Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

By now, nearly everyone on social media has had time to react to Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the National Anthem at an NFL pre-season game on Friday, August 26.  Many of them have expressed an opinion on his action (and explanatory words), often using pictorial memes created by others.

But I believe that this subject has too many nuances to be captured by any meme, nearly all of which are of the "Hooray for our side!" variety.  So let me use this space to explain what I think is right and wrong about Kaepernick's words and actions.

Before I get into that, however, let me make one disclaimer:  I pretty much loathe the song that is our National Anthem.  Musically, it is a mess.  Perhaps "abomination" is not too strong a word.  At any rate, it requires a vocal range that prohibits most American citizens from singing it decently without awkwardly switching octaves mid-song.  This article explains the inherent pro-slavery views of the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner.  In fact, the only verse I like is the one we sing in our Anglican church on patriotic holidays:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation! 
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land 
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation! 
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, 
And this be our motto - “In God is our trust,”  
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Even that, however, has the kind of vision of America as God's chosen country that was dealt with (negatively) in Bob Dylan's song, "With God On Our Side."  So, I have no love for this song.  The reason I stand and sing it is because it represents the country I love, and that is the only reason.  I've often been public in recommending that we accept as our National Anthem the song which is sometimes referred to as "the black national anthem":  Lift Every Voice and Sing.

The third verse is especially poignant, and extremely timely for us at this juncture in our national history:

"God of our weary years,God of our silent tears, 
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; 
Thou who has by Thy mightLed us into the light, 
Keep us forever in the path, we pray. 
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, 
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forgot Thee, 
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand, 
True to our God, true to our native land."

Every Christian, perhaps every theist, should rejoice if my recommended national anthem change were implemented.  For "Lift Every Voice" is infinitely more spiritual than the Star Spangled Banner.  It doesn't use God, as our current national anthem does, as merely an insurer of our national victories.  It pictures Him as a being infinitely above our nation and all others, a Being we should be most afraid of offending.   

But I will bet you that if this became our new National Anthem, many of my white friends would not stand for it; they'd remain seated as Kaepernick has pledged to do for our current national song.  And they would fancy themselves heroic, or at least righteous for doing so.

But what of Colin Kaepernick and his choice to remain seated?  Much depends upon why he did it, and what his proposed remedy for the situation is.  As to the first, here are his own words:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
The point has been made by many that as someone who is extremely wealthy because of the American system, and has someone who has clearly NOT been oppressed himself, Kaepernick has no right to speak up.  But I don't find this argument valid.  Those who are given strength and a voice are right to speak up on behalf of the oppressed.  Sometimes it falls to you, as a person of power and influence, to speak up and say that we cannot treat things (as they currently stand) as "business as usual."

A stronger argument against Kaepernick's words is that he is simply factually incorrect about America.  There is less systemic oppression of black people and people of color than perhaps in any other society ever.    Allen West makes that point very cogently in this article.
Mr. Kaepernick, a biracial young man adopted and raised by white parents, claims America is oppressing blacks at a time when we have a black, biracial president who was twice elected. We’ve had two black attorneys general and currently have a black secretary of homeland security, along with a black national security advisor. Here in Dallas our police chief, whom I know, is an outstanding black leader. The officer in Milwaukee who shot the armed assailant after issuing an order to drop his weapon was black. Is Mr. Kaepernick following suit and cherry-picking what he terms “oppression?”
But, for purposes of argument, let us hypothetically concede that Kaepernick is factually correct about America.  If that is what he believes, is he duty-bound to remain silent?  I think not.  Some critics have suggested that Kaepernick and all other Americans should adopt a "My country, wrong or right" attitude.  But I disagree.  G. K. Chesterton weighs in on this notion:
“My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
So, a true patriot can (or, rather, "must") protest his own country when she is in error.  But the true patriot does this in love.  Just as one would work towards the sobriety of his own mother, in love, so the true patriot works toward the reformation of his country in love.

The question now becomes:  "Is Colin Kaepernick that kind of man or not?"

