Thursday, November 23, 2006

Remembering Haiti - Thinking About Iraq

I'm remembering Haiti. I was there twice, in 1991 and 1993, to help out in a rural hospital. Those visits taught me lessons so powerful that they are permanently impressed on my psyche, lessons that inform my judgment about the fate of nations. The 1991 visit proved to me that a corrupt and ruthless dictator can utterly control a nation, and that internal resistance to such a dictator is futile. The 1993 visit, and its aftermath, proved to me that a functional nation cannot be built unless it is built from within by capable and committed citizens.

In 1991 the post-Duvallier bad guys were in charge and the country was under embargo. For one week I experienced a hell on earth where food was so scarce for most Haitians that no creature on four legs had survived. The fortunate ones were building small boats and launching them into a fearful ocean, to flee the terror of paramilitary gangs and the desperation of utter poverty. Any Haitian who spoke against those in power could look forward to a certain and merciless end. My safety, as long as I did not attempt to organize or support a resistance, was relatively assured by my American citizenship - a priceless commodity anywhere in those days. But the embargo was ineffective: neither the dictator and his henchmen nor the rich oligarchs were hampered in their control of the country or in their ability to live well. When I returned home I cried bitter tears for the Haitians, and I supported an international effort to overthrow the thugs who ruled Haiti.

By 1993 my prayers had been answered by the U.N. (read U.S.) mission to Haiti that installed Aristide as head of government. Food became plentiful, bicycles and even motorcycles were everywhere, children paraded to school, roads were repaired, and the paramilitaries evaporated. Troops in U.N. blue helmets directed traffic in Port au Prince, and the people were optimistic. Little did I know that all this progress was a mirage. The underlying culture of Haiti was ready to reassert itself as soon as the international presence diminished sufficiently.

Sadly, the underlying culture of Haiti soon reasserted itself. Corruption became the hallmark of the new government, just as it had been for the gangsters. The oligarchs resumed piloting their Mercedes' around ox carts and even human-powered carts on the new highways. Stronger members of the poor masses in Port au Prince's endless slums began to acquire guns, and remnants of the paramilitaries began to group together in remote areas. Aristide was exiled, and a power struggle ensued over control of the pitiful assets of the country. Haiti, which had never in its history developed the institutions of democracy or a functioning economy, regressed into chaos once again.

Why do these memories haunt me today? Because in early 2003 the United States national leadership, despite having world class intelligence resources, concluded that invading Iraq was a positive strategy. President Bush and his inner circle disregarded the strong possibility that Iraq would disintegrate into chaos after Saddam was deposed, not understanding that the country would reassert its unstable underlying culture of tribalism and sectarianism. As we now know so well, this is what happened and what is happening, with no end in sight. As in Haiti, when the dictator was removed, leadership and control dissolved. Iraq regressed, until now the people likely wish they lived under the old regime and the war and "liberation" was a bad dream.

These developments indicate that perhaps the old style of pragmatism in dealing with unsavory governments wasn't so bad. Achieving quantum progress toward a better society through regime change has proved impossible in both Haiti and Iraq. Neither country had the capability to create an effective successor government. Consequently, dealing with the unsavory governments, offering public carrots and private sticks, is likely to be a more productive strategy than forcing an uncertain regime change. Certainly the U.S., with its immense wealth and power, could move troublesome existing governments in a positive direction. It has all the traditional tools of diplomacy, including the use of limited force as was done with the "no-fly zone". After seeing the results of Bush's approach, don't you think pragmatism deserves another chance?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Singing and Dancing on the Ambulance

Because the TV shows need action, most people believe that ambulance work is fast-paced, gory, and anxiety producing. The truth is the great majority of ambulance calls are like the work most people do - the calls are not an "emergency" in the truest sense, there is no blood on the floor, and everything gets done in a calm, focused manner. But, as people in all professions do, ambulance people sometimes get pleasant surprises while doing their job. I'd like to describe one of these to you.

I was called to a restaurant where an older woman was already being cared for by a paramedic who had arrived in another vehicle. Her husband was speaking for her because her condition was rather poor. The paramedic already had started an IV and cardiac monitoring had been initiated. After fitting her with an oxygen mask, I helped move the woman to the ambulance where the paramedic finished the monitoring setup. My patient was not responding well to stimuli, and I was concerned for her. The paramedic then administered a medication that accellerated her cardiovascular system, and, in combination with the oxygen, she "woke up" as her vital signs returned to almost normal. All this occurred at a measured, careful pace, and we reacted to her recovery with relief. But this was not the pleasant surprise.

