Charlottesville

TRANSCRIPT OF SERMON  August 13, 2017

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore, love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:17-19

So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.    Colossians 3:1-4

The first I heard of Charlottesville was probably on The Waltons, where it served as a metaphor for the world beyond the mountain, the big city, with all its exotic ways. Around that time, I remember visiting Monticello on a family trip, and coming home with a small portrait of Jefferson – the engraving on the two dollar bill – to display in my room. Charlottesville was a stop on our honeymoon, as we wandered from Pittsburgh to Lewisburg, into the Shenandoah Valley and across the mountains to the vibrant culture of an outdoor café on the UVA Corner. It was a place of back to school shopping, and family celebrations; the place Ann spent a year ministering to patients; the place I have prayed for the living and the dying for 16 years.

But today, Charlottesville is something different.

I had intended today to continue the series I began last week, but then, Charlottesville happened, and the Lord placed something different upon my heart.

Time after time, the world holds up ideals or standards, only to snatch them away again when it turns out those ideals threaten the comfort or position of the privileged. It’s like a game of hide and seek; we read clearly the Biblical injunction, ‘Love thy neighbor,’ but actually finding that love in the world around us can be difficult. The founding documents of this nation speak clearly of ‘Unalienable Rights,’ but even the most casual survey of our history reveals at best, a painful, protracted process to make those aspirations into reality; at worst, we find hypocrisy and cynicism actively thwarting efforts to achieve the equality demanded by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. In the end, we give up; we make do, lowering our sights. We seek only what we have already found, what we can reasonably expect to achieve; and because most of us are white, and immigration to this country is but a distant family memory, that compromise, that lowering of sights, is relatively painless.

But not today. My wife and daughter were in Charlottesville.

After we watched with horror and revulsion the chaos of Friday night, as racist hordes marching with torches on the campus of the university founded by the author of the Declaration of Independence; after we watched with sorrow and fear as those white supremacists chanted Nazi slogans and surrounded students – students on their own campus- with the intent to harass, demean and intimidate. After all that, my wife and daughter travelled over the mountain before sunrise Saturday morning to worship and pray with strangers of all descriptions. My wife and daughter made the choice to confront evil with the message of the Gospel: love is stronger than hate, because God is love. They joined hands in prayer and song; they marched, peacefully and quietly to a park nearby; they had a peaceful gathering, there in the early morning, and then they came home.

Heather Heyer did not.

There is much we will never know about this 32 year old paralegal from Ruckersville, but we do know this: Saturday morning, she made the choice to confront evil, and was run down, run over, murdered by a disciple of hate on the Downtown Mall.

Friends, my family has been on this continent since the 1600s. My forebears fought in the American Revolution. I have great-great grandfathers who served on both sides in the Civil War. At the age of 32, my grandfather entered the navy to fight the racist imperialism of the Axis powers in World War II. For almost 15 years, my parents have been active in Lakeland and Polk County, Florida, combatting racism and poverty, hand in hand with brothers and sisters of every color and heritage. My wife and daughter went to Charlottesville.

I stayed at home.

I stayed at home because I didn’t think it was that big a deal; after all, there had already been 2 protests about the Robert E. Lee Statue – what was one more?

I stayed at home because I didn’t think confrontation was the best way to deal these ‘Unite the Right’ people. “Ignore it,” I thought, “don’t give them a spotlight, and they will scurry home.”

I stayed at home because I was concerned making such an overt stand might make it more difficult to minister in churches with diverse opinions.

I stayed at home because I feel awkward in large crowds.

I stayed at home because I am lazy.

I had things to do at home.

I just didn’t want to go.

Scripture tells us, Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

But setting on minds on higher things does not mean we are called to ignore evil when it marches into our midst.

Now, I am not about to tell you how to vote, or what to think about President Trump and his vision for making America great again; I am not going to tell you what to think about Confederate monuments, or the flying of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia; I would never dismiss concerns about jobs and the economy, or about the moral future of our society. What I will tell you is this:

‘YOU WILL NOT REPLACE US’ is a racist threat;

‘BLOOD AND SOIL’ is the refrain of those who murdered eleven million people they thought were less than human;

‘WHITE RIGHTS’ is code for a society based on discrimination and hate; and

‘F*** YOU, FAGGOTS…’well, that one speaks for itself.

Whatever we might believe about statues of Confederate generals, or the problem of illegal immigration along the southern border; whatever we might think about economic insecurity or the government’s size and inefficiency; we must stand against racism and hate.