He doesn't leave us wondering very long about this.  It is right there in the t-shirt he chose to wear to his post-game press conference.  It features Fidel Castro, oppressor extraordinaire, and enemy of everything American.  This, and not the act of remaining seated during our very flawed national anthem, is the true offense.  To suggest (and his shirt does suggest this, let's not pretend otherwise) that the philosophy of Fidel Castro, the brutally oppressive dictator of Cuba, is somehow an answer to what is wrong with America ... shows that Kaepernick is not trying to correct America as his beloved mother.  Rather, he is on the side of those wishing her eternally destroyed.  To endorse a socialist dictator while earning many millions of dollars thanks to America's capitalist system ... well, that is the worst and most blatant sort of hypocrisy imaginable.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Social Media and the Tyranny of the Exceptional

I spend a lot of time on Facebook, some on Instagram, and a bit on Snapchat.  Particularly on Facebook, there is some tendency toward the publication of The Exceptional.  Exceptional (a.k.a, "newsworthy") events are favored by many:  a terrorist attack takes place in Europe, a politician says something horrible, an athlete accomplishes an incredible feat, a dog rescues a homeless person, the world will end next year due to (take your pick:  GMO food, chemtrails, global climate change, or fluorinated water).  We gravitate, some of us, to the very, very good or else the very, very bad.

But I love it when people chronicle the mundane aspects of their daily lives.  My friend in Pennsylvania had a cup of coffee at his favorite diner.  My friend in Houston smoked a cigar.  A lady from Michigan attended her child's sporting event.  A bodybuilding competitor photographed her breakfast.  A friend from North Carolina has the Cutest Grandson Ever.  Another fellow from Pennsylvania posts a photo of his beloved dog.  A woman in Maryland gives an update on her garden.  A couple in Texas show a new kind of beer they sampled.  A kid from Michigan posts a cool car he saw on the street.

I have seen many Facebook posts to the effect of:  "Nobody wants to hear about your workout!  Nobody wants to see what you ate for breakfast!"

But, I do.  I want to see your pets, your kids, your pool party, your vacation photos, your anniversary flashback photos, your gym selfies, your cute pics of your kids and grandkids, and especially your food!  In a world tyrannized by The Exceptional, I would like to see The Normal. Maybe it is old age catching up with me, but it comforts me to be reminded that not everything happens on the fringes, the extremes of life.

Give me a cornucopia of the common, a plethora of the plebeian, an abundance of the average, a multitude of the mundane, an ululation of the unexceptional, a surfeit of the simple, and an overplus of the ordinary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ridding My Life of Toxic People?

I see meme after meme after meme on social media to the effect that I should:

* Rid my life of toxic people.
* Banish all negativity from my life; don't let it touch me.
* Guard myself from all possible emotional harm.

But the Saviour I worship did NONE of these things. His incarnation into this world was nothing less than full immersion in negativity. He suffered emotional harm. He lived and died his life entirely for toxic people. How can I do otherwise?

This painting (Ed Knippers, "Pest House - Christ Heals the Sick") is how I see Christ (and, prayerfully, myself) in the world:

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Marital Intimacy in Heaven

A few weeks back, I was pondering this verse while at the gym, and got a little peeved at God:
"For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven." (Matthew 22:30)
Given the blazing success that marriage to Cindy has been for me, it irks me that decades of development of emotional intimacy, the accumulation of inside jokes, the crafting of our own unique lexicon ... shared by only the two of us ... all that will be down the drain in the kingdom of heaven, says our Lord. And it seems like such a waste.

Why would God take all that away from us? It seems like a downgrade. In fact, it doesn't really seem like something our amazingly generous God would do. So then I thought: "Maybe he won't. Maybe I've misapprehended the verse."

What if ... God being overly generous and loving emotional, spiritual, and every other kind of intimacy with and among his people ... what if God went truly overboard with generosity and gave us that same level of intimacy seen in the very best marriages ... I say, what if God gave us that same intimacy with EVERY other believer in heaven? It seems so like Him to do that. If you look at the world He has crafted, from micro-organisms to galaxies, it fairly screams out, "Yes! More! All of it! Infinite! Yes!"

