Sunday, May 20, 2018

One such child

Most Saturday mornings, our two-year-old granddaughter attends the story time event in the heart of Chicago's West Loop at Open Books. It's a precious gathering of toddlers and preschoolers who arrive with parents and grandparents in tow to listen to Miss Nancy read dramatically from picture books and hear Mr. Pat play tunes on his guitar for singing along.

This Saturday we accompanied Quinn for the mass educational assembly that includes, diaper bags, snacks, sippy cups and strollers amidst the stacks of books at this unique nonprofit social venture.

After a few minutes of the colorful stories and tunes, I noticed a mother with a little boy in his special stroller. He was probably three and developmentally disabled. Every once in a while, his mom would push the plunger on a 50cc syringe to inject nutrition into his feeding tube. Her son couldn't speak and didn't smile, but mom followed the action and observed the other kids. Occasionally, he moaned.

My heart ached for her and him and I wondered what she felt looking at the other kids. Was it envy or  a yearning to see her own child filled with joy and the ability to imagine, sing and dance with others? I thought, "You are so courageous to bring your boy to this gathering and surround yourself with so many reminders of what he is not." She wanted the best for her little one no matter what he couldn't accomplish. It was a profound display of love.

There was just one such challenged child among some 25 tikes that day.  Just the day before, there was  just one child in a high school in Sante Fe, Texas who wrought mayhem on an art class with a shotgun and a revolver he reportedly acquired from his father. The 17-year-old concealed them in a trench coat above his combat boots, before murdering 10 and savagely wounding 10 more. Thank God his were not semiautomatic assault weapons.

Across the globe, earlier Saturday morning in a massive chapel in England, a bishop spoke about love at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He repeatedly lifted up  the "power of love" to renew the face of the earth.

And I wonder how much we love our children and grandchildren that we would allow them to suffer without help. To be so afflicted that they would aspire to slaughter  schoolmates. To make firearms so accessible that the mentally deranged can pack them the way some bring a sandwich in a lunchbox or nutrition in a feeding tube.

There is no "silver bullet" solution to gun violence because it is a complex blend of neglect, addiction, illness, revenge, hate, fear, racism, crime, trauma, and insanity. Just as we cannot allow the mentally ill to go untreated, uncared for, un-nurtured and in some cases left to live on the streets, we  cannot allow the young or the addicted or the afflicted to acquire weapons to hurt themselves or others.

Jesus said this about parents: "Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give you good things to those who ask him." (Matthew 7:9-11) It seems like when it comes to guns and violence, we are giving our kids rocks and venomous reptiles instead of nourishing bread and fish.

The answer to our crisis lies in the power of love -- like the powerful love that mother displayed with her beautiful, broken boy in a reading group where he didn't seem to fit. Because her actions said, "I love all children more than you'll ever know."

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Far more than a crime

My mom is approaching 90 and she's sharing many memories these days. She's always been a storyteller, but recently I'm hearing some special ones. Today, on Mother's Day morning, she told me that her father died on Ascension Thursday, 79 years ago in Poland. She was ten, the oldest of three at the time and she was walking home from Mass when neighbors informed her, my aunt and uncle that their father had died at home. Her mother was at my grandfather's side when he passed.

My mom also experienced the loss of two infant siblings prior to her father's passing. She was holding one little brother when he died. Death is traumatic to families. Violent death is traumatic to communities.

I'm not sure why, but her story made me think of a childhood friend. I use that term loosely because we were only occasionally on good terms. He was a troubled kid from a more troubled family. We'll call him Tim. Tough and often raging, Tim was not at the top of anyone's list, unless you were going to a brawl. This guy had a way of finding evil anywhere and punching it in the face in a fit of mania. At 18, he and some running buddies spied a few young women stranded on the roadside. They recognized one of them and pulled over to help. It wasn't long before another carload of young men joined the rescue effort. The boys began to argue over the girls. In the second car was a gun. It quickly found its way into the hands of one of the passengers, the son of a Detroit cop. Tim died that day, on the side of the road in the Motor City.

Friday afternoon I looked in my driver's side mirror and spied a sign right in the middle of the reflection, "Stop the Violence" it screamed, with a clenched fist raised amidst a bursting graphic explosion. I was parked at Precious Blood Ministries of Reconciliation (PBMR) in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Southside Chicago. In just one hour, I learned so much that day about the restorative justice initiative at PBMR, but I was just beginning to scratch the surface. Besides the Catholic priests and nuns who operate this ministry in this notoriously tough community, many of the staff members are ex-cons, gang members or formerly involved with courts due to violence. They are experts on the experience of incarceration for juveniles because  they've lived it. Mentoring is among the many services provided here, where a traumatized teen or young adult, whose already been convicted, can find a safe and welcoming place. A place to learn that crime is far more than an act that broke a law, it violated relationships. Relationships with individuals. With families and the community. With God.

Their crimes traumatized their community. Relationships and peace were shattered. Communities depend on relationships and peace to thrive, just as families do.

You don't learn that in prison. It's not a peaceful place. You can only learn peace and reconciliation if someone bothers to teach you. Maybe this is why Jesus, hanging from the cross, the victim of violence and betrayal said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

We really don't understand, we don't know what we're doing when it  comes to justice and restoring relationships. I'm looking forward to learning.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

What Mothers Do

"My mother came out on the porch with a shotgun and said, 'Nah, nah! These are the Thomas boys and they're the only gang around here!'" Laughed Isaiah Thomas with a his unmistakable cackle. He was reliving his youth and chatting on the stoop of his Southside-Chicago, childhood home.

It was 1984 and the then Detroit Piston All-Star and now National Basketball Association Hall-of-Famer was engaged in a revealing interview about his unlikely rise to success. The interviewer was my former ABC-TV colleague, Dayna Eubanks Simpson, who coaxed Thomas to unpack the truth about his life in an urban war zone, where drug gangs stole innocence and youth and ruled the streets with merciless violence and retribution. Thomas had an older brother who got caught up in that mess, despite his mother's profound courage and powerful parenting. Mrs. Mary Thomas raised nine children. Long before her death in 2010,  she had required her son, the basketball millionaire, to sign a homemade contract with her that he'd finish college when he entered the NBA draft after only one year at Indiana University and an NCAA men's basketball championship. In 1989, Disney produced "A Mother's Courage" starring Alfre Woodard portraying Isaiah's larger-than-life mother.

Still today, mothers like the late Mrs. Thomas struggle and endure the searing impact of poverty and the stress of inner city culture, too often to bury children murdered by senseless gunfire. Others mourn the squandered potential of those they love who used guns and drugs to make their marks, only to buy time behind bars while rotting the promise of their youth.

In Chicago, the Precious Blood Ministries of Reconciliation (PBMR) operates a spiritual field hospital to provide an oasis of peace in a place that offers little hope. See https://pbmr.org. 

One of its many remarkable services is a Peace Garden and circles of forgiveness. Led by a spiritual grandmother of Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood, Sister Donna Liette gently convinces women mourning their children to work through loss and forgiveness. Mothers who buried sons support those whose kids killed their neighbors. Through the love of the group, these women find a way to overcome the grief, lift up their crosses and do greater things than they imagined.

Jesus said, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst of them." (Matthew 18:20) The beloved disciple John reminds us that "... God is love." (1 John 4:8). Love conquers all.

As we prepare to celebrate Mother's Day next weekend, it's a great time to pause and honor the courage of those women who not only choose to give life, but choose to rise above the world and snatch peace from the jaws of hatred and violence.

To watch Sr. Donna in action and meet some of her brave friends, click the link below. It will likely be the best eight minutes you'll spend today. Wishing all the moms, a blessed and happy Mother's Day next weekend.

https://youtu.be/bws-x-2ap-M

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Truth sets us free.

It was must-watch TV that was very tough to take.

This week, HBO's edgy and contemporary "Vice" news magazine featured a detailed report on semi-automatic weapons and the growing trend of mass shootings involving them. Among other things, the story included an interview with a  physician who treated victims of last year's First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas near San Antonio.

The doctor used her laptop to highlight images of gunshot wounds and X-rays that revealed the profound impact of bullets fired from semi-automatic weapons that struck human beings. The gaping holes were gruesome but couldn't compare to the slo-mo demo footage of a bullet exploding and expanding a mass of meat.

This morning, irony dawned on me. Here was a cable premium channel producing a piece of journalism depicting images that rivaled some of the violence in its original dramatic programming and feature length movies. Virtually every news network is affiliated with an entertainment conglomerate that makes major money selling explosive violence in TV series and feature-length motion pictures.

Disney owns ABC. Comcast owns NBC. National Amusements owns both CBS and Viacom. Of course, 21st Century Fox owns Fox News, but Disney is in the process of spending more than $50 billion dollars to buy the entertainment side of Fox.

So what's the point? As we see more and more consolidation in media, as newspapers and radio fizzle in the digital age, there are fewer and fewer independent news sources with the economic power to investigate and explore serious topics. Those sources that exists are largely owned by corporate giants that have many conflicts of interest. For example, how does a company that makes billions selling shoot-em-up shows and movies objectively pursue issues like inner city gun violence, the gun policy debate, or the influence of violent content and gaming on human behavior?

When I worked as a producer-director for ABC-TV in the 1970's and 1980's, we were required by corporate management to reveal our conflicts of interest each year. We listed stock investments we owned as potential influences that might taint our objectivity.

As Jesus said, "... The truth will set you free." And the truth is that much of our media is deeply invested in violence.

For those who are protesting against gun violence, you might seriously think about avoiding consumptions of TV shows, movies and games that glorify guns, war, crime and killing. You know the ones. Because the same network that features "Vice News" created the legendary mobster series, "The Sopranos."

Forget about it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

No greater love.

I was all ready to write about Friday's pleasant peacemaking coincidence. You know the one. Students across America walk out of schools to protest gun violence and remember the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. That very same day, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, apparently decides to drop his country's missile testing program. The one that practiced firing rockets to deliver nuclear warheads.

I smiled to myself, playfully pretending Jong-Un responded to the example set by kids in America. After all, many in the U.S. like to say our country was founded by faithful Christians who shaped our core principles. And indeed, Jesus said, before you reach to remove the splinter in your brother's eye, be sure to first remove the log in your own. (Matthew 7:5) In other words, you have no credibility to tell someone else to change until you change yourself. So, for example, it makes little sense for a fat guy like me to call out someone else on his or her addiction, whatever it is. Now, if I drop 40 pounds, they just might pay attention to me. I might not even have to say a thing and they'll ask me, "How did you do it? Tell me how you conquered your demons." So, it was amusing to fantasize that U.S. kids fighting for peace and disarmament inside America influenced a foreign leader's view on weapons of mass destruction.

But then, early this morning, another tortured gunman with a semi-automatic weapon, the kind the U.S. kids are protesting, shot up a Waffle House parking lot and dining area at 3 a.m. in Antioch, Tennessee, near Nashville. The alleged shooter is Travis Reinking, 29, of Morton, Illinois. He's on the run and dangerous, possibly carrying two more weapons.

Those who staunchly defend gun rights often say, "Guns don't kill people. People do." And if that logic is correct, then the reverse is also true. "Guns don't project people. People do." We saw proof of it at the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting and again early this morning at the Waffle House. At the Florida high school, an armed law enforcement officer failed to enter the school to defend the kids while the shooter fired away killing 17. But this morning, another 29-year-old, James Shaw, a restaurant patron, summoned the courage to battle the gunman and wrestle his AR-15 from him. Shaw, who was unarmed, made a decision that he was not going to allow Reinking to easily kill him. He stepped up to battle the shooter, mano-a-mano, burning his arm on the sizzling weapon. The result, Shaw disarmed Reinking and tossed the murder's weapon over the dining counter and out of the madman's reach. Reinking fled the scene. Four were dead, two more injured, but tonight police are calling Shaw a hero as the manhunt for Reinking continues. They say Shaw's decision to take on the gunman saved many more lives than his own.

Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13) Shaw humbly says he wants to return to anonymity, he's not interested in the accolades of heroism.

One guy who's definitely not a hero is Reinking's father. Reportedly, he gave his son the automatic weapons after they were taken away by Illinois law enforcement. In 2017, Travis Reinking, was arrested by the U.S. Secret Service for showing up in the wrong place around the White House looking to set up a meeting with President Trump. Authorities arrested Reinking, he completed community service, and the FBI paid him a visit. County authorities in Illinois revoked his right to possess weapons, handing them over to his father, including the AR-15. For some God-forsaken reason, this father decided to return them to his boy.

Police in Tennessee found two full magazines for the AR-15 in a jacket Reinking left behind at the Waffle House in the wee hours this morning. Apparently he planned to leave no one dining or working there alive. There would be no hangovers that Sunday morning.

Before you become too enraged with Reinking's father, keep in mind that in some states, the courts can take away your driving privileges if you have a DUI, but you may still have the right to own and possess firearms.

If Kim Jung-Un is watching the United States, he will discover that nuclear weapons don't guarantee your protection. We certainly will never forget how 19 terrorists with box cutters brought the most powerful nation to its knees on September 11, 2001. Only love conquers all.

And Jung-Un might want to keep an eye on his country's youth who may decide enough is enough. That it's time to stand up and protest the madness.  Let's pray North Korea's youth finds the moral strength to demand sanity and peace.

 "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Blood money?

Confessed Parkland School shooter, Nickolas Cruz, announced this week he wanted his inheritance to  go to the victim's fund for those he murdered. Cruz's mother died last November, leaving him and his brother an estate with a reported value of eight hundred thousand dollars.

Not sure what the families of the 17 dead victims think about this gesture, but we know the money will do nothing to restore the lost lives.

However, it does bring up an interesting concept and many questions. Whether a person shoots one or 50 victims, they are responsible for the act. What about those who enable them? If your gun is stolen or lost and you fail to report it missing, do you share in some of the blame for the loss of life? In many states, if a bartender over-serves a customer and the intoxicated driver crashes and kills, the business that poured too much alcohol is on the hook for damages.

What about a store that over-sells an arsenal of weapons and ammunition to a buyer? Do they have any responsibility for the gun owner's crimes?

Jesus told his closest followers:"Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little one's to sin." (Luke 17:1-2)

Ouch! But he continued. "If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him, And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry, ' you should forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)

I haven't been able to find any news report featuring an apology from Cruz. Money is heartless and soulless.  It knows no remorse.

I wonder if Cruz will ever be able to express regret and apologize for his insane acts? If so, would any families in Parkland, Florida forgive him?

Forgiveness is a lonely physician, in search of willing patients to heal.




Sunday, April 8, 2018

Why pick up the gauntlet?

"Hamilton didn't want to shoot Burr. He fired into the air!" said Bob, a feisty 86-year-old, avid reader.

We were chatting about the biography Alexander Hamilton, which Bob and his colleagues had read and discussed at the Old St. Pat's Book Group in Chicago, Illinois. Old St. Pat's (St. Patrick's Catholic Church) was founded in 1846 and was the city's first English-speaking Catholic parish. The church itself is the oldest public building to survive the devastating Chicago fire of 1871.

Early this Sunday morning, my wife, Ellen, and I had the pleasure of visiting the group at Old St. Pat's to discuss our book, Dying to Be Happy, Discovering the Truth About Life. We heard some surprising stories from people who had encountered death by losing loved ones and some were actively fighting life-threatening illness themselves.

However, only Bob mentioned a shooting. I couldn't get the famous Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr duel out of my mind. I wanted to check the facts from their 1804 shootout.  Especially since we've got tickets to see the musical stage play Hamilton this May, courtesy of our kids.

The duelers, Hamilton and Burr, were both Revolutionary War heroes so they knew how to use weapons, albeit they were rusty shooters. Formerly well-regulated militiamen. Turns out, Hamilton's son, Philip, was killed in a duel near the same location just three years earlier. The same weapons were used for the senior Hamilton's face-off with Burr.

Duels date back to Germanic tribes in the second century AD, and by medieval times were common throughout Europe. Germanic tribes spread this practice to Western Europe in the early Middle Ages.They were born of an era when most men wore swords on their hips. These codified battles were used as an alternative mechanism of justice to settle disputes. A judge could assign a time and place for a trial by battle if the accused testified his accuser was a liar.  Later, duelers even had to put up dough to insure they would show up for the gunfight.  Duels were fought for the slightest challenge to another man's honor, whether the verbal assault was real or imagined. By the time Burr and Hamilton met to settle their political war with weapons, duals were illegal in the U.S. They chose New Jersey for their confrontation because the state was more lenient about enforcing its anti-duel laws. The insult: Hamilton had allegedly called Burr "a dangerous man" and had expressed "a more despicable opinion" of him.  That's it!

My quick research uncovered that most duels were settled by negotiation and rarely ended in a fatal decision. Hamilton had apparently told friends he intended not to shoot Burr and previously opposed duels based on his Christian principles. He had advised his own son, Phillip, to "throw away his shot" when facing his dueler. Perhaps Hamilton had read Jesus' words in scripture when a large, armed posse approached at night and prepared to arrest him. His apostle Peter said, "Lord, look there are two swords here." Jesus replied, "It is enough," as if to say, "I won't pick up the gauntlet." (Luke 22:38) Moments later, Peter cut off the ear of one guy in the mob only to watch Jesus heal the man and not resist arrest.

Ultimately, Hamilton did pick it up Burr's gauntlet and the two traveled from Manhattan, New York to New Jersey for their standoff. The eye-witness accounts by "seconds" for both men conflicted. Burr's handpicked observer said Hamilton missed. Hamilton's guy said he intentionally fired wide.  But Hamilton did pause to put on his eye glasses. Did he want to be sure he missed? They stood a mere ten paces apart. (Having been held up at gunpoint, I can tell you ten paces is a bit too cozy for comfort.) The two men fired. Hamilton died in Manhattan some 31 hours later. Reportedly, his shooter had worn the equivalent to a bulletproof silk coat, "impenetrable to ball."

Burr escaped trial, though wanted for murder in two states. He was Vice President of the U.S. when he killed Hamilton, who had been America's first Secretary of the Treasury, under George Washington. Later, Burr hooked up with a U.S. general who was secretly being paid by Spain. He and his sinister colleague planned an invasion of Mexico to establish a separate government there. Burr was tried on charges of treason for planning to attack Spanish territory. He was acquitted. Burr even attempted to persuade Napoleon of France to participate in a conquest on Florida.

By the start of World War I, officials in Germany outlawed the code of dueling there but the insane Nazi party reinstated the practice in 1936 when they came to power.  Imagine that, trial by firearm was still in vogue less than 100 years ago.

Comprehending this mind boggling approach to justice and so-called honor helps shed some light on America's relationship with guns, right from its founders to our present day.

I can't help but wonder what course our political debates and international wars would take if dueling were reinstated to resolve territorial disputes, partisan gridlock and global conflicts. Ridiculous right? However, it is important to remember, history says most duels were settled without a shot being fired. Rationale people tend to sober up when no one is standing between them and the enemy they're agitating.

True honor is refusing to pick up the gauntlet. "It is enough."