I must stand against racism and hate.

Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, and so we are free – free to speak the truth! And more than free, we are commissioned, commanded to proclaim the Good News: there is no partiality with God; for Christ came to save us all.

I tell you truly, there is an evil at work in our land. As disciples of Christ, we must confront that evil, so when Christ who is our life is revealed, we also might be revealed with him in glory.

I didn’t go to Charlottesville.

The next time, I will. Will you come with me?

 PASTORAL PRAYER
God of all people, we come into your presence, our heads bowed in humility. Your love and grace surround the world and all who live in it, promising to tear down the foolish distinctions that separate us, and draw us into one family, united in Christ. But there a darkness on the loose Lord; we see those who hate their neighbors pray in your name and ask for your blessing.

You have told us, O Lord, what is good: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with you, and yet there are those among us who wield guns to intimidate; who chant hateful rhetoric to terrorize and incite; who use cars as weapons to maim and kill the innocent. Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

We have no hope save in you. We have no hope to stop the violence against those who are different; no hope to stem the racism that threatens to divide our nation; no hope to reclaim a civil society, save in you. Save us now.

Father, your touch is healing; your gaze is compassion. Be with those who are in pain this day; with the sick and injured, especially those brutalized by hatred. Be with those who mourn, especially the families of Heather Hayer, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates. Be with all those who grieve for this nation.

God of peace; you remind us not to be afraid, even in the darkest times of uncertainty and fear. In this time of political turmoil and heated rhetoric, we pray for all people living in precarious situations beyond our community; especially our brothers and sisters in Guam and on the Korean peninsula. For those crippled by anxiety and fear, grant them the power to trust in you. May your wide world come to know that peace which passes all understanding, and find your calm.

You are Justice, Lord. You trample fear and hatred under your feet. You convict our hearts, stir our spirits, transform our minds. You revel in the joyful dance of community and invite us to do the same, sacrificing even your own son that fear and hatred might be overcome by love. Do not let our imaginations be tainted by the forces of violence and division. Do not let our spirits be colonized by the fear of the other. When we find ourselves in the shadows, lead us out into your light. We lift these prayers, along with the secret prayers of our hearts, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

With thanks to Rev. Jill Duffield  (http://pres-outlook.org/2017/08/a-prayer-for-charlottesville/and Seminarian Lauren Grubaugh (https://allsaints-pas.org/a-prayer-from-the-streets-of-charlottesville-from-seminarian-lauren-grubaugh/) for their beautiful prayers, from which I have stolen.

 

In which I learn the power of the vote, part B

I grew up with an interesting perspective on the electoral process.

37928332982cfbb957c328e28736adefI was the short one on the right. 

In the immortal and incessantly quoted words of Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill, All politics is local. I think that’s true – although perhaps not in exactly the same way the Former Speaker intended.

My grandfather, Harry E. Pettit (Sr.) was appointed Auditor of Washington County, Ohio in 1960, to fill an unexpired term; he ran for election to that office in 1962, and won. He would then  proceed to run for that same position, every other year, winning reelection eleven times in all, until retiring in 1985 after twenty-five years in public service.

So, my grandfather was a member of that much maligned class: he was a politician. He had campaign posters and buttons with his name and likeness emblazoned on them; he marched in parades, attended community events; he gave interviews to the local paper, and speeches to whatever groups would listen.

And because he was a politician, our family became, well, political. Now, I don’t mean we became some sort of Kennedy/Bush kind of dynasty; to my knowledge, my grandpa is the only family member who has ever been elected to public office. We did, however become intimate with the political process at it’s most retail, most local. We learned that a campaign, now matter how local, involves putting yourself out there – doing the work of  image making required to get voters to pull that lever, punch that hole, or make that X next to your name on the ballot.

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My own experience on the campaign trail, while intimate, was limited. Unlike many of my cousins, who were both older and much more local than I was, my only exposure to his seemingly endless campaign occurred on our family visits, especially during summer vacation. They were the ones stuck with the grunt work of the local get out the vote effort: going door to door in neighborhoods and towns;  sacrificing precious Midway time to hand out flyers at the County Fair; acting as living props on parade floats, dressed up as pioneer girls, throwing candy as Grandpa shook hands with the people.

There was actually a snapshot of this – probably a black and white polaroid, as was my Grandpa’s wont. I remember seeing it. It was the sixties. There were cat’s eye glasses involved.

