a steel helmet. I know I have Viking ancestors, but they’re so far back I doubted they would have any effect on me. Apparently, they did. I also have one ancestor who seems to appear from nowhere, and I suspected he might be Native American. When Roger called out any Native American spirits, I saw a vision of a Native American village in which a blonde woman was bound with leather things, leading me to believe that my ancestor was in fact half Native, the child of a kidnapped female settler (which apparently happened quite often on the frontier in Maine). Perhaps the oddest encounter, though, occurred in my second session. There was a darkness lodged in my abdomen, and Roger called it out but it refused to move. He asked what it was called, and it replied, “Flexus.” He asked why it was still there, and it replied, “Because it’s warm.” He asked its purpose, and it answered, “I’m the defiant one.” Which, obviously, it was. Roger then began a very legalistic prayer, terminating its rights and canceling its assignments, and it left very painfully through my head.

But let’s back up a moment. As part of my interview, I was asked the date on which I was “saved.” I left it blank. Though I believe in God and Jesus, I had no faith whatever that Jesus’s sacrifice had anything to do with my sins. I felt that somehow my sins were so bad that I could not be forgiven. I was very clear about my lack of faith.

And here’s the problem:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’  When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)

Without sufficient faith to fill oneself with the Holy Spirit, the demons return in even greater numbers.  That had been our problem in the past.

During the interview, I was again clear about my lack of belief. They asked me if I believed in eternal life, and I answered (honestly) that I didn’t, and I didn’t much care about eternal life. They asked me if I believed that my sins could be forgiven by Jesus, and again I answered in the negative. But after some discussion, I was able to envision giving Jesus a suitcase full of my sins, and letting Him do with them as He sees fit.

That turned out to be sufficient. I can now say with my heart, though not with any theological or intellectual backing, that I believe my sins have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus’s self-sacrifice.

There’s another catch. Jesus asks for repentance, from the verb “to repent,” which is “to feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right” (Webster). Obviously there is a question whether repentance is sincere if you keep doing what you were doing. But there is a more practical concern. If committing a sin opens a door for a demon (or multiple demons) to enter, then one must stop committing the sin in order to keep the demons out. My wife and I cleaned our home of all representations of other religions, including my Buddha collection and her Alan Watts tapes. We burned our tarot cards. We threw out books and pictures. I deleted much of my old music from my MP3 player and computer. We’ve virtually eliminated course language. We’re careful about what we watch on Netflix and listen to on Youtube. This hasn’t been easy. Some of the items we disposed of were antiques and rare books. And some days, I miss Black Sabbath!

But how much are these things worth compared to peace with God and a life free from demonic oppression? The answer is clear. Since my first deliverance session over two weeks ago, I haven’t been angry or depressed.  I’ve experienced a feeling of comfort and settledness I have never felt before. I have not been struck perfect. There are days I still struggle with vulgar language, fear of financial insecurity, and inappropriate sexual thoughts. They won’t be canonizing me any time soon. But the peace that I’ve found, after literally years of torment from these things of darkness, is incomparable.

August 19

The Spiritual Journey – Darkness

Hiding didn’t work, of course. God was in Utah just as much as anywhere else. And my spirit pined to continue my quest. One day, while visiting family in Denver, I attended a Mennonite Church. I felt like I was home. I loved the message, the music, and the people. I was baptized later that year, and began to wonder how I could immerse myself in this spirit I found at a church that was eight hours from home.

That’s about the time things got complicated. I found myself increasingly plagued with despair and depression, and my wife suggested I might have some darkness in me. I didn’t take her seriously.  Darkness?  That’s fiction, right?

It’s not fiction. As things grew worse for me, I became willing to consider that perhaps I was infested with some sort of dark entity. That sounds crazy, right? But it wasn’t. One day, as I was praying to God for clarity, I saw it. A small, dark, nebulous creature was inhabiting my chest. I told it to leave, and it left.

But it didn’t stay gone. It returned with others, and soon we were in a full-scale battle with demons on our ranch. We had no idea what to do.  We searched the internet. We talked to pastors from various denominations. Everyone told us that of we cast them out in the name of Jesus, they would go. And they did. But they didn’t stay gone.

I need to interject here that I still have no coherent theology to account for demons. I don;t believe in ghosts, either, except that I’ve seen two in my lifetime. I’ve seen these demons. I’ve fought them. I know they are real.

My desire to lead a God-centered life led me to move to Virginia to attend seminary. I desperately hoped that we would leave the demons behind when we left. And for the first month, it seemed like we had. Then things started to go wrong. Like ten emergency room visits in six weeks. Like crisis after crisis, most often on Saturday nights so we’d miss church on Sunday.