So, this is my current view of heaven, that each believer's intimacy with each other, and our intimacy with God, shall be like (nay, exceed!) the intimacy in the best marriages on earth. Rather than taking one thing away, God will give me 100 million times more! So like Him, to do that.

"Yeah ... I heard a funny thing.  Somebody said to me, you know, that I could be in love with almost everyone."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Energy - A New Poem


For reasons God keeps hidden from the world,
He loves to turn potential to kinetic.
To take a pent-up energy tight-furled,
And change it into something most frenetic.

So walls of ocean water piled high
Soon crash the beach as waves of violent foam.
So high voltaic potential in the sky
Must flash to ground with no resisting Ohm.
So differences in pressure must let fly
Fierce atmospheric force, and winds rush home.

Thus in my members, when not with my love,
A terrible potential there is bound.
But, when at last with her I’m speaking of,
It’s loosed like lightning finding its true ground.

©2016, Paul W Erlandson

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Introducing ... the Jetfire Guitar!!!

All the way back in April, 2008, my son Eliot Erlandson drew out a quick pencil sketch for a guitar we wanted to build together.  We knew it had to be a kind of "Jetson's" type of retro look ... maybe it could look like a rocket or something.

Then, too, we knew we would build it based on some hardware (bridge, tremelo, and pickups) from Hallmark Guitars, since I own two Hallmarks, and love the way they sound.  Other than that, we didn't constrain ourselves too much.  We wanted a solid-body electric with two single-pole pickups, with the body being out of mahogany.

Here are some photos from our eight-year journey (in fits and starts) to get this concept of Eliot's brought into reality.  Today, it is a gorgeous, very playable electric guitar (videos to come!) with a gorgeous Candy Magenta paint job using House of Kolor automotive paint.

Routing out the body ...

Eliot cut the body shape out with a band saw ...

The plan all along was to have all the electronics mounted to a fairly large pickguard, and we stuck to that plan ...

Finally, the big day came, and we had the beast painted by Clifton Darnell of Darnell Rod & Kustom.  Fabulous!  When the sun hits this baby, it shatters your retinas!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Changing the Way I Pray

I'm changing the way I pray for people. In the past, I generally prayed for good things to happen to good people, for good people to be delivered from their troubles, and for bad things to happen to bad people (Oh, don't pretend to be shocked! David did this all the time in the Psalms.).

But there are drawbacks to my old way of praying. One of them is that I first have to determine which people I am praying for are in need of benediction, and which in need of malediction. It's a lot of calculation, with scant amounts of data, and well ... when you get right down to it, we're all worthy of God's curse.

So, I've adapted the words of absolution from the Holy Communion service in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and I pray it for all of the people in my life: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I pray this:

Have mercy upon [them]; pardon and deliver [them] from all [their] sins; confirm and strengthen [them] in all goodness; and bring [them] to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

There are 6 petitions here:

(1)  That God would have mercy on the people for whom we pray.  We all need this.

(2)  For bad people (sinners) to be pardoned for their sins.  Of course this implies with it conversion to Christ as a necessary condition for forgiveness.

(3)  That these same bad people (all of us, I suppose) would be delivered from their sins.  Think about it.  Visualize your worst earthly enemy, and then imagine that person being delivered from all of his/her sins.  Wouldn't that be great?   Some of them (us) would scarcely be recognizable!

(4)  For those of us who have some good in us, that this good would be confirmed in us.

(5)  That the good in people would be strengthened.

(6)  That the object of our prayer would be brought to eternal life in Christ.

No longer do I have to calculate the goodness or badness of a person before praying.  This prayer covers it all.  Behold, the genius of the historic Book of Common Prayer!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

That I may know ... the fellowship of his sufferings.

You cannot reasonably argue that my Dad was anything but a great and natural educator.  For one thing, I still remember things he tried to teach me 45 years ago ... things which didn't "take" with me at the time, but which I am perhaps now just beginning to apprehend.

One such teaching of my Dad's took place over and over again in Family Devotions.  For those of you who were not raised in Evangelical Christian households, "Devotions" was a family time of Bible Study, discussion, and prayer, in our case, led by the family patriarch.  Think of it as homeschool catechism, if you like.

