Saturday, September 23, 2017

More Than You Can Bear?

Although most of my time on the computer is spent reading books and writing reviews,  I do other things occaisionally.

For example, this summer, I found this show on Netflix, called "Last Chance U." My firstborn son recommended it to me a couple of months ago.

Seems there's this little junior college in Scooba, Mississippi that scoops up football players who have gotten in difficulties, great or small,  at big colleges, and stuffs them into a hard-nosed redemptive program. They are tough; they've got an academic counselor who stays on top of their grades and attendance, and she works with the coaches. Evidently, they've had some real success in getting some of these young men to turn around. And, in the process, they've won several national championships.

At the end of one of the segments, they show a scene from a local church. A woman does an interpretive dance to Kirk Franklin's "More Than I Can Bear." It's a beautiful scene, and it's a beautiful song; if you don't know it, look it up; here's a link to a performance . That's not the actual performance filmed for the Netflix program, but you can see how beautiful it is.

The lyrics say:
I've gone through the fire, and been through the flood;
I've been broken into pieces, seen lightning flash from above.
But through it all, I remember that He loved me, and He cares
And He'll never put more on me
Than I can bear  

The dance, and the song, are incredibly beautiful, and have often comforted me when I was in despair.

I just don't know if the message is true.

On the other hand, I do know that THIS is true:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (I Cor 10:13, NASV)
I understand this, and I am confident that it is true. When temptation comes my way, there will always be a be a way out of it. I am so grateful for this truth, and I have relied on it in plenty of dark times.

My disconnect comes when I try to apply the deliverance promise given in the above verse, which is about temptation, to the experience of pain and grief.

I haven't any idea how many days my heart has been hurt so badly that all I could do is withdraw to my man cave and sit in my chair, but it's a big number. Eventually, when I was strong enough, I would listen to the music of the wounded healers, music like 'More Than I Can Bear' and 'My Life Is In Your Hands' and 'On The Other Side of Through.

And almost every time, before that session of grieving was over, I could join in with the singing, and make the songs MY prayer as well.  Sometimes, that was the only comfort available to me; and it seems to me that the songs made my heart able to receive a bit of healing, and that, combined with my determination to keep my promises, has kept me alive. 

I am so grateful to the writers and performers who have ministered to me in the very worst times of my life. The continue to do so; in fact, at this very moment, I am listening as I write these words.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, here; the pinnacle of my experience is not to sit grieving in my chair. I'm a father/stepfather to 10, and a grandfather to 12, and I am actively involved with my wife in the most important job we will undertake together: that of parents. That is a life-giving, and life-building activity. I can get up in the morning, and go to bed at night, secure in the knowledge that my life means something, that I AM making a contribution that matters.

But, even so,  in the midst of things, along comes something that just kicks the breath right out of me. In fact, since I first started to write this post, a month has gone by, and I've been kicked three times. It's been an incredibly stressful time; I usually don't have so much coming my way. In fact, I'm guessing that I've gone through entire years without having as many challenges. Just a guess, though. I probably have forgotten things.

To return to my question, as I sit here with a keyboard on my lap, close to tears, and listening to the sweet music: is it true? Is the comfort they offer something I can count on? To answer that, I have to define the issue better. What is it, actually, that I think these songs are offering?

What I would LIKE them to guarantee me is this: nothing bad is going to happen to me; failing that, that nothing is going to happen to me that's going to overwhelm me. I'd like to be able to hold on to that like some sort of magical shield, or insurance policy. And I know that in the past, I've had that particular doctrine/approach presented to me.

Of course, it was also presented with conditions: they told me that if I just had enough faith, then no weapon formed against me would prosper, meaning a bad thing couldn't happen. Therefore, when I encountered adversity, I just needed to pray more, harder, longer, louder, differently. And then the bad thing wouldn't happen.

If the bad thing happens anyway, well, it's because I didn't believe enough, didn't pray enough. It's not that the PRINCIPLE is wrong; it's the fault of the supplicant.

And that just doesn't work for me, despite my desire to have bullet-proof armor. It doesn't match with my experience; and it doesn't match with what I know about God.

Not only does this concept leave a trail of broken people in its' wake, it's also explicitly proscribed by Jesus. IMMEDIATELY before the simple words of what we refer to as the Lord's Prayer, He says:
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. " (Matthew 6:7, NASB)
Despite the fact that I WANT it to be true, it's naive to think I can pray virtuously enough, or do anything else, to eliminate bad things from my life. True, I can (and have) cut down on the bad stuff that comes my way, by changing my problem behavior. I don't get drunk any more, I don't drive recklessly, I don't smoke. I'm losing weight, and I go for walks.  But even if my behavior was perfect, entropy is going to triumph eventually. I'm 64 years old, and at some point, my organ systems are going to break down.

Beyond that, I love many people, and they don't always make perfect choices. Even if they did, accidents still happen. Illness and injury are out there. And, in the worst case,  there are some bad people in the world who hurt others. And when someone I love hurts, it hurts me.

So, I see that I have to give up this fantasy idea that there is something I can do that will keep all pain away from me. That's not what the words of the song I quoted say, anyway. They say:
He'll never put more on me
Than I can bear  

What does that mean? Is it true?

I don't see with the eyes of God, so I can't look into the hearts of men. But it seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, devoted his life to make a more equitable world. And I doubt there were many men who had more heartfelt prayers offered up for him than Dr. King. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that it's not a stretch to call him a good man, one of the best our country has produced. None of that prevented a bullet from ending his life.

Wasn't a .30-06 bullet more than he could bear? If that could happen to him, couldn't I also be overwhelmed?

This is the part where it gets weird.

Up until now, all of the mechanics of this suffering and comfort thing have been right out in the open. There has been something I could see, hear, taste, touch, or smell that was the mechanism by which I was comforted. I discovered that if I just held on, it would get better. I discovered that I could use my own experience with grief to comfort others in their time of grief. 

During probably the worst time of my life, I signed off on my emails, "I am yet holding on," because that was all I had. And through that experience, I came to believe that if I could just keep holding on, it was going to be okay. And that's a Truth, with a capital T. It was a core belief of my life.

Still is. 

But, sometime in the past couple of months, I realized that there MIGHT just be things that I COULDN'T bear up under. Things that oppressed me so strongly, that my body just gave up. Was that...true? Could there be things that could do that to me?

I asked for help.

I went to my pastor, and spelled things out for him. 
(And since I have no secrets from her, I copied my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA on the email. She freaked out. I had to reassure her that I was NOT losing it; I was just looking for some answers. She relented. A bit.)
He gave me a couple of scriptures that he found to be most meaningful when he had to walk with pain that just wouldn't go away. The one that spoke to me the most was this:

I Peter 4:12-13 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
And that was very encouraging; it reminded me that when disaster strikes, it's NOT something strange; it happens to all of us. As lonely as it feels, we are NOT alone in our pain. Furthermore, it's almost as if this is an investment in our future.

That's the weird part. For Christians, death is not the end; it's not what happens here that's important. It put me in mind of another verse I have had to call on before:

we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; [e]indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; (II Cor 1: 8b-9, NASB) 
 I found it comforting. It's a bit of a paradox, to find comfort in the idea that I might be given more than I can bear. However, it allows me to know that as long as I keep doing the Next Right Thing, I'm going to win, even if it takes my death to win.

Which should NOT be a surprise, bu the way. We are all going to die. It's definitely NOT an unexpected outcome. The timing may be inconvenient, but it's not a loss.

So, I guess my conclusion is: It may kill me, but I can bear it.

SOMETHING YOU MUST KNOW:
If you ask me to pray for you, I will sincerely pray that you be comforted. I will sincerely pray that you receive strength. I will sincerely pray for wisdom, and guidance.

On the other hand, if you ask Vanessa to pray for you, she will pray for you to be healed.
She accepts all the stuff I just wrote, and she leaves that to me, because that's my job.
Her job? To implore, and seek, and believe.

She is a praying black grandmother.

Peace be on your household.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Minutegirls, by George Phillies



You can read my Amazon review here, and also at the end of this blog.
However, I'd truly like you to consider giving this one some splash, since it's an excellent book from a much under-appreciated author, You can do that by writing a review on Amazon, and by voting 'helpful' on my Amazon review.

I obtained a review copy of the book from the author.

Kudos to the excellent cover art by Cedar Sanderson on this edition; it's a much better representation of the story than earlier versions.

I just checked: I've been writing Amazon book reviews for over three years, total of 472 reviews (not all of those are book reviews, though). Even so, there is one aspect to the process that still seems to be beyond me: I always fail to look at the book description to see how many pages I've committed to.

It's a hold-over from the decades I spent reading dead-tree books. Those, I learned to judge by heft at a very early age. From my very first days, when a thick book seemed forever over my head, to the point sometime in the 7th grade when I grabbed the thickest books in the library first, sometimes without looking at titles, the physical size of the book was communicated by the way it looked, and by the heft in my hand.

It doesn't work that easily with e-books. Certainly, the file size is (for ME) content-free, since I don't even look at it. Even the number of pages doesn't quite give me the same information.

I'm going to have to figure out a way to adapt to this. I'll get on that, just as soon as I can develop a feel for how far 110 kilometers is, or how 32 degrees Centigrade feels, without translating those into miles and Fahrenheit.

Well, this is for sure: this is a BIG book, at 440 pages. For guys like me, who like to read a LOT, that's a good thing. There have been times when I've pulled a book off the shelves by James Michener, Herman Wouk, or Tom Clancy, and given a pleased, relaxed sigh, even before I turned the first page. It DOES have a disadvantage for me, personally, though: I not only read, but review these things. And I confess to feeling a little bit guilty when ANYTHING puts me off my pace of reading and reviewing a book every other day.

It's still a pleasure, though, and for those who are waiting for me to get off my duff and review YOUR book, all I can tell you is: I'm doing the best I can.

Here's the set-up: in the not-too-distant future, at least one world war gets touched off, and before it's resolved,the United States is an occupied country, with a (somewhat) unified Europe being the primary occupier. Their troops behave very badly, and don't appear to show any remorse for that.
Most of the causes of the war and the following armistice aren't discussed; primarily, this part of the history serves to provide a rationale for the quite functional paranoia that drives diplomatic interactions. In addition, significant technology with war applications was developed by multiple parties to the conflict, and I get the impression that it was the difficulty of continuing the occupation that ended it, not any real change of a problematic policy, on anyone's part.
In particular, defense screens have been developed, and these not only stop kinetic and beam energy, they also serve as as an effective barrier to observation by spies, on either side, of military and commercial developments.
The European Union is dominated by the French as the executive arm, with the Germans serving as an administrative element. Other countries are allowed to contribute unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but certainly are in no position to make or influence policy. The French and Germans appear to regard their forfeit of rulership of all they survey as an aberration, and all of their actions seem to have a return to domination as the primary goal. However, their ideology has massively crippled their ability to wage war or to administer peace, and they cannot even perceive the problem. They have rigidly controlled the economy, and innovation is discouraged. Furthermore, in the interest of producing a worker-friendly society, the work-week is restricted to 32 hours per week, even under emergency conditions. On the other hand, they clearly have had some technological advances over the Americans, and have made contact with non-human races in their space program. Could those two be related, I wonder?
The Americans, meanwhile, have radically transformed their society as a reaction against the atrocities committed during the Occupation. One of the more striking transformations has been in the physical characteristics of women, most likely a direct result on the number of casual rapes committed against the population under the Occupation, when the citizens were treated as chattel. Through undisclosed means, bone density and musculature differences have been eradicated, and the long-standing advantage men had in upper body strength has been eliminated as a factor. Prominent female Resistance leaders during the Occupation established a new set of norms for women warriors, the Minutegirls. The constitute deadly combat troops, and contain nested secret societies, all designed to prevent any future attempt to subjugate the US from being successful.
There are some marvelous other adaptations, as well. For one, anyone in the National Command Structure MUST, by law, be accompanied by a bodyguard, whose job it is to execute their principal if it appears they will violate any of a set of rules stipulated as a part of the new form of government adopted by the US. No secret meetings; no standing army; nothing restricting the right of an individual to keep and bear arms. And the original idea of fleeing from the power of despots remains a fundamental part of American  policy.
Excellent battle action; complex characters; very well thought out societies, with appropriate humor slashes at all the right places: all these combine to make this a good book for a nice, long read.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Peacemaker, by Kevin Ikenberry


Warning: This is exclusively a book review! None of the touchy-feely stuff here!

The slightly shorter Amazon review may be found here.

Today, I'm adding the supplementary blog content at the end of the Amazon review, which follows:

Jessica Francis simply will not accept that she is overmatched. Although her choices haven't been perfect, it's the actions of others that keep dumping adversity on her, and she seems to have been born without the ability to quit.
She's a former mercenary. While she was good at what she did, her incompetent, manipulative husband managed to wreck the company, killing off friends and comrades-in-arms while doing so.
She gets a chance to become the first Human Peacemaker, thus becoming part of the thin team that provides what little galactic security there is. Since Humans are a newcomer to the Galactic Union, they encounter all of the standard prejudice of the old-timers, some of whom have the desire and ability to eliminate the species. Her first mission, in fact, as a Probationary Candidate, is to stop exactly such a project.
She succeeds. And because of her actions, the Earth is not depopulated.
Sorry, that's not good enough.
So, they give her another project, and maybe this time, if she succeeds, she'll get to join the team.
Maybe.
All she has to do is solve the puzzle of three races fighting over turf, when there should BE no problem. It is pathetically obvious that there is at least ONE behind-the-scenes manipulator, because the original set-up should have produced a good environment for the three races, separate from each other, at a nice profit to the merchant-engineers behind the deal. The mission has FAILURE stamped all over it, in glowing letters. But hey, if you don't play the game, you can't win, right?
Somebody in the hierarchy likes her, though, because he arranges for her to have some support. Admittedly, it's in the form of an under-strength mixed unit of armor and CASPERS, composed of raw rookies and redliners, but at least she has a bit of a reaction force.
Except she's not supposed to use it.
And she has one especially hostile individual assigned as her Mediator.
Secrets. Everybody has secrets. And what you don't know probably WILL kill you deader than Fergus' goose.
Expect plenty of action, and the elements of a detective story. It's a great read!
Okay, here is the supplementary material to the Amazon review, and it's a bit dark. As the title of my Amazon review, I used the Lazarus Long quote about the game being rigged, but how you can't win unless you play. There are, however, other options.

You can not play the game. 
You can cheat. 
And you can pull out your trusty Browning Hi Power and blow 15 tiny holes into the serpent trying to suck you into a losing set-up.

Then reload, and make more holes. 

Now, the only reason I can see that Jessica doesn't use that third option is that she really DOESN'T have a 'Quit' function incorporated. This is not a feature; this is a bug. 

For whatever reason, she thinks she can win the game, but all the evidence suggests that isn't the case. It's going to take some significant deus ex machina for her to have a chance, and that's not something you can count on. It makes sense to sacrifice yourself, IF you are standing between your loved home and the war's desolation, but she clearly states in the beginning of the story that the Earth is no more her home than her CASPER unit. Maybe she's just running on automatic, and that's NOT a long-term survival strategy. True, in a stressful situation, you let your training take over, but that's not the way to plan out a campaign.

NONE of these aliens are our friends. None of them respect us; we are, at best, cannon fodder. At worst, we are alien fodder, literally. 

So: when is it time to hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats? Hmmm...I think I might see the Jolly Roger on the horizon!

Peace be on your household.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

When Public School Teachers are Stupid Frappen Idiots

The ONLY legitimate reason for civilization is to take care of our kids. 

The side benefits of advanced technology are pleasant. I'm very glad I don't have to spend my entire day trying to hit a squirrel in the head with a rock, or digging up roots so I can have something to eat. 

But my personal comfort is, at best, secondary to the primary mission of taking care of kids, which also means preparing them for the day when they will take up the mission, and allow me to croak without feeling guilty. And that means education.

Admittedly, I am not an impartial observer. Not only am I a parent and grandparent, the bulk of my career was as an educator, first in public and private college administration, then providing direct services to public middle school students. It's one of our family traditions; in addition to being a representative of  the third generation of four generations of US Army veterans, I am also a representative of the third generation of four generations of educators. It matters. My family has invested blood and sweat in military service on three foreign continents, and followed that up with years in classrooms across the state of Georgia. That's how we roll; it's a mission, see?

So, it aggravates me when I find that other people; those who share the mission; those who have  also devoted their lives to educating kids; have to spend their time apologizing for, and fixing problems caused by, a momentously idiotic high school math teacher.


This stuff is all over the internet now; I'm not breaking any confidences.  So far, by Sunday afternoon, 764,488 people have viewed the August 31st classroom incident, which took place inside a school building I can see when I look out of my bedroom window.  Thanks to a camera-phone-quality video, we can see and hear the teacher making two students leave a classroom for wearing a shirt saying "Make America Great Again." And she compounds her error by saying that just as you can't wear a swastika to school, you can't wear that shirt. Because neo-Nazis. 

Now, I routinely ignore this kind of kerfluffle; I can't, THIS TIME, because just after noon today, I got an email from the school district (sent to all Cherokee County parents) which detailed the response of the school and the district, and warning us:

As people across the country are being encouraged by some social media sites to contact the school, we anticipate a potentially high call volume over the next week. If possible, please avoid calling the front office during this time, and instead email the person you are trying to reach; emails are published on the school website 

 Okay, THIS is one of those times that I regret my blog isn't read by 100 million people every day, because what I have to say is important:

DON'T CALL THE SCHOOL.

They have this covered. If you need to express your outrage, please feel free to do so on your own public forum, or make a comment on one of the Youtube posts of the video.

But leave the school alone. They have this covered.

As it happens, I know the school superintendent, Brian Hightower, and the school principal, Darryl Herring, from my days as a school counselor. Ain't neither of them a wuss; I would happily stand as a guarantee that they will deal with this stuff appropriately.

Now, what I'm gonna say next is both personal and painful for me, so, cut me some slack, okay? And believe me, because I paid a price to say this.

The reason that I KNOW that they will deal with this stuff appropriately is because I have worked for both of them; they both have chewed my butt when they felt it was appropriate, and it was under Darryl Herring's leadership that I accepted the fact that I was no longer able to do my job, and took medical retirement, when the option was to be fired for cause.

It wasn't because I was sleeping with cheerleaders, or anything like that; it was because the pain meds I was on back then had taken away my ability to make good decisions, mostly by taking away my ability to sleep. I never was able to go an entire week without missing at least one night's sleep, and missed as many as three in a row. I was making a bad mistake in trying to keep showing up and doing the job.  Herring made the right decision to push me into retirement, and he made it for the right reason: to keep me from making mistakes with the kids.

No, I don't LIKE the guy. That has nothing to do with the fact that he made the right decision; it has everything to do with the fact that he never had a chance to get to know me when I was functional; and so to him, all I represented was a liability. He was tough, and he made the right call.

He's going to make the right call on this thing, too. Hopefully, there is a redemptive path out of this thing for the momentously idiotic math teacher, but that's not going to be the PRIMARY concern for the administration. I KNOW these people; they have ALWAYS been all about the kids, and they are going to CONTINUE to be all about the kids.

So, to all who have wisdom: leave them alone. Let them do their jobs. Express your concerns elsewhere. That's the best path to taking care of our kids, and that's the only reason we are here.

Peace be on your household.