We sought help, and were led to a former business professor who had retired to study deliverance ministry. He explained to us that casting our demons was as simple as we’d been taught, but not if you want to do it thoroughly. To get rid of them all, and have them stay gone we had missed a few steps. First, we had to confess our sins before God.  And second, we had to accept the healing power of Jesus’s resurrection into out lives.

I have no trouble confessing my sins. I’ve been doing it in the Twelve Step program for years. But what’s all this about the healing power of Jesus’s resurrection? I still could not believe that my sins could somehow be transferred to another person, especially one who’s been dead for 2,000 years.

But I was desperate. I had begun feeling like the darkness was winning.  My prayer had become, “God, if I am not of the darkness, cleanse me; if I am of the darkness but can be saved, save me; if I am of the darkness and cannot be saved, remove me before I do more damage.”

Here was a man who claimed he could cleanse me. You bet I was listening!

The application process was fifteen pages long.  It covered ancestral sins, false beliefs, sins I committed, mental and physical frailties, and more. I filled it out completely.

The day of my deliverance, I was terrified. What if I was unable to believe enough for this to work? I mean, he warned me that we had to live differently, which I was fine with. But he also warned me that I would have to believe differently. I’ve never had much luck believing what people told me to believe!

I’ll describe the deliverance process itself another time. But I will say that when the time came, I was granted sufficient understanding of the forgiveness of Jesus for the process to work. I watched an amazing number of demons come out of me.  That was two weeks ago, and they haven’t returned.

 

 

August 18

The Spiritual Journey – Part 1

My spiritual journey began, I suppose, the day I realized I didn’t believe in the God my parent’s church talked about. I was thirteen years old at the time, depressed, and certain that there could be no God or He would have helped me. I became an atheist, searching for answers in the realms of politics, eastern religions, and psychedelics.

I found few answers, and my focus gradually changed to alcohol, stimulants, and opiates, as well as literature (and music) about those same topics. Eventually, miserable and afraid that death had forgotten me, I got sober.

The Twelve Step program insisted that I search for God as an answer to my addictions.  I didn’t know how to search. For a while, it was enough to accept God as mysterious, unknown force that removed my obsession to drink and use. But the time came when I was forced to enlarge my spiritual life. I scanned the Yellow Pages for churches.  (This was long before Google.)  I tried several, including one that promised heavy metal music and long hair. Nothing fit.  They wanted me, at this point an agnostic, to accept that Jesus dies for my sins so I could go to Heaven. I barely believed in Jesus, felt that my sins were beyond forgiveness, and had no interest in everlasting life.

I stumbled into a Buddhist temple one day, and immediately became fascinated. They didn’t tell me what to believe. They said, in essence, “Do this, and you will see what the truth is.”  That I could do.

I studied Buddhism for several years. But again, something was missing. The “truth” they spoke of had to do with my personal salvation. But everything in me cried out for more. There were so many people in the world suffering from injustice, how could there not be an answer in this world as well as the next? (There couldn’t. But I’ll come back to that later.)

I began to pray to a God I didn’t believe in, “If there is a God, let me know You.”  And, as a corrolary, I imagined if there was a God, what would He want me to do.  This led me to volunteer in Sri Lanka and Thailand, helping the poor and hoping to learn something that would make me more useful to those the global economy had overlooked.

In Thailand, I worked with a Catholic priest whose motto was, “Preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.” He dedicated his life to helping the poor, most of whom were Buddhists. And he opened the door to God for me in a way no one else had. I actually took communion for the first time in two decades.

When I returned to the U.S., I attended a Jesuit university, where I majored in Theology.  I still didn’t consider myself a believer, but I wanted to understand the Bible and somehow make sense out of it. My Old Testament professor, a Quaker, showed me that the focus of the Old Testament is not outlining various sins of individual behavior, but structuring a society that is fair to the poor. He pointed out, for example, that homosexuality is condemned once, while greed and injustice are condemned hundreds of times. Meanwhile my New Testament professor, a Jesuit, began his class with Jesus declaring in Mark, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”  This made sense to me, and I began to believe in the teachings of Jesus, at least as they applied to this world.

As for God, I remained an agnostic. I literally didn’t know. Then, in 1999, I joined a group in Sri Lanka that was trying to end the decades-long war. My work took me int a war zone, where I felt that I came face-to-face with God. My prayer from so long ago had finally been answered.