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Something like this. Right, Debbie?

I think my cousins burned it.

My role in the campaign was much easier: I was just dragged to strange places,to eat food prepared by strange people, and try to smile when Grandpa introduced me to the volunteer firemen, or township trustees, or whoever. As a result of this torture, I developed an aversion to fish frys that would haunt me for years, and a visceral hatred of deviled eggs and Miracle Whip that remains with me to this day.

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Mr. Limpet! Don’t get in that basket! The rest of the book, “To Serve Fish”, it’s – it’s a cookbook!

There is another Tip O’Neill quote that has always struck me as particularly insightful.

Reagan Tip O'Neill

And to the chagrin of my long time liberal friends, it’s NOT the one about Ronald Reagan.

It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.

Consider, if you will, the office to which my grandfather dedicated so much of his life, both running for and actually running:

As Chief Fiscal Officer of your county, the Auditor is the bookkeeper for all county elected officials and many of the county agencies such as Human Services and Children Services. The County Auditor also keeps books for many “outside” agencies such as park districts, health departments, soil and water conservation districts, and regional planning commissions. As part of that bookkeeping responsibility, the County Auditor pays all the bills for these groups including payroll.

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The Auditor establishes the real property value and calculates the property tax for every parcel of real estate within your county. After the taxes have been collected by the County Treasurer, the Auditor then calculates how much of the money collected goes to each taxing district. 

The Auditor is responsible for: sealing gas pumps, scales and other measuring devices; licensing dogs, vendors, and others; calculating taxes and administering assessments; administering tax exemptions for senior citizens, the disabled, charities, and churches;  distributing money to schools and local governments; chairing and/or voting on many local governmental boards.

To me, all this sounds like some kind of punishment –  the kind of things you assign to somebody who misses the crucial organizational meeting to go fishing or something. Seriously, you couldn’t pay me enough to do this job, much less make me go before the voters every two years, asking them to let me do it.

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Me, after a week as County Auditor, (artist’s rendering)

I never asked him why he chose this path, but I suspect he would have told me someone had to do it. Beyond the angry words of property owners, the frustration of school administrators, the vacillation of nervous mayors; beyond the continual demands of campaigning and public accountability,  there was, and is, a basic truth: here is an important job – a job that needs to be done honestly, and well. It was the truth reflected in his perennial campaign slogan:

HEP Emery board

I don’t know if my Grandfather truly loved his work – I never asked him that, either. What I do know is this: instead of using the Auditor’s office as a stepping stone to higher office, he ran for that thankless position, again and again and again; he listened to endless complaints about property assessments and tax bills; he delivered hard truths about income and expenditures; he served on committee after committee, doing the boring, repetitive, necessary work of responsible public service – and doing it well.

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I want to vote for that kind of politician.

And not just for County Auditor.

In which I learn the power of the vote, part one

On October 17, I will celebrate the thirty fifth anniversary of my franchise.

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No, not that kind.

It was the autumn of my freshman year in college, and there was a plan afoot in the bustling-but-oh-so-dry city of Irving, Texas to pass what was known as a ‘Local Option.’ For those of you unfamiliar with this term of electoral art, ‘Local Option’ is the right given to county and municipal political jurisdictions to allow decisions on a potentially divisive issue by popular vote. In Texas, the ‘issues’ almost always involve alcoholic beverage sales, or as it was characterized more than a century ago, the license granted to the inhabitants of a district to extinguish or reduce the sale of intoxicants in their midst. Believe it or not, there are still seven ‘Dry’ counties in Texas, as of the end of 2015.

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No, not that kind. There are LOTS of that kind.

The Local Option election in 1981 would have allowed the sale of alcoholic beverages by businesses that generated 60% of their receipts in food. Las Colinas, the property from which my university had been carved in the 1950s, was finally under development, and Irving’s prohibition carryover was seen as a major hindrance to the growth of that planned community.

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It’s Happy Hour at Bennigans! (Actual Photo)

But I knew nothing of this; dry counties, local options and business growth meant nothing to me; I was in college, and I could drink!

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This makes me want to head for the mountains…and hide.

The Texas to which I had moved after my high school graduation was the home of many enlightened traditions:

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The ubiquitous wearing of cowboy boots by people who had never seen a cow.

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Oh, and the hats.