In our family devotions, Dad seemed to come back over and over again (annoyingly, I thought) to a few themes.  One of them was that Christians, as a Free Bonus for believing in Christ get to share in the sufferings of Christ!   Imagine my joy at hearing this!  I don't think I was unusual among 10-year-old kids in thinking that this was a very bizarre and distasteful idea.  My idea was a rather more Old Testament (as I saw it then) concept of where I believe in God and try to do good things, and then God heaps up giant heaps of blessing on me.  (Some, such as Joel Osteen, have never got past this 10-year-old's conception of the Christian faith.)  But my dad kept pounding it into us that our reward for being Christians would be to get to suffer for and with Jesus Christ.  
Among his chief texts was Philippians 3:10:

"That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death."

But I think he also used Philippians 1:29, 1 Peter 4:13, and Colossians 1:24.

But I didn't really internalize these verses. All they really did was to make the New Testament a kind of minefield to read through, filled with the wonderful promises of God that I would suffer for his sake. I should not have been surprised. My namesake, St. Paul, knew it well. What did the risen Lord Jesus say to Saul of Tarsus when he first spoke audibly to him? Was it, "Hey, Saul. I'ma call you Paul, and we shall be best friends! I'm going to make you so happy." Not quite. It was:

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.  “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

And (worse and worse), here is what he told Ananias, the man to whose house he sent poor Saul:

“Go! This man is my chosen instrumentto proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Really? Wow. What a friend we have in Jesus, as the song goes.

So, I didn't internalize or absorb this teaching. Life went on. I tried to avoid suffering in the usual ways we humans do. I found interesting things to do that seemed to bring me joy. I learned to play guitar, and played in a few bands. I drank a lot of beer. I took up bodybuilding. I started making oil paintings. I started fixing up old cars. I got a cool tattoo. These things (except, sadly, beer) have all remained with me to this day. But for a while now, the joy seems to have gone out of them. The things which used to make me happy didn't really work any more.

I started to try to help people. Surely concentrating on making other people's lives better would make mine richer, and bring me joy? Right? But, in the end, not so much. In the end, there was pain and disillusionment. It was as if every new pursuit, hobby, or friendship was a bright door with the word "JOY" written on it. I opened the door, but inside each door was a kind of very long children's playground slide. I enjoyed the ride down each time, I suppose, but every time one of these Joy Slides dumped me out at the bottom, there I was, mired in the sufferings of Christ.

Someone recently asked me, "Do you think that by God taking the joy out of these things you used to love, He is telling you to find a new thing to do?"

I thought about, but I know the answer is No. There is only one way forward now. God has allowed me a participation in the sufferings of Christ. I seem most often to be in torment because of them. No, the way forward is not to find another JOY door through which I can escape the sufferings of Jesus. The way forward is to find the fellowship in these sufferings. That's what has been missing. The way forward is to beg Jesus to be in fellowship with me in these sufferings.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

God Wants Things To Be Hard For Us

It is amazing how many things fall into place once you come to the realization that God wants things to be hard for us. 

There must be REAL risk, hardship, and sacrifice to obtain any meaningful reward in life. This is the message of the Gospel story of the widow's mites. 

 "Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

When you really risk loss and ruin, then real reward becomes possible. It is MEANT to be hard to do. Just as (and you knew this was coming) bodybuilding exercises are hard to do. They are MEANT to be hard. There is SUPPOSED to be sacrifice!

If I could only keep this in mind, what a happy man I would be.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Horror of Idolatry & The Monkees' "I'm a Believer"

I've been hearing the Monkees' song I'm a Believer since around the time it was released ... so, approximately 50 years.  But I don't think I really understood it until tonight.  It came on YouTube after some other 1960s song, and I heard it as with new ears.