But I didn’t like what I saw. My vision asked me to believe in the rightness of things. My peace work, it suggested, was right. And so was the war. In some vast architecture beyond my comprehension all this fit together in the Mind of God. Having seen the suffering the war caused to good people, and to children, I couldn’t accept that.

Later I moved to Utah and began making artisan cheese.  I gave up peace work. I gave up volunteer service. Yes, I was suffering from PTSD as a result of my experiences. But I was also running from God. I wanted to seek Him, but I was terrified because of what He’d shown me. So I hid for twelve years.

 

July 24

Jesus and the Sword

In the Gospels, Jesus continually promotes nonviolence, loving our enemies, making peace, and turning the other cheek.  But does He allow for self-defense?

Let me back up a moment and consider Matthew 10:34:

 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

A handful of Evangelical Christians have tried to convince me that this verse means Christians will need to take up arms to defend the faith.  I haven’t found that borne out in any of Christ’s other teachings, nor do the various Biblical commentaries support that view.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,

Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.

But even this view is outnumbered.  The majority of commentators suggest that “the sword” refers to the influence of evil over men, who will then argue about the true message of Jesus’s teachings in the short term, while peace will indeed be the eventual result of Jesus’s reign.

In any case, the seems little support for the idea that this verse prepares us to take up arms.  Rather, it seems to be warning that, despite Jesus’s teaching, people will take up arms.

On the subject of self defense, we have Luke 22:36:

He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one…”

This Jesus says at the Last Supper, as He prepared to send the Apostles out into the world without Him.  On the surface, He does seem to be warning them that they will need a weapon suitable for self-defense.

However, this truck me as inconsistent with Jesus’s words as he is arrested.  One of the Disciples strikes the chief priest with a sword and cuts off his ear.  (Luke 22:50 doesn’t say which one, but John 18:10 says it was Simon Peter.)  Jesus rebukes the disciple and heals the priest’s ear.  The he rebukes the priests for coming armed, clearly implying that Jesus would have gone with them without being forced and that weapons were unnecessary.

Earlier, Jesus told the Disciples,

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The inconsistency between this instruction and the arrest on the one hand, with the instruction at the Last Supper on the other, bothered me.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for an argument in favor of self-defense.

Then it occured to me: “The one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag,” and if he has no sword he must sell his cloak and buy one.  But Jesus explicitly instructed his Disciples.

[T]o take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… (and Luke adds, “no extra shirt.”  Mark 6:8, Luke 9:3)

So a man with a purse would need all those things, but the Disciples had no purses and therefore did not need these things.

It’s also clear that Jesus had no intention of using violence to avoid arrest or violence or even death.  And He called his followers to do as He did.  “Follow Me” is the second most common instruction in the Gospels, after “Love.”  Or, as Paul puts it, “Imitate Him.”

Many commentators argue that the word “sword” in the passage is symbolic, and means the same as its use in Matthew 10:34, meaning that dangerous times are coming and the Disciples should spiritually prepare themselves.  That’s possible.  But to me, it seems that Jesus is reminding His disciples that if they had possessions, they would need luggage and protection, but they are specifically instructed not to have possessions.

As John would later write,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world;  for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With that as a mission, who needs self defense?

July 19

I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus

I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007.  It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people.  In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils.  The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people.  In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.

Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.

Fighting was fierce in the East for many years.  In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.

As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either.  The government lied about the extent of its control.  In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours.  The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control.  But I didn’t know that until I got there.

My first challenge was to figure out how to get there.  No one knew.  Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.

I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance.  The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night.  Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style.  The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy.  Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns.  And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.

I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late.  But I had no idea the journey I was in for.  As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus.  Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious.  We passed through a total of ten checkpoints.  There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one.  The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times!  Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.

Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil.  All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese.  I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.

Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties.  The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking.  I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.

At the sixth checkpoint, something happened.  I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus.  So did the nurse.

The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time.  They looked at me and nodded.  Then they looked at the nurse.

“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.

The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.

“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off  the bus.”

I held my breath.  Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.

The one soldier looked at the other.  They paused.  Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.  The nurse had defied authority and won.

She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.

I continued on to Batticaloa.  The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access.  We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it.  I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people.  I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared.  I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody.  I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom.  I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties.  And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps.  One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands.  When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”

My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind.  But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.

July 17

Hospitality: The Cure for Violence

Our guest pastor today made a bold statement.  She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.

I wrinkled my brow when I heard it.  She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house.  How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?

Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts.  Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy.  We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.

Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army.  I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”

He thought for a long moment.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Let’s take Iran, for example.  In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family.  In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah.  Thirty years of oppression followed.  And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.

We still claim to support self-determination.  Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.

Then there’s Iraq.  Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:

U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.

Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran.  Arms and aid flowed freely.  George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.

Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy.  As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence.  It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.

Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years.  Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?

Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka.  People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive.  The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government.  And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government.  Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation.  Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up.  He found desperate people to do it for him.  The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.

There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism.  But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree.  Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists.  It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.

Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.

Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.

Do you see the connection yet?

If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.

If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.

There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it.  I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy.  Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security.  They will create even more enemies.

But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home.  We can become a hospitable people.  We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat.  We can do it more than once.  We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles.  And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.

That’s a tall order.  But how far would you go to stop the violence?

July 14

Excerpt: Benji’s Portal

Benji's Portal Cover lg front

Benji’s Portal tells the story of an ten-year-old boy who discovers a portal that allows him to travel anywhere in the universe.  Benji Haight and his family recently moved from the city to a small town, and Benji isn’t fitting in well at his school.  The kids tease him on the bus, and his only friend is another social outcast who lives nearby.

Benji’s life changes when he discovers an old homestead behind their house.  The homestead includes a well, and when Benji looks into it, a mass of swirling stars rises from it.

“So tell me about your day!” Dad suggested,

“Yes, tell him about the kids on the bus,” his mother prompted.

“Okay,” Benji said, reluctantly.  “These kids were teasing me about my name.  They were chanting, ‘We hate Haight.’  But it was only about a dozen of the older kids, so I just ignored them.  Then at school, I kicked a double at kickball, and Tommy said I was really good at kickball!”

“That’s wonderful,” his dad said.  “What else did you do today?”

“I went tiger hunting,” Benji began.  “Then I found a pond, and I was hunting alligators.  I found an old fireplace, where people used to cook alligators.  Then I found an old bottle, and I was going to bring it back to show you, but I forgot because of the stars.”

“The stars?” his mom asked.

“Yeah!” Benji continued, excitedly.  “There was a well near the pond, and it was full of water.  And I looked into the water and all these stars came up from the bottom.  They looked like the Milky Way, and they were just swirling right there in front of me!  It was really cool.”

“Hmm,” his dad said.  “And this happened while you were hunting alligators?”

“Well, yes,” Benji said.  “I mean, I was pretending to hunt alligators.  Everyone knows there aren’t any alligators around here.  Or tigers either.”

“But there were stars in this well?” his dad asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Benji confirmed.  “I can show you if you want.  I’d like to take you there.”

Benji’s mom gave his dad a knowing look, and then turned to Benji.

“You know, Benji,” she said, “wells can be dangerous.  If you were to fall in, you would drown.  I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go back there without one of us with you.”

“Mom,” Benji protested, “I’m not going to fall in.  Besides, even if I did, which I won’t, I can swim, remember?”

“But no one would know where you were,” she said.  “We wouldn’t be able to come help you.”

“Your mom is right,” his dad said.  “It’s best that you stay away from that well.  Maybe one day you can take me there and show me what it looks like.  But until then, play somewhere else, okay?”

“Okay,” Benji said, sadly.  “I’ll stay away from the well.”

Of course, Benji doesn’t stay away.  He soon discovers that the well is a portal, and that he’s the only one he knows who can operate it.  Thus begins as series of adventures on alien worlds.  But the old homestead also has ties to their family that none of them yet realizes.  Benji’s ancestors were driven out of town because the residents feared they were witches.  And they’re pretty sure that Benji and his family are witches, too.

Benji’s Portal is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

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July 14

The Value of Eye Contact

In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness.  It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.

In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE.  The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them.  We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.

These villages are incredibly poor.  Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs.  The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them.  Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.

The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.

“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”

“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go?  Into the sea?”

Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.

Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.

I hear a low voice call to me.

“Sir?”

Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”

I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.

Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.

“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.

“Of course,” I reply…  “How do you know English?” I ask her.

She grins, ruefully.

“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”

“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.

“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.

“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

I consider her words.

“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.

“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”

I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.

“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”

“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.

“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”

“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.

“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“A message?  How?” I ask.

“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“They signed it?” I ask.

“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”

The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer

Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.

It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”

The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.

The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.

“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”

“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.

If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant.  But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.

I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.

Does that make the villagers’ accounts false?  Yes, and no.  Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.

But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative.  They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing.  They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it.  Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.

Does that make their narrative more true?  Obviously not factually.  But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website.  And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes.  You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone.  Our virtual world has brought many advantages.  But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.

Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.

When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them.  Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it.  We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.”  People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.

 

This Thing of Darkness is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.