Juneteenth, which commemorates not the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the end of the Civil War, but rather June 19, 1865, the day African Americans in Texas finally got the word they were free.

JuneteenthTX3

 

Naming things after a very small mission church.

No open container laws,* and the concomitant sales of single beers in convenience stores for the evening commute.

Police-Motorist-sipped-beer-in-traffic-next-to-marked-patrol-car

This looks like a six pack traffic jam.

And the laissez faire drinking age of eighteen.**

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**The drinking age actually changed to 19 like a week after I got to college. It didn’t stop us.
*The open container law changed several years later (!)

I arrived on campus, primed to relive all the best parts of Animal House, only with better music. Imagine my shock when I found we had to drive into Dallas – all the way to Northwest Highway – to buy booze at Texas Liquors.

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Three point eight miles – can you imagine?

And then, one day, some very nice people showed up on the mall, at a table festooned with posters, bumper stickers, and voter registration cards. Fill this out, they said, and YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

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They may have put it differently.

The fact that I was a poor college student, who wouldn’t really be able to take advantage of this change for several years, never occurred to me. I was intoxicated with what Ambrose Bierce called the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

Did you see what I did there? Literary quote AND terrible pun; Dr. John Alvis would be proud.

A month or so later, there was a new voting precinct in Irving. Little booths were set up in the Maher Athletic Center. Officious looking grown ups sat at a folding table. I stood in a longish line, and when my turn came, I cast my very first ballot.

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Where do I punch the hole for BEER?

In the largest turnout in Irving’s history, “the legal sale of mixed beverages” was approved 13,158 to 12,373, or a margin of 785 votes. By way of comparison, there were about 900 undergraduate students on campus that fall, the vast majority of which were eighteen or older.

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The future is in our hands – what can go wrong?

That was the first and last time I felt my vote actually made a difference.

Are we asking the right questions?

Church people have this odd, split personality way of looking at the calendar. The Christian year begins with Advent; by the time December 31 comes around, we have already been celebrating for, like a month, and New Year’s Eve feels more like the end of a season than the beginning. But then January first dawns, bringing with it a calendar full of empty pages, waiting to be filled with resolutions, hopes, dreams, exciting initiatives and the dividends paid by the lessons learned last year.

1060roundaboutLike this one.

But here’s the thing: no matter when we resolve to change things, the questions we ask have a profound effect, not only on the direction, but on the very success of that change.

How do I lose weight?

This is a question people like me ask of ourselves and the world – the catalyst of a twenty billion dollar industry devoted to weight loss programs and supplements.

weight-loss-programWhy? Because THEY REALLY WORK.

Of course, the answer never changes, and it’s always free: DIET & EXERCISE.

d4903872224cad074b530cb661eb7f1551990dc784edc4e2b4c5fd2bf2261585Welcome to the desert of the real.

What I should be asking is, how can I be the healthiest version of myself? And while the answer no doubt includes the shedding of an entire person’s worth of weight, it would entail much more – a moderate exercise regimen, but also more time in prayer and reflection, more work on behalf of others, more intentional relationships with those close to me.

How can I get rich?

Likewise, this question is a perennial favorite, and one can find answers everywhere, from TV ads for personal injury lawyers to one’s Spam folder: MAKE MONEY ON EBAY®!  MAKE MONEY AT HOME!! MAKE MONEY ON ALPACAS! AAALPAAACAAAS!!!!!!

51BCeKlC1nL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Step one: write a book about raising Alpacas.

And when the Powerball® tops a billion dollars, it can be tempting to skip a car payment and buy a couple hundred tickets; but what are the odds?

Actually, I know the odds:  One in 292,000,000. Two hundred ninety two million. For the sake of useless comparison, you were nine times more likely to be killed by a mountain lion than you are to win the Powerball.®

article-0-1880CC0000000578-850_634x429Believe in something bigger!™ – like my incisors.

Instead of trying to figure out how to get more money to pay for more stuff -or pay for the stuff I already have – I should be asking, how can I live well with the money I have? The answer to that can cover a range of things, from addressing wants versus needs, to a critique of our disposable society, and the consideration of a simpler lifestyle.

SNN2327MCN_682_536756aSimple, schmimple; It just so happens I  really like Matchbox™ cars.

It’s the same in the church. The questions we ask about vitality and growth dictate both the direction and success of our attempts to bring change to the community of faith. A few examples:

How can we increase giving?

There are lots of individuals and organizations just itching to sell their foolproof stewardship programs to church boards. And make no mistake, they are selling; they charge hundreds, if not thousands for a box of magical materials – DVDs, scripts, workbooks, etc. Take the folks at stewardship.com:

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That Dave Ramsey certainly is a handsome fellow.

These products could be great; they could be a waste of money – heck, I don’t know. What I do know is they might be answering the wrong question.

What if, when considering a budget we ask, what is the mission and ministry to which God is calling us? And what if, instead of basing that budget on the amount of money we raised last year, we shared our mission and ministry, interpreting it as we lived it out, and then trusted the Lord to provide?

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The platitude is not really mine. Neither are the feet.

And then there’s this one:

Why are our Sunday School rooms empty?

 When it comes to Christian Education, we have gotten used to the Litany of Lament:     

The Litany of Lament 

Leader: What has the world come to?

People: Everyone is so busy.

Leader: Both parents work.

People: Children are so busy.

Leader: It’s soccer. And baseball.

People: It’s football. And gymnastics.

Leader: Families are so busy.

People: It’s camping and skiing.

Leader: It’s cruises and Disney World®

People: Attention spans are short.

Leader: Entertainment is so sophisticated.

People: How can we compete with sports?

Leader: How can we compete with video games?

People: How can we compete with the busyness?

Leader: What has the world come to?

But instead of lamenting, how about we ask, What does our community need to know about God?  What are the fundamentals of spiritual development – what are we called to learn, to teach, to share? How can we do that in the 21st century?

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And finally, there’s the $64,000 question:

How do we get more people to come to church?

Ironically enough, $64,000 is about what my pastoral compensation costs the church, what with salary and pension and health insurance. Oh, and Alpaca feed.

Some churches give stuff away.

Grace Baptist Church AR-15 Gun Giveaway Flyer

                        The-One-Church@AntiochI can’t make this stuff up.

Some churches have ‘seeker sensitive services,’ with next level audio and video; they have praise bands playing rock music, country music, hip hop music; they have conversational sermons, with film clips and PowerPoint®; they have valet parking; they have coffee bars.

southfoyerI’ll have an extra shot cappacchino with extra foam, a half squirt of sugar-free vanilla and a half squirt of sugar-free cinnamon, and a half packet of splenda; oh and good sermon, preacher!

But what if the question really is,

How do we fulfill the Great Commission?

 GO, THEREFORE and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  

                       Matthew, chapter 28

 Notice the key verb.

Maybe now, in the Year of Our Lord, Two Thousand Sixteen, it is time for us to resolve to start asking the right questions.

In which I share an episode from my youth, and hammer a point home.

True story: One summer while I was in college, I ended up working at a small, independent restaurant not too far from my parents’ house in far north Houston. For my western Pennsylvania fans, this is Houston, as in Texas, not Houston, as in Chartiers- Houston.

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Go Buccaneers.

Ostensibly a ‘family style’ restaurant, it was a flawed little gem of a place, owned and operated by this guy from New York whose previous experience seems to have been living with his wife and children on a boat in the ocean for several years. Even at the time, this seemed like inadequate preparation for anything but writing either the Voyage of the Mimi or Captain Ron, but what did I know from restaurant management?  I was an English Major.

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My previous food service employment had been as a fry-cook and burn victim at Red Lobster, so I was hired as the night cook. The ‘boss’ of the kitchen was a grouchy ‘chef’ who did a lot of brooding and smoking; he rarely made it through a dinner rush without screaming at the owner. Prep work was taken care of by a cherubic Polish bubba and her daughter, who had an advanced degree in chemistry back in the old country, but whose rudimentary command of English made her a bit of a risk in the lab. There was a Mexican dishwasher who couldn’t have been more than 25, but was obsessed with the Spanish language recordings of the early sixties country star ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves. And running back and forth between the front of the house and the kitchen were a rotating cast of barkeeps and waitresses, male and female, gay and straight, young and old.

Oh, and there was this woodcarving guy who rented the shack next door. He said he had been a circus acrobat as a boy; according to him, he was even on the cover of LIFE magazine.

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If this is the cover (and I think it is), he would be the kid.

When I knew him, he looked like Gabby Hayes, smoked a lot of dope with his ‘old lady,’ and played guitar, badly; I think the only song he knew was ‘St. James Infirmary,’ so we played it over and over during the weekly jam session in the bar.