But first, I should say that I have some personal history with this song.  A band I was in tried to make a Christian/Gospel song out of this.  It seemed an obvious choice, since being a "believer" is what the Faith is all about.  As a Calvinist, I thought the line,

"Ooh ... I'm a believer; I couldn't leave Him if I tried"

was a clever way of saying that our election in Christ is beyond us, and that nothing (not even we ourselves) can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:39)

What I did not realize until later was that it obliterated the internal rhyme of "believer" with "leave her", stripping the chorus of its verbal "hook."

But tonight, I heard the Monkees sing the song in its original (not my modified) form, and it struck me as horrific.  It appeared to me (finally, after all those decades) as idolatrous.  Idolatrous, because the singer has placed the sort of hope in a girlfriend that properly should be placed only in God.  Such a hope that love itself meant nothing until he "saw her face."

That is a lot of pressure to put on a young woman.  What if, one day, her face is not quite as lovely?  Does one at that point revert back to not believing in love?  Idols (whether human, animal, or inanimate) will ALWAYS let us down eventually.  My thought is that the sooner we are let down, the better.  The sooner our illusions that some other human (or object) can stand in for God is dashed, the better.

But do you know the line which horrified me most in this song?  It was this:
"I'm a believer; I couldn't leave her if I tried."

What a terrifying thought, that one could be so enslaved by another being that even if it seemed best, and try as one might, one would be unable to leave that other person.  Even, I presume, if that other person's toxic nature became apparent to one.  You'd still be stuck.  You could never leave.

Idolatry is hard to quit, even when the idols disappoint us.  I think it would make a fine Old Testament drinking game to read through the books of Kings and Chronicles, and to take a shot every time it is recorded that, "Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away."

May God deliver us from the horror of idols, the failure of idols, and the terrible inability to leave them!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Functionally Avuncular

It is my firmly held opinion that the word "avuncular" is not used nearly enough.

This blog, however, is not about real uncles, who have the greatest claim to the word.  It is rather about those "virtual uncles" with whom some of us have been blessed.

Maybe you had one.  He was probably a friend of  your parents, and almost certainly not married.  Possibly, he was a little quirky, or had an unusual hobby.  He probably did not have family of his own in town, but he liked a family setting.  So, he came over to your parents' house some evenings and hung out with them and with you.

It was a win-win kind of thing.  He got some home-cooked meals, without the burden of responsibility that comes with actually being related to people.  You got some relief from the repetitive tedium of your nuclear family.  He was a virtual fun factory.

I remember our "Uncle Gene."  He used to come over and bang out "Winchester Cathedral" on our piano while we sang along.  He drove a gold, boat-tailed Buick Riviera (a.k.a., coolest car on the planet that year).

Let us all give thanks for the men in our lives who were functionally avuncular.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

How to Tackle Large Problems: Pirsig's "First Brick" Principle

In order to set the scene here, I am going to have to quote a rather long passage from Robert M. Pirsig's amazing novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It is, in fact, my favorite passage in the book.

He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: "Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman." It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. "You’re not looking!" he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a fivethousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it."

I propose to you that this is the exact strategy that one must follow in attempting to tackle any of the world's ridiculously huge problems.  It works on smaller problems as well.

If you are trying to do something about World Hunger, you have an enormous problem on your hand.  It is large enough to immobilize you.  But you can find the nearest hungry person and give him or her one meal.

If you are trying to end the murderous practice of Abortion, it is going to seem impossibly large.  It stops you in your tracks.  But you can adopt one (supposedly!) unwanted child, and give lie to all the rhetoric of the pro-Abortion camp.

Perhaps you are one-hundred pounds overweight.  It seems a hopelessly difficult problem.  But you can go to the gym and do some modest amount of exercise ... just today ... just that upper left-hand brick.  Just that one brick.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Portrait of Cindy by Rodrigo Aguilera!

For our 30th wedding anniversary, I commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of my wife Cindy.  Earlier in the year, I had become enamored of the work of Houston artist Rodrigo Aguilera.  And circumstances worked out so that I was able to have Rodrigo do a painting of my wife just in time for our 30th Anniversary!

Here is the painting he made:

Up close, it looks Abstract, but viewed from a distance, it presents itself as Realism.  Needless to say, I am thrilled with the painting!

Here is the original reference photo (uncropped) from which Rodrigo made his painting: