Back Pain, a Prisoner and a Lenten Reminder of Mercy

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She was large, and heavily tattooed.  She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain.  Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality.  Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.

They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding.  But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad.  Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.

Was she lying?  Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible.  The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years.  This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain?  It’s tough doc.’

It’s tough for sure.  Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only  in her 30s.  Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.

Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse.  She seemed to have difficulty standing.  Her sobs continued.  Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked.  She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI.  Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess.  Who knew?

Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were.  The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to.  This is life in the ER. This is life on earth.  The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.

But we have the last laugh.  Because the right thing is just that.  The right thing.  And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season.  To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.

I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK.   I’m not offended.  She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken.  She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners.  And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned.  Isaiah 61: 1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry.  Luke 4: 16-21.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this passage is healing and liberty.  And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’  Jesus wants to offer this to all.

This Lenten season, can I do any less?  I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption?  God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.

And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.

Edwin

What Jesus would do, and say, today…

My most recent Greenville News column.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/02/10/commentary-some-thoughts-what-jesus-would-do/97743538/

Some thoughts on what Jesus would do today 

(As we all grow more and more divided and arrogant in our views.)
Given the current political climate, a lot of our citizens are reasonably sure they know exactly what Jesus would do if he were here now. I happen to have a few thoughts on that topic myself.
It seems to me that first and foremost he’d disappoint us all by not debating the way we do. He’d actually love the people he was talking with, and want the best for everyone. Screaming matches and endless point-counterpoint were never his thing, or so it appears in the scriptures.
I think that while everyone was trying to convince everyone else about their opinion (and not changing anybody’s mind), he’d be on some street-corner healing sick people. And he’d be doing it in a way that was so dramatic people would think he was a charlatan. ‘There’s no way that paralyzed kid can walk now! It’s just a trick to convince simple-minded, unscientific people!’ That’s what some would say. And Jesus would keep right on healing cancer, HIV, gunshot wounds, schizophrenia and other awful problems.
And those people who were so full of inner pain that they wanted to die, and kept thinking that they had no worth? He’d heal their pain, and cast out demons from them. That’s what the Bible says he did, anyway. He said he was God and he taught about things like demons. People probably wouldn’t like that much; neither atheist skeptics or solid, staid, educated Christians. But the people he healed would love it.
Of course, he’d talk to people at the marches, the rallies, in the halls of legislatures and in the churches. Unlike our milquetoast, pale-faced images of gentle Jesus from Bible story-books, he would sometimes look (and be) angry. Angry about injustice and cruelty, angry about the neglect of the needy. He would also be angry about false teachers and others who robbed men and women of faith in God and left them nothing to comfort them. As before he would be angry at anyone who led others to sin. Occasionally, he would be sarcastic and insulting. He’d have harsh words for lots of pastors and sanctimonious believers. Read the Bible; it’s how he was.
Our many-flavored hatreds would give him plenty of fuel for parables, in order to guide us to the truth. But he would also be unhappy about the division and ideas heaped on people that leave them feeling worthless. Like the idea that humans are a scourge, a virus on earth. Or the obsession with hungry, sick animals while children face the same. And the way men and women are weighed down with one of two burdens, endless victimhood and its chiral image, the belief that some people’s ‘privilege’ causes all the world’s problems. He came to liberate everyone from beliefs that imprisoned them. He condemned religious leaders in his day for giving people burdens but not helping carry them; he would do the same for modern politicians and educators, ministers and mullahs who create anger, tension and violence in order to control and manipulate others.
Obviously, would talk about ‘sin,’ from greed to sexual immorality to idolatry and all the rest. He talked about those things a lot. He’d preach about the coming Kingdom of God and eternal life and redemption and judgment. He was serious about sin, but kind to all sinners, right, left and moderate. Conquering sin and death was his main mission, after all.
That would be just about enough for lots of folks. Because they didn’t come to be pressured about morals or lectured about their personal lives or told stupid fairy tales; they came for justice! For revolution! And they’d ask him to leave. Or maybe scream at him, because it’s what we do when we’re angry and sure we are right.
Ever the gentleman he would leave if asked. But before Jesus left, he might remind all of the passionate, angry people of what he said before:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’
It seems to me that in his absence he remains present, and his teachings still condemn our hatred 2000 years down the road. If only we’ll listen.

The Christmas Gift we All Desire

My Christmas column from Christmas Day, 2016

Merry Belated Christmas!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/25/commentary-christmas-gift-we-all-desire/95788966/

The Christmas Gift We All Desire
It’s here at last! What seemed to take forever for children arrives and passes like a shooting star for adults. But joy of joys, it’s Christmas morning! And a special morning since it’s Sunday. Families who attend worship services will, based on personal experience with small children, be up at zero dark thirty, as kids rush to the presents and the chaos begins.
Photos will be staged. (My parents made us stay in the hallway while they prepared the camera…Jan and I have since done the same, forcing children to stay on the stairs while we took our time tormenting them, they like horses headed to the barn for oats.) Families will have systems, as gifts are handed out in a manner devised to avoid wholesale riots.
Food will be prepared; in our home Christmas breakfast is bacon and cinnamon rolls. Cats will be watched carefully to avoid the climbing, and tipping, of trees. Mostly they will busy themselves with wrapping paper,licking and pretending not to be as excited as the kids. The dogs (at least our dogs) will look in through the glass of the door in puzzlement, and wait for partially eaten anything (and any chance at cat food).
Gifts will be opened, as parents and partners hope that they have given joy to those they love with this gift or that. There will be joy and squeals, hugs and kisses. Hours will be spent enjoying new items or searching through wrapping paper for batteries or lost instructions.
Those off to church will have to pry the kids away from their recently obtained treasures, or take some along. Older children will wear new clothes. Parents will fall asleep in chairs, as they were up until the wee hours wrapping, assembling items or simply enjoying the sweet wonder, the special silence of Christmas Eve. That stillness, in a dark house with tree lights, is every drop as precious as the big day itself. Personally I find a much greater connection to the whole nativity story on Christmas Eve, as if I were watching the tale unfold in a starlit lens to antiquity.
And yet. There are those families where the above is as fantastical as Santa and his reindeer. For some, for those in poverty, those with family members separated by prison sentences, those whose homes are the slave-quarters for addiction, Christmas will not look this way. Nor for those with loved ones far away in school, in work, in war. For many the separation from loved ones is the great gulf of death, and even sweet memories are painful reminders of what is no more. Still others find the day hard because of recent illness, injury, surgery, diagnosis of cancer. Our family walked through some of that too. However beautiful the wrapping paper and lights, however delightful the gifts, a pall hangs in the air and the thoughts turn to what was, or what might be, ‘if only.’
But that is, ultimately, the purpose of this day. It is not, it turns out, a day especially made for the joy of the now, nor for pets to get new sweaters, or adolescents to stock up on electronics. The joys and wonders of Christmas, from Santa to gifts, from feasts to surprise visits, are magnificent side-effects of the joy and purpose of the day. The day we remember the one born to set all things right.
The passage that I have come to most associate with Christmas (having lived life a bit) is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. It is found, oddly enough, at the end of the Bible, in Revelations, chapter 21. Dear old St. John reports:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”’
That’s Jesus telling us that one day, things will be more grand than we can ever imagine; even better than our best dream of Christmas. He will meet our deepest needs and desires and banish suffering. Forever.
Now that’s a Christmas gift I can’t wait to open. Merry Christmas!

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!

The King is Here. Merry Christmas!

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http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/11/commentary-king-here/95198746/

Whenever I see the opening scene of Lion King, when Simba is presented to all the animals of the plains, I get emotional. Not because his character is a cute, sneezy fuzzball, but because of the reaction of all of the other beasts. As the music rises to climax, and Rafiki the wise mandrill presents the future king to his subjects, the animals do something that seems decidedly ‘non-Disney.’ Certainly it doesn’t appear ‘modern.’ All of the animals on the ground, looking up at the cub, begin to growl, roar, trumpet, jump, shriek, stomp the ground and, in the end, bow down silently in honor of the newborn king of the beasts. It gives me chills every single time. The kingdom is giving honor to the king.
I get the same feeling when I read about Aragorn in Tolkien’s Return of the King. He is the suffering servant, the mysterious wanderer of many names who travels the wilderness for years, growing stronger and wiser, protecting the innocent. He ultimately confronts evil and tyranny on fields of battle before he is crowned. No longer Aragorn, he is King Elessar, the latest in an ancient, nearly lost line of nobility, returned to rightful rule at last. It is an image of joy and hope, as the King ascends the throne and all’s well with the world; or at least Middle Earth. I want Elessar to be my king too.
Just as I always loved tales of Arthur, who may or may not have existed as we have been told, I enjoy stories of the not-at-all mythical Alfred, the only king of England ever to be called ‘The Great.’ He unified smaller kingdoms into one, promoted Christianity, order, justice and education. This despite many troubles, including invading armies and a chronic intestinal illness that left him wracked with pain.
There’s just something about kingship. I know, this is America and we don’t have kings. (Well, not exactly.) But deep in my heart, I want a king. I want a good king, a just king, a holy king. I want a king I can kneel before, serve, live for and if necessary, die for with joy in my heart.
This isn’t about misplaced patriotism, or some rejection of democracy. Monarchs are perilous things. But the king I want deserves to be king. Not only is it his birthright, he has earned the crown through fire and battle. He knows his people and has gained his kingship by love and sacrifice. The king IS the country. He loves the people and wants only the best for them. The king I long for, ache for, not only lives for the country but would die for it and his subjects.
Which brings us, round about, to Christmas. Hidden beneath the camouflage of fat Santas, elves, sentimentality and commerce, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the coming of the King. Not held high, but born low. Sought by poor shepherds and wise men, also searching for a king. Feared by another king, Herod the Great. Condemned by Pilate (not quite a king but close). Born among the people he lived a most ‘unkingly’ life on earth, living his few years as a common man, who was nevertheless most uncommon. He worked, healed, taught and rebuked the great. He told his followers that he came to serve not be served. That was the model for his reign. He announced his Kingdom with a thundering whisper, like no king mankind had seen.
The prophets knew this: ‘…of the increase of His government there will be no end…’ The apostles did too: ‘Then, opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.’ The carol writers understood it. ‘Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.’ That word, lord. We use it so flippantly as just another church code-word. But the lord is the one to whom we owe devotion, the one with authority. Our ancestors in less democratic times understood. ‘Thank you Lord. Help me Lord. Have mercy on me Lord. Send me Lord.’
Christianity is far more breathtaking than its detractors, or even many adherents, realize. For it celebrates the coming of the King and his Kingdom. Same king, past, present and future. The King that puts all other kings, counsels, parliaments, presidents and ministers to shame and flight. And gives the word King it’s proper meaning for all time.
If that’s not a reason for a celebration, nothing ever was.

Malpractice Isn’t a Sin

Dear physicians, PAs, NPs, nurses, medics, assorted therapists, techs and all the rest:

The great thing about our work is that we intervene and help people in their difficult, dire situations.  We ease pain, we save lives. Our work is full of meaning and joy.  However, we sometimes make mistakes.  But remember, in the course of a career you’ll do far more good than any harm you may have caused.

I know this issue lingers in many hearts.  I know it because it lies in mine.  And I’ve seen it in other lives.  I said this once to a group of young residents and one young woman burst into tears. I never knew the whole story, but I imagine there was some burden of pain she was carrying for an error she had made.

But just in case you too have lingering anxiety or guilt about some error you made in patient care, I feel it necessary to say this: neither honest errors nor even malpractice are sins.  They are mistakes, born of confusing situations, fatigue, inadequate experience or knowledge, overwhelming situations, the complexity of disease and the human body, social situations, systems problems, general chaos.  Born of your own humanity and frailty.  Your ‘shocking’ inability to be perfect at all times, and in all situations.  They do not make you evil, bad, stupid or even unqualified.  (PS If you’re not actually a physician but pretending to be one, you’re actually unqualified so stop it.)

As a Christian physician I have contemplated this over and over and have come to the conclusion that God knows my inadequacies and loves, and accepts me, regardless.  He has forgiven my sins.  I embrace that reality every day.  He forgives my pride, anger, sloth, greed, lust, all of them.  But he doesn’t have to forgive my honest errors.  Because they are not sins. Go back and read that again.  Your honest errors are not sins.

Mind you, all of the brokenness of this world is, in my theology, the result of ‘Sin’ with a capital S.  (Not in the sense of minute, exacting moral rules, but in the sense of the cosmic separation of the creation from the Creator.)

So, my mistakes, my failures are born of Sin, but are not ‘sins.’  If my mistakes, if the harm I may cause, come from rage, vindictiveness, cruelty, gross negligence, murder, drunkenness or other impairment on the job, then they could reasonably be due to ‘sin.’  But even so, those sins can be forgiven, and washed away with confession and true repentance.  (Not platitudes or superficial admissions of guilt, mind you, but genuine heart felt ‘metanoia,’ the Greek for repentance, which means ‘to change direction, or change one’s mind.’)

If you are not a believer, join us!  But if you aren’t interested, I love you too and want you to move forward, not burdened by unnecessary guilt.  If you are a believer, and a practitioner, remember that Jesus (The Great Physician) set the bar pretty high and doesn’t expect your perfection, only your honest, loving best.

Mistakes, even mistakes that rise to malpractice, are not sins.  But even if they rise to sin for reasons listed above, they are no worse than any other.  Which means Jesus atoned for them as well.

Move forward in joy.  You were forgiven before you even started worrying about it.

Now go see a patient. The waiting room is full of people who need you!

Merry Christmas!

Edwin

 

 

The Burning Babe. A Christmas Poem by Robert Southwell.

I posted this last year.  But every year it moves me again.  Merry Christmas.  Of note, the author was a Catholic martyr, killed in 1595. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174450

By Robert Southwell, SJ 1561–1595 Robert Southwell, SJ

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
      So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
      With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
      And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Holidays and Holy Days; My Christmas Book

This is a book of columns about Christmas and Easter that I put together with the SC Baptist Courier two years ago.  It’s still available and I think you would enjoy it!

https://www.amazon.com/Holidays-Holy-Days-Grace-Sacred-ebook/dp/B00PBHEF58/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480385263&sr=1-1&keywords=holidays+and+holy+days+edwin+leap

 

Idols All Around

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/11/14/commentary-humans-easily-deceived-idols-every-sort/93588762/

One of the consistent themes that runs all through the Bible is the theme of idolatry. And if we can learn anything from its writers down the thousands of years and hundreds of generations since they lived, it’s that humans are easily deceived by idols of every sort.
It’s arrogant for us to laugh off the idea of stone and wooden deities, and shake our heads at the fish or dragons, serpents or elephants that they represented to our ancestors. (That’s right, all of our ancestors!) Because we’re no less susceptible despite our assertions that we are modern and rational. Twenty-first century man remains a remarkably idolatrous creature.
This is rarely as evident as it is during a presidential election cycle, when we believe that vast power, and all our destinies, rest with the office and person we are electing. If only we elect him, or her, all our problems will be solved and our enemies smitten! We elevate candidates and politicians to places they were never meant to be, not by God, nor indeed by the founders of our republic, who doubtless had a much more suspicious view of human character than we do; else they would never have built in so many checks and balances.
In fact, during elections we also make idols of government in general, constitutions, courts and legislative bodies. We worship commentators and media outlets and anyone and everything connected with the process. We idolize our own opinions and spend far more time in our own personal echo-chambers than we do either worshipping God or (for the non-religious) simply pursuing secular knowledge or simple joy. Pity, as our self-adulating tirades and tantrums change few minds.
But it isn’t only politics. We all have our idols. Thanks to social media, young people take constant photos of themselves in a kind of self-worship. Social media have also allowed Americans to make an idol of the approval of others, whether in likes for one’s selfie, or agreement with one’s views. The disapproval of others is a bitter pill whose side effects include exclusion from friendly society; a kind of excommunication for heresy. How many opinions would be shared more honestly if not for the fear of being shunned or attacked en masse online?
Conservatives often idolize guns or military prowess, as if they could save us from all danger. And yet the Bible says ‘Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20:7) (The chariot being the main battle tank of antiquity, by the way.) And liberals make an idol of choice, as if replacing the word ‘killing’ with a euphemism makes it less like the reality of killing an unborn child, less like a modern adoration of the dark god Molech.
We idolize the freedom of sexual expression and sexual orientation, as if all that mattered in this life were who could have sex with whom. And on the other side, we idolize morality, as if our sanctimonious attitudes about sexual sin were anywhere as important as the forgivingness and redemption offered in the Bible to those who sin sexually, gay or straight. Grace matters more than moralism.
America idolizes the idea of compassion and charity without understanding the moral and spiritual underpinnings that make it reasonable and possible. And yet, we also idolize the American concept that everyone can simply succeed if they try, which is simply untrue. The deck is sometimes stacked and there are those who need our assistance, personally and through state programs. Some idolize capitalism, some idolize socialism, but both can become monstrous deities when not applied with Godly wisdom and caution.
The Decalogue begins with ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, out of the land of Egypt.’ And follows it immediately with ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ And of course, after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people promptly made a Golden Calf and ignored God, the source of all their good things. You can be an atheist and still see the truth in this tale. This is the story of all mankind. The worship of those things we shouldn’t, and the rejection of those things that are truly, ultimately good.
Whether a citizen is religious or not, we can surely agree that we all have idols we should take from their altars. Maybe it’s a good time to start.

We All Have to Face Evil

Dear reader, 

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  I wasn’t sure if it was the right column for this week, but I’d been thinking about it for a while.  Ironically, I really lost track of the date and wasn’t thinking about the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  But maybe it was appropriate as we consider what evils were inflicted that day.  Anyway, here it is.  May God deliver you and yours from temptation and evil.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/readers/2016/09/11/commentary-we-all-have-face-evil/90004264/

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ So goes the last sentence of the Lord’s Prayer. (Well, unless you count the later addition, ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever, amen.’)
The more I think about it as I get older, the more important the ideas of temptation and evil seem. As a husband, as a father, as a physician, I am fully convinced of the moral and spiritual dangers of this world. And yet, those words,’temptation’ and ‘evil’ fall on skeptical ears in a modern, scientific world. Do we believe in such a thing as temptation? Do we believe in evil? And how do we learn about these things in a time when virtue itself seems all too relative? And are they really relative as we search everywhere for virtuous leaders?
The word ‘temptation’ is dismissed as laughable. Rather than seeing it as a thing to be resisted, an assault on our character, a fork in the road of life, (or worst of all, the actions of Temptation should be embraced, as it invariably leads to fun and to liberty.
And ‘evil’ is even worse. Evil is only evil in the eye of those condemning it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s campaign contribution is another man’s bribe. Evil is passe’. It’s a yawn, a hoax passed down from an irrelevant church through silly preachers and uptight believers. Evil isn’t a thing for modern, educated people. Right?
Personally, I hold with the stark reality of temptation and evil. Reflecting on my own life I realize that I have experienced any number of temptations. Some of which I regrettably embraced.
Media and popular culture, being the principal moral guide-posts of generations, teach us that it’s funny to laugh about temptation, especially when it occurs in youth, and relates to sex, drugs and alcohol. But it quickly turns serious when we realize that temptation also eads people to use ever more powerful, ever more addictive and lethal drugs. Temptation leads men and women to cheat on their spouses, abuse children, embezzle, lie, engage in shady business deals, abuse public office, commit acts of terror, oppress, torment, rape or murder. It causes coups and wars, genocides and crushing poverty, loneliness, broken homes, broken hearts.
It’s common to suggest that such activities are merely the result of mental illness or caused by the frustrations of poverty or oppression. While sometimes true, the news doesn’t bear that out. Many very sane, very capable, very educated and financially sound people fall prey to temptation, a thing which ruins their own lives and those of others.Temptation, then, is the trail-head down evil paths. Evil, that old church bugaboo, that joke perpetuated on children, by ignorant religious folks, in order to manipulate them! But we all, every man, woman and child, believe fully in evil. We just have different words for it. We may disagree about the source. Is it something spiritual? Is it mental, financial or social? But without doubt, we know that there are dangerous forces and wrong things in the world.
Even the most convinced and brilliant atheist (and there are many) will reasonably condemn certain actions and applaud others. We use words like ‘unfair.’ We say we ‘ought to’ or ‘ought not to’ do certain things. We believe ‘that’s just wrong’ about a host of behaviors. Slavery? Bad. Murder? Bad. Greed? Bad. Human trafficking? Bad. Environmental destruction? Bad. Intolerance? Oppression? Tyranny? Hatred? Abuse of political power? Bad, bad, bad. And, to those of us with a more theistic inclination, evil.
And yet we live out a strange duality, in which we reject the idea of temptation’s perils and the reality of evil, even as we want to see virtue blossom. We find ourselves surrounded by crime, war, racism and sexism. We rail against big business, misleading ministers and lying politicians. We desire that our leaders be ‘good’ and ‘just’ even as we vacillate over virtue for ourselves, and can’t help laughing at things like ‘temptation’ and ‘evil.’
We may have to find different words to speak a common language here. But suffice it to say, I still pray that God will lead me not into temptation, and will deliver me from evil. And all those I love. For in a dangerous world, temptation and evil are real. And I’m just too weak to face it alone.