It was truly a summer of education, the kind of learning my Seminary called field education, except this particular field was most assuredly not a church. I had watched soap operas as a kid, but it never occurred to me actual grownups did stuff like that; illicit relationships between waitresses and patrons, affairs between bar tenders and waitresses; dramatic meltdowns in the dining room; awkward fights in the bar; explosive monologues from the owner. At the epicenter of the drama was dumb old me, pretending I knew what I was doing and that all this was normal.

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There are no lighthouses near FM 1960.

It was quite a summer. I fell off the smoking wagon for the last time. I dated a waitress, whose brother was my sister’s boyfriend; his name was ‘Bob,’ hers was ‘Eileen,’ and I can’t tell you how many truly awful pun jokes my family made. I drank Iced Coffee for the first time. I learned to make cream gravy and bread pudding, developing a distaste for the latter that remains with me to this day. I learned how to roast a steamship round of beef. I walked hand in hand with a girl on the beach. And I looked down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. That last thing was the cheeseburger’s fault.

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Not this cheeseburger.

The restaurant had been busy for a Thursday night, and the kitchen was hopping until well after closing. I grilled myself a burger before clean up, wrapped it to go, and when the kitchen was ready for the next day, I hit the door running- it was about 1:30 in the morning.

In those days, I was driving a big, blue, 1976 Gran Torino station wagon.

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Of course, mine wasn’t a Squire…

It had that wonderful 1970s one-finger steering, and the most sensitive brake pedal in motoring history. A former dry cleaning delivery car in West Virginia, it wallowed like a pig with every turn and required a harbor pilot in certain urban areas; I would later find out there was a hole in the floor 2 feet in diameter where my feet rested, but that’s another story. As I left the restaurant, I ran through the evening ritual: sink into the worn-out seat, light a smoke, find a cassette, run the light at Grant Road and zoom off toward home. While eating a cheeseburger.

I was about halfway home when the burger and the bun decided to part ways, with the burger coming to rest in my lap; to this day, I can’t remember where the cigarette ended up. Happening suddenly as it did, the burger’s disintegration took me by surprise; as I looked down at the cheesy lump now resting on my right thigh, the car swerved to the right; I then corrected, swerving back to the left, away from the drainage ditch which runs beside every road in the low country of south Texas. To me, it was business as usual: another greasy, food related stain on my clothes.  To the Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy following me, it must have looked like a baby blue whale careening wildly down the highway.

I got lit up like a red and blue Christmas tree.

Now, this was not my first traffic violation rodeo, so I rolled to a stop at the next wide spot and did the ‘pulled over protocol’ –  I shut off the car, rolled down the window and retrieved my registration and insurance card. Of course, my registration and insurance card were in the glove box, approximately ten feet away. To get to them, I had to lean way over, across the front seat. No doubt I disappeared from view for a few seconds.

Don’t ever do this. I can’t stress this enough.

When I returned to a full upright position, I found myself looking at a very small Sheriff’s Deputy. She was blonde, with hair cut in a sort of bob made popular some years before by skater Dorothy Hamill. I noticed this, along with the shiny, pea green of her small jacket, the heat radiating off the blacktop around her small booted feet, and the racket of night insects in the piney woods all around us.

Mostly, though, I noticed the barrel of the very large shotgun, pointed at my face.

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It was not like this. At all.

Modern shot guns, or riot guns, as they are often called by law enforcement, look very different than the shot guns I was used to seeing in movies and cartoons. Unlike those old fashioned, side by side fowling pieces, a riot gun is usually black, with a big bore and a really menacing effect on a situation – especially when it is aimed eighteen inches from your nose.

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The deputy suggested that I show her my hands. She did this by yelling, “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!” I showed her my hands, cheeseburger drippings and all, and suggested that I did not want to be shot. I did this by yelling, “DON’T SHOOT ME! DON’T SHOOT ME!”

Spoiler alert: she did not shoot me.

After lowering her weapon a little, she listened to my lame story, saw the greasy mess for herself and then ran my license for wants and warrants. She then let me go with a warning about eating while driving.

I would like to say that experience changed my life, but it didn’t, not really. I still eat while I’m driving, still drop food in my lap, still swerve occasionally. On the other hand, I can never hear of an officer involved shooting without seeing in my mind’s eye that small blonde deputy and her big black gun. I wonder: what would have happened if she had sneezed, or hiccuped, or if a truck had backfired nearby. What if I had been a black student, or a Mexican student, sitting there with cheeseburger in my lap? What if I hadn’t been as quick to put up my hands?

What if this happened today?

Since I began writing this some weeks ago, there have been 66 police shootings in the United States, and at least 36 mass shootings by others. That translates to at least 69 people who have been shot to death, and more than 131 have been injured. 276 people, with thoughts and feelings, who drew pictures for their parents when they were kids, people who may have lived a lot longer, feeling perfectly safe and secure in the greatest country on earth, who instead, looked down the barrel of a gun. 276 people, who heard the click of the trigger, felt that fear, and surprise, and pain that comes with being shot. 276 people. And that number doesn’t take into account the single murders, accidental shootings, self defense incidents and suicides by gun.

I don’t know the answer to steeping out of this vicious circle. What I do know is this: I have a hammer.  Actually, I have several.

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And yes, I do hammer in the morning.

I like my hammers. They are very good at driving nails, or knocking things together, or knocking things apart. But when I’m trying to fix a small electronic device, or piece a ceramic bowl back together, those hammers are just not very useful.

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I have no idea what this says.

Guns are a lot like hammers. They tend to be made of metal; many have wooden parts, you can buy them ay Walmart. And like hammers, guns, whether large or small, are very good for very specific things – mostly having to do with stopping someone, or something from being alive.Trust me, this becomes clear when a gun is pointed in your face. And so, as our nation laments yet another mass shooting,  I am left to ponder:

Do more hammers make for better repairs?

How many hammers is too many hammers?

Does everyone really need a hammer?

When will enough be enough?

 

 

 

 

 

My early life, or something like it.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born…David Copperfield

In the year that President Kennedy died, I arrived in the world at St. Francis Hospital, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

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It wasn’t falling down then.

Fun Fact:  world renowned pianist and understated dresser Liberace was in Pittsburgh the very day of Kennedy’s assassination, but his show was cancelled.

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I can’t imagine why.

As he prepared for the show on the next day, a snowstorm snarled traffic forcing him to clean his outfits by hand, using a spray bottle of dry cleaning fluid, in an unvented room. Surprisingly, he was able to get on stage and perform his first number before collapsing from the potentially fatal dose of carbon tetrachloride he had unknowingly been snorting. Kidneys failing, he was rushed to St. Francis,  where he underwent a revolutionary new procedure – hemodialysis, which saved his life. Unless it was the intercession of a mysterious figure in a white habit, who encouraged the entertainer to pray to Saint Anthony.

www-St-Takla-org--St-Anthony-the-Great-Antonios-019Probably this guy, although there are like a baker’s dozen St. Anthonys.   

A Letter of Introduction, Part One.

The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name. This may seem extraordinary, but I assure you that it is not uncommon here. Sometimes, indeed, one unknown person brings another, equally unknown, to recommend him; and sometimes they recommend one another. As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be. I recommend him, however, to those civilities which every stranger of whom one knows no harm has a right to; and I request you will do him all good offices, and show him all the favor that, on further acquaintance, you shall find him to deserve. Benjamin Franklin1

Call me Patrick. I insist. 0307120007_largeTrue story: When I was a kid, I learned, somewhat later than I like to admit, that  Pat the Bunny, Dorothy Kunhardt’s classic of Interactive Literature, was not, in fact, about a rabbit named Patrick. Patrick

Later, I would learn the world is a cruel, unfair place.

And then, not long after, insult was added to my confusion and dismay. At some swanky function – perhaps my uncle’s wedding – I was introduced to a curious dab of creamy goodness packaged on a shiny cardboard square and covered with a bit of wax paper; these exotic little jewels tended to accompany loaves of bread, baked potatoes and pancakes at your finer dining establishments. url1

You can see where this is going.

I was smitten, slapping one after another onto my spud before my mother caught me. Imagine then my humiliation when the waitress, who had called ME Hon, had the temerity to call this little smear of grease Pat. Alas. It had been made clear to me once and for all, that Pat was either, A.) a verb; or 2.) a unit of butter. I decided to go by Patrick.

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Bless you.

Except for that one year I had to be Sean, since my best friend was also a Patrick P, and his name came first on the roster. And yes, my middle name is Sean.

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As a kid, this impressed me.

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As a young man, this made me feel a little weird.
Not bad, just weird.

NEXT: My early life, or something like it.

  1. Schoenbrun, David (1976). Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Harper & Row. p. 109. ISBN 0-06-013854-8.