After the woman opened her eyes, she looked at me and smiled a beautiful smile. Her eyes were bright and filled with life. But she was not what she once was - Alzhiemer's disease had taken her memories and much of her comprehension, as it has for many of our patients. Yet the core of her being was still there in that smile and brightness of visage, and she began to sing a lovely melody to us as we went on our way to the hospital. The words to her song were long passed from her memory, but the familiar melody remained as did her wonderful voice. La, la, la, la - in a pure soprano that any choirmaster would applaud, and sung in a range that most 30-year-old's would die for. As we sped down the freeway, she sang and sang, and smiled and smiled, and told us how nice we were. And we looked from her to each other and we thought that it doesn't get any better than this. Later she sang in the emergency room and drew an appreciative crowd. I tucked her into her hospital bed and said goodbye to her and her loving husband.

Later that day I returned home and related the story to my wife. She reminded me that several years ago I had taken a brain-damaged patient on a long ride to the hospital. This patient's condition made her verbally abusive, and I was really getting the full treatment from her. Then I asked her what she was doing for Christmas, and, getting a positive reaction, I asked her if she knew any Christmas songs. That did it. For 20 minutes my driver was serenaded by my patient and I singing every Christmas song that she knew - and she knew a lot of them by heart. Christmas started early for me that year.

Then there was the day I went to a supermarket to see about an elderly woman who had fallen but was apparently not injured. There she was, sitting on a chair and not reacting to those around her. Her companion informed us that she had Alzheimer's. We needed to transport her to the hospital where they might determine why she had collapsed, but she would not budge from the chair. Then it came to me - I approached her directly and asked her if she would dance with me. Immediately she came to life, and when I asked her if I could hold her she readily agreed. I reached under her arms and helped her to her feet, at which time she began to hum a lilting waltz. So we waltzed carefully around, maybe two turns, at which time we arrived at my gurney. I thanked her for the dance and asked her to sit down, which she did with a flair. The trip to the hospital was most pleasant for the two of us, and for the paramedic who had watched my effective new patient care technique with some amazement.

Not all ambulance work is so surprising or rewarding as it was on these calls. And some Alzhiemer's patients have been injured too much to respond to any normal stimulus. But the things these ladies loved the most were the last to leave their memory, and they were able to experience joy in the most unusual circumstances. And so was I.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Deer Win the Day(s)

The score after the opening two days of deer hunting season for me and my three friends is: Deer 4, Hunters 0. Our party took a total of six shots, and, most unusually, missed them all. I myself took no shots and spotted only one deer - a large one, running fast across a distant field. If, perchance, a reader is not familiar with the routine of deer hunting in western New York, the following explanation might be of interest.

The day starts in the dark, at about 6 a.m., when we walk to the tree stands where we hunt the "morning hunt". The deer are still out and about (theoretically, at least), and we stay quiet up in our trees, scanning the entire area to identify any movements of these well-camoflaged animals. Following that early morning hunt, we hike to a well defined large area and "drive it". Two hunters start at one end of the area and move through it, hopefully pushing any deer to other hunters who wait quietly at the other end. (Care must be taken to avoid shooting another hunter instead of the intended quarry.) After lunch we do a second drive, and then the "evening hunt" which is another sitting spell that lasts until the light fades.

The temperature this weekend was in the high 30's and low 40's, windy, with occasional spotty rains. The forest was wet, with the low areas filled with large puddles. The sky was totally overcast, so the lighting conditions were marginal. All in all, advantage deer! They are very quiet, camoflaged, and they often lie down to rest during the day in preparation for their nocturnal eating frenzies. In this farm country, deer can find a great late evening dinner at any one of our endless cornfields or alfalfa meadows. This highly nutritious diet makes for extra good venison if one is fortunate enough to find a deer and accurate enough to bring it down. (Of course, one must first "field dress" the deer, which is an activity not for the squeamish.)

It's Sunday evening, and I'm pleasantly tired after a one and one half days of walking through muddy fields and soggy woods. Yesterday I saw a large, puffy-haired red fox hunting in a cornfield. Several hawks circled constantly, and one would occasionally swoop down low over the fields after a small critter they had spotted with their keen eyes. Squirrels chattered at me as I sat in the tree stands, and all the small birds kept busy flitting about and finding insects or seeds to eat. No, I didn't get a deer, but I got a lot of satisfaction from being away from the routine of life, refreshing my amazement at the wonders of nature, and spending time with friends in a ritual older than history.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Opening Day Tomorrow!

As I sat at my kitchen table this afternoon, working on our volunteer ambulance fund drive, I was distracted by a movement in my peripheral vision. I glanced out the window and saw a majestic buck deer, over 200 pounds, with a huge 10-point rack. He ambled from my back yard into my next door neighbor's yard, and a minute or two later four does followed the same path. They loitered in my neighbor's yard for about 15 minutes before the buck moved off north-ward. The does came back through my yard enroute to their final destination of the day. Suburbia! Home of the most healthy semi-wild fauna!

I meet my three old friends at 5:45 tomorrow morning at a home about ten miles from mine - a home on the low-density fringe of suburbia where farms still dominate. By 6:15 I'll be at my favorite spot in a semi-dense bushy area where a small creek does 90 degree turn. Last year at that spot, 50 minutes into the season, I killed a nice 8-point buck. By the next day he was 120 pounds of boneless deerburger, heading for the local food bank. And there was one less deer for our local motorists to slaughter with their automobiles.

Some people wonder why the Christian ambulance man shoots innocent, beautiful creatures who are just minding their own business. Well, the answer is simple. There are virtually no predators for deer in our area, and the deer are everywhere. They eat the farmers' crops, they eat the suburban shrubs and flowers, and they injure and kill people when they fail to look both ways before crossing the road. There are far more deer in New York this year than there were when the white men bought Manhattan Island for some beads. Somebody's got to be the predator, and I guess it's up to me.

Is hunting a sport? Well, the deer are a lot smarter in the woods than I am. I figure I spend about 20 hours in the cold for every deer that falls to my shotgun. I don't take stupid shots that might wound the animal. And, when the season is over and there's some venison in the fridge, I have some feeling for what life was like in America not all that many years ago...dinner was out there, somewhere, if you were smart enough to find it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Disorganized Religion

This week Elton John said the world would be better off without organized religion. I'm involved in organized religion, but I think Elton has a good point. The world might be better off if everyone practiced "disorganized religion".

Generally speaking, religion is about defining the relationship between us humans and God. Over the last few millennia we humans have developed a few major organized religions that, in total, have produced some millions of pages that attempt to define the relationship between the two (or more) parties, and their respective rights and responsibilities. God, however, has not seen fit to conclusively ratify any of these organizations or their literary output, despite the protests of the faithful to the contrary. This lack of clarity has caused a lot of problems, but God seems determined not to get involved in resolving them directly.

In the absence of clarity and direct involvement from God, we as a race seem determined to make all kinds of assumptions about the divine relationship and the rules for our own behavior. With the best of intentions, our religons begin with generalities that often seem fairly similar: for example, God wants us to recognize God's being and God's superiority in the nature of things, and God expects us to assist in the execution of God's good plan for creation. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details.

For Elton John, the painful detail is religion's penchant to reject those who practice homosexuality. For the unfortunate Sunni or Shiite in Iraq, the painful detail has something to do with whichever Imam should have been Mohammad's successor. For the dead bystander in Belfast, it is something about a Pope. For many Mormons who fled in terror to Utah, it is about whether or not one wife is the limit. Organized religions have a way of making rules that result in groups of people being rejected, killed, or chased to remote locations. Each sect seems a lot more focused on enforcing their version of the details than on improving their own relationship with the rather elusive deity.

I just happen to be a United Presbyterian, one of several "Presbyterian" churches that fall under the general category of "reformed" Christians, i.e., those who have returned to the true Christianity that was ruined by the Roman Catholics (who have also since "reformed"). All of us Christians, of course, are different from the many flavors of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, et cetera. Even God must have some difficulty keeping all this differentiation straight! (I wonder how God is feeling about the potential split of United Presbyterians, again over differing versions of the details?)

