I am an electronics addict. Well, “addict” may be too strong of a term.  Maybe “avid enthusiast” would be better, less of a negative connotation.  Anyway, I love to tinker with electronic devices, learn about new products with enhanced capabilities, play with productivity packages…. In short, I am a middle-aged geek.  At one point, the term “geek” was considered to be somewhat derogatory.  However, with the dawn of the realization that tech is cool, being a geek became cool as well.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Electronics can be expensive, and if I paid full price on some items, I would feel a little—well, a lot—guilty.  It turns out that few of these things are actually essential.  Most are luxuries that 99+% of the world can and does do without.  But I tell myself that many of these things will make me more productive.  I’ll get more done by keeping track of things on the go.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

In order to curb my expenditures on my purchases, I often buy refurbished products when they are available.  Some people would have none of this, thinking that a factory refreshed item is really poor quality, or is damaged, or is not up to original equipment standards.  I’m sure that can be the case sometimes.  But with good companies, the factory refurbished products are returned to perfect working order.  In some cases, they get a new shell, repaired internal parts, and are restored to brand new condition, matching the specifications of the items rolling off the assembly line.

In a sense, when we are born, we are in perfect working order, spiritually speaking.  We have no flaws.  But as time goes on, we may start to demonstrate behavior that is different from the original specifications.  It may be that some of our parts have become corrupted, and we are in need of repairs.  What if after some experience of living, we become broken in some way.  What if we begin functioning differently from how we should.  We are no longer operating at peak efficiency, and we are no longer functioning as intended.

But we can be refurbished.  Like the wayward son in Jesus’ story, we may leave the family and seek fulfillment elsewhere.  Like that erring son, we may think that there is a good life to be lived in the wilds of looser society.  In the end, we may find that where we were originally is better than where we may have wandered off to.  Like with that loving father who patiently waited for his son’s return, we can be welcomed back into relationship with our Heavenly Father.  We can be restored to our original specifications.

I like refurbished products.  And I’m certainly glad God is okay with them, too.  He said so in the closing thoughts of the Revelation, when he declared, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  A heaven and earth that are new again, populated by remade people, free from incidental flaws and accidental imperfections.  What was broken will be made whole. What was empty will be filled to overflowing.

Being refurbished is not a bad thing.  I’m glad it was always part of the plan.


Reflections on Beginning My 20th Year as an Educator

It is less than a week to the start of another academic year, my 19th at UT-Martin, but my 20th as a full time college teacher.  That’s a lot of years.  And a lot of students.

When this time of year rolls around, I get nostalgic for my college days, thinking about the great professors I had the pleasure of learning from, the friends I met from so many different places, some of whom I still hear from.

And I also think about my responsibility as an educator.  My job is to try and convey the importance of a body of information to my students.  But it’s not just facts I want them to learn: I want them to learn how to learn, and to internalize the joy of learning something new, seeing connections, and synthesizing their own ideas.  I suppose every professor wants that for their students.

A few years ago, I was asked by my department chair if I would be interested in serving with a new group called the Students of Concern Team.  I had no clue what it was, but being the team player, I agreed.  The group meets to discuss and consider how best to serve students who may be having such problems that they are potentially threats to themselves or others.  We are not the ones to intervene, but we try and make sure the students get the professional help they need to succeed, and in some cases, to survive.

Through this group, I have become more aware of people’s problems, especially mental and emotional problems.  I have become more empathetic in so many ways.  My work with this group has led me to understand better the subject of suicide, too often whispered about, but too avoidable not to openly discuss.

This has been the most rewarding and the most heartbreaking assignment.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Also, a few years ago, I was privileged to be able to develop a course dealing with Environmental Health, the sub-discipline of Public Health that considers the role of environmental factors in maintaining human health.  Again, I have learned so much about the fundamentals of health issues, about the roles of population, pollution and poverty in influencing human health.  I have learned about how important sanitation and clean water is to changing the economy of a community, and how some simple things that we take for granted like adequate wells and separate septic systems can improve the status of women by improving health, reducing the work of carrying water, and allowing for education.  My Intro to Environmental Health has become a popular course among students, with a couple of them electing to pursue Public Health careers, perhaps with a little influence from that experience.

Helping people and helping people learn to help people has become my passion.  So many times, I think that if I had known about these areas when I started college, my life would have been very different.  And yet, I believe that everything happens for a reason.  No, I do not think this a just the result of some puppet play.  But everything I have learned and done throughout my life, the people I have met, the students I have taught, the wonderful woman I met here and married, all of these things have shaped me into a better man.

There was also a time when I wanted to make my mark by changing the world in some big way.  But now, I don’t think that is necessary.  I can affect little things, plant ideas with my students and let them cultivate them to grow into larger things.  I may not change the world in a big way, but if I can help one person in some small way, I will have changed it for the better.

As a person of faith, I am reminded of Paul’s instruction to the Galatians:  “6.9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  I believe that doing good for the right reasons is not a wearying thing.  It refreshes.  It may be trying at times, as it is when working with some people, or any people.  But to know you have done what is right and good is gratifying.

However, the desire to help and serve becomes a need that is never truly satisfied.  There will always be more that need help.  There will be other causes to champion.  There will be other forms of oppression to defeat.  There will be other barriers of ignorance that must be torn down.  The work is never done.

But as that person of faith, I am confident that I am doing what I need to do, what I was born to do, to help restore the very good creation to its fundamental goodness.  One lesson at a time.  One life at a time.

May all who teach succeed and find fulfillment in your efforts to make the world a better place.  May all who serve find joy in that service.  And may we never grow weary in doing good.


Toward Clarifying the Blurry Lines Between Faith and Politics

Geography is a fascinating subject.  But one thing you will find is that no matter how much you might like it to be so, not every place is higher ground.  Yes, that is a thinly veiled attempt to cast a metaphor on the political landscape.  But I have been thinking that somewhere in the back of my head for a while now.  The left thinks its concept of liberty and justice is the high ground, while the right thinks its conservatism has captured it. 

But it is very likely that both have lost the advantage of that high ground.  While the right defends the position of the sanctity of unborn life, it neglects the necessities of those that have been born.  The drive from the right to lower taxes and cut services to the poor and needy shows a lack of interest in those in need and a misplaced emphasis on the real value of money.  While the left has pushed for governmentally approved rights for marriage equality for same-sex couples, it has re-written scriptures held sacred by people of faith, re-defining one of the most universal, ancient and revered of social contracts and conventions.

When I see comments like the one I saw only today, that one cannot be pro-choice and a Christian is inflammatory to the point of stifling constructive debate and civil dialog.  By the same token, when I see flagrant disregard for the tenets of faith, even to the point of derision from the left, it speaks to a lack of respect for any other than those in perfectly locked step, mind-controlled unity.  Liberal dogmatism is as damaging as conservative dogmatism.

Before someone reaches the incorrect conclusion that I am in favor of any or every application of abortion, let me be clear:  I distinctly oppose the use of abortion as elective birth control.  I consider it to be a medical procedure of last resort for a defined slate of specific medical conditions.  The recent revelations of the sale of tissues from aborted fetuses, sanitized by officially sanctioned euphemism though it may be, demonstrate the callousness of some so-called health-care providers in this grim business.  Women’s health, even women’s reproductive health goes far beyond the abortion clinic.

At the same time, I cannot support the blanket prohibition of all applications of such a procedure.  To deny such to a woman under some (admittedly rare) medical circumstances may virtually assure her death.  There are no similar medical procedures the legal prohibition or withholding of which would result in near certain death for a man.  Thus, men and women would not be equal, and a woman may suffer for an accident of conception, both her own as a woman and that at the center of the immediate issue. 

Under that rare circumstance, the issue becomes not a matter of convenience but a matter of triage: it is a situation where there are different lives to consider, where doctors and nurses are charged with making a judgment as to which is more likely to survive, granting different care to those that may live yet respecting those that likely will not.

As inflammatory as it may seem, I will use the same language to extend the argument.  I will assert that you cannot call yourself a Christian and support every political policy that would reduce and remove programs that help the poor, the elderly, the disabled, whether young or old.  Most of these measures are ultimately driven by people of wealth who are not satisfied with the wealth they possess but always want more.  They convince people that their views are “conservative” and promote “family values,” but they only conserve their own wealth and sustain their own families.  You cannot promote family values and take food from a hungry child or medicine from the elderly or housing from the disabled. 

The argument will come that such things are biblically assigned to individual acts of charity.  If individual acts of charity could take care of the massive and growing population of the poor and elderly, then surely this would have happened years ago when the dollar bought more and there were fewer in the ranks of the poor and needy.  It never occurred nor will it now, despite the vows and intentions of religious people.  The call from the moneyed class is not, “God has given me resources, let me help!”  It is almost to the point of Marie Antoinette’s vacuous declaration of, “Let them eat cake!”  Their concern is not for the temporal, physical welfare of fellow human beings.  It is for the accumulation of more wealth and power.

I will also make another inflammatory assertion: You cannot call yourself a Christian and support every initiative to remove environmental protection measures and allow for the corruption and polluting of God’s very good creation.  Nearly every one of these initiatives is driven by a corporate entity that has financial interests in the issue.  Make no mistake: environmental stewardship is not cheap.  But the cost of environmental exploitation to the point of ecological collapse is far greater.  You cannot line the pockets of the rich and spoil your environment and expect God to take no notice of what you have done whether directly or by complicity.

I will make yet another inflammatory assertion:  You cannot call yourself a Christian and unquestioningly support any and every military action the government takes.  Again, I accept that there are times when military action is necessary: when there is a clear and present danger to helpless people, action must be taken to protect them.  But when a military endeavor is a thinly veiled adventure to fill the coffers of the corporate members of the military-industrial complex—a phrase popularized by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower—it is neither expedient nor acceptable to risk human life.  When corporate fortunes are made from war profiteering and when those fortunes feed into the wealth of members of the government at the highest levels, and when those conflicts drag on to extend and expand those profits, it is not the righteous application of force as the instrument of divine judgment.  It is merely the oppression of people by those with wealth and power.  When the military force expended is excessive and innocent civilian lives are sacrificed to make a political statement by flexing military muscle, we have overstepped the limit of decency and humanity.

Returning to the earlier discussion regarding pro-life issues, if you say you are pro-life, you must go beyond the delivery room, because life is far more than birth.  If you are pro-life, are you ready individually or corporately as a nation to support that child until she is able to contribute to society?  If you would cut funding to feed her or the thousands born into poverty like her, you are not really pro-life.  Are you willing to provide a good education for a child so that he will be able to get a decent job at a living wage and so add to society rather than only take from it?  If you support cutting funds to schools, keeping teachers over-worked, under-paid and under-appreciated, you are not really pro-life.  Are you willing to make sure that every person has decent shelter, adequate healthcare, enough police and fire fighters to protect them from harm?  If you support the rampant initiatives to cut expenditures to public services, you are not really pro-life.  If you are pro-life, are you willing to take measure to make sure that the environment is clean and safe from toxic wastes and physical hazards for a child so she can grow up without fear of harm, but with appreciation for the world around her?  If you value corporate profits and cheap products more than environmental health and safety, you are not really pro-life.

To be pro-life is to be pro-humanity.  It is to celebrate the unique personhood of every individual at every life stage, for every person is made in the image of God.  It is to respect the dignity of the intellectually disabled and to value the aged and to give comfort to the infirm.  It is to build up the fallen and to have compassion and mercy on those without strength or voice.  To be pro-life, you must be pro-ALL-of-life. 

No political party (and indeed no party platform) has been approved by God.  All such constructs are of human origin, and must be viewed not as divine but for what they are.  Never be blinded by the flash and glitter of one single issue to the exclusion of all others.  A cunning predator lures its prey with a false promise of safety and reward.  Oppressors are the same, whether from the right or the left.  We must see beyond the politics to the reality of real lives.  We must value life above money and people above corporate profits. 

In the end, God will not reward us for how large our bank accounts were in this fallen and imperfect world, but how we invested what was entrusted to us, not only our money but our abilities and time and gifts and talents to the greater good.  In that day, the greatest will not be the ones who have spent their time building fortunes or empires, but the selfless ones who have given of themselves to help others.  That’s not my idea.  Jesus described it very well in Matthew 25.  That’s where you will find the ultimate expression of what it means to be pro-life.      

We Need Solutions to End the Age of Outrage

We live in an age of outrage.  And perhaps I have fallen prey to it.  But bear with me.

I just saw one of those memes that accuses the public of not caring when 23 veterans commit suicide every day, but people get bent out of shape when one lion gets killed.

Well what about those of us who care about both? Both situations are wrong, the unacceptable suicide rate, and the killing of a vulnerable animal.  You could argue that one is more egregious than the other.  But there is one very important point to consider:  you cannot mitigate one wrong by comparing it to another. It simply doesn’t work that way.

In terms of veteran suicide vs. killing lions for pleasure, well the truth is that one is far more easily ended than the other. One can control his lust for blood sport far more easily than one can throw off the veil of depression that leads to suicide.  In fact, I could make the case that the indiscriminate pleasure killing of animals by a Minnesota dentist who killed the Zimbabwean lion, or the sick photos of the “Idaho huntress” trying to look provocative wrapped in the carcass of a dead giraffe (the feeling she got from killing it was indescribable) places us precariously close to the same kinds of things that occurred in Rome, 2000 years ago.  Then, people flocked to arenas and coliseums to witness man vs. beast, beast vs. beast, and man vs. man.  Life was cheap and death was entertainment.  While we have not yet descended into the hellish morass of true human execution as entertainment, a spate of recent dystopian books and movies aimed at young adults has us on the brink of that.

Shooting a lion or any member of the catalog of threatened and endangered species for the sake of saying you killed one is wrong. (The IUCN estimates fewer than 30,000 lions in all of Africa, down from 200,000 40 years ago, which places them in a ‘vulnerable” category.) If you are a religious person, it says you don’t care about the very good creation God provided, despite your intentional misreading of the Genesis passages granting dominion to mankind. A better reading involves stewardship. Sport killing is far from stewardship, and the person who kills to satisfy blood lust is thumbing his nose at his God.

As for veterans, well, their plight brings to mind the quote from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman who said, “War is hell.”  Veterans who have seen combat, who have been in the cruelest crucible of violent human engagement, may carry with them more than the physical scars that disfigure or maim.  Their hell is inside themselves, warring with the better angels of their humanity.  The unseen reminders of violent actions, seeing in their minds’ eyes time and again, friends and enemies and innocent people torn limb from limb, being forced to kill or be killed—all of this is more than the psyches of some can bear.

But why only talk about the veterans?  I have deep respect for every person who by choice or conscription has served in the military.  But why are they any different from any other class of people when it comes to dealing with the too often misunderstood realm of mental disorders?  What about the children and teenagers who commit suicide because of bullying? What about the elderly who commit suicide because they feel they have become a burden? What about the middle-aged men who commit suicide because they have lost their jobs and their sense of worth?  The list could go on.

Until we are ready and willing to address the deeper issues of mental health, and perhaps on a different level, deal with geopolitical conflicts through more effective diplomacy and failing that, more decisive and resolute military action, we will continue to have veterans commit suicide. We can rattle off statistics until the cows come home, but statistics won’t stop a suicide attempt.

I understand the outrage.  But we need answers, not more outrage. What are you doing to prevent suicide, whether in veterans or the unemployed or transgender youths or the elderly?

Another side of this “my outrage is more righteous than your outrage” argument deals with one of the most volatile subjects in America today: abortion.  For those opposed to abortion, what are you doing to make abortion less prevalent? Many of the people most opposed to abortion are also opposed to frank, realistic discussions of birth control with young people. Abstinence-only approaches won’t work in the long run because we’re dealing with humans, and many humans, especially young people lack the will to abstain from sex completely. Abortions (as well as STD’s) may diminish if fewer young people have unprotected sex. They’re going to do it, no matter what. Burying our heads in the sand will only exacerbate the problem.

Becoming indignant over the supposedly misplaced emphasis on a dead lion will do nothing to reduce abortion. Teaching responsibility with the paradoxical necessity of stern compassion will do far more.

While we may tend to grade wrongs from slight to terrible, any wrong is indeed just that, and needs to be approached rationally and with a plan for correction. Continued outrage is fruitless. Unless you offer a solution and offer it with the right spirit of compassion and a willingness to put aside finger-pointing and guilt-assigning, it is far past time to just keep quiet.