So, today I'm calling for religion to get disorganized. If it's too difficult to just put aside the details, perhaps we humans need to minimize the organizations that put muscle behind enforcing them. Tax religious real estate like private property! Criminalize hate speech from the pulpits! Eliminate special tax breaks for clergy! Enforce religious neutrality in the public sector! I have a feeling we United Presbyterians would do just fine if we downsized enough that the details got a lot less attention, and so would all the rest of God's militant minions. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veteran's Day Ruminations

I'm a veteran, but not a combat veteran. Many years ago I had an opportunity to volunteer for duty in Vietnam. I would have been a forward observer with an infantry unit. My boss, a captain who had done 3-4 tours in Vietnam with Special Forces in the 50's and early 60's, called me into his office. He strongly advised me to complete my obligation to Uncle Sam, get out, finish college, and take care of my family. He said that Vietnam was not a country worth dying for. I took his advice. Not too many years later I was a successful businessman.

Before I checked out of the 101st Airborne Division I had the honor of speaking with friends who had volunteered and had already completed their first Vietnam tour. They were changed men. Some had become emaciated from bouts with malaria. Some were bitter over the gung-ho early tactics that resulted in obscene casualties, and some of the West Point grads were resigning their commissions. Some were going back for more. All of them had experienced something that I could never in my life relate to: a fight to the death. So I am not one of them.

In the years that followed my goodbye to my warrior friends, I've been fortunate to have had quite a number of business associates and friends who, by conventional standards, were the cream of the crop - intelligent, motivated, sensitive to others, and ethical. Yet, looking back, among my top role models were the senior officers who somehow coped with us young lieutenants, and the great NCO's who saved us from ourselves. Calm, forceful, experienced, honorable, dedicated. These are the characteristics I have remembered and attempted to emulate all these years. I will always be grateful for the years I worked and played with them, and I have always been confident in their ability and their willingness to protect our country.

The Vietnam War turned out to be a tragic error. It was not the fault of those brave men. The Iraq War is a tragic error in progress. It is not the fault of the troops who are fighting there under the American flag. Our military is answerable to the civilian Commander in Chief, and to the civilian Secretary of Defense, and then to the military chain of command. They have the opportunity to speak their mind, but in the end they follow orders. The great majority fight only those who wish to fight them, and they abide by the rules of war even in difficult circumstances. They have a job to do, and they do it to the best of their considerable ability. I may grieve over the assigments some of them are given, but I support them all the way.

At the end of the day, it is the citizens of our country who choose the wars we fight. In our electoral process we select men and women who have told us quite a bit about how they will govern, and the President - Commander in Chief is the most important of these. However, we often fail to consider that critical aspect of the President's job until it is too late to change our minds about the person we have elected.

In 2000 a slim majority of electoral votes elevated George Bush, a self-professed Christian man, to the presidency. Mr. Bush had stated he had no appetite for "nation-building", and the voters paid little attention to the neo-conservatives like Dick Cheney who followed him with briefcases full of war plans for Iraq. Then came the tragedy of 9/11. The anger and fear generated by the terrorists provided perfect cover for initiating the neocon plan, which concluded with the pitiful "coalition of the willing" invading Iraq. In no time the man who had purported to follow the Prince of Peace morphed into an acolyte of Mars, God of War. Our military has suffered 2,900 deaths and 21,000 injuries since that fateful day, and untold numbers of Iraqis have perished. We would like to put the blame on George Bush, but we gave him the job and the power. The fault lies with the American people who made a bad choice.

So, on this day I salute the veterans who have done their job, following the orders of our democratically elected government. On this day I mourn all those, friend and foe, combatant and civilian, who have perished in ill-advised wars started by presidents from Texas. May our memories last forever, so that we never again give presidential power to men or women who resort to war before exhausting every opportunity for peace.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Victory is Only a Beginning

Karl Rove has been slapped down. Tom DeLay is replaced by a democrat. Rumsfeld is walking the perp walk to oblivion. Bush has been reduced to lunching with the devil incarnate - Nancy Pelosi, that is. Christmas in November! The American people have once again proved they cannot be fooled forever. My faith was not in vain.

Now it's time for the democrats to prove they can govern, not simply snipe. Pelosi sounds like she's ready to go. Murtha sounds like a sour old man out for vengeance. Now is not the time for looking back. The American people know all about the darkness of the past six years, and they don't want to spend the next year rehashing that grim time. Hearings won't change the minds of the republican faithful, nor will they give the critics any true satisfaction. Now is the time to move on, for the democrats to introduce and pass the legislation needed to get this country's problems solved.

The problem is that introducing and passing this legislation is not going to be painless. Every change creates winners and losers. Fixing Social Security is going to require more taxes and less payouts just to keep the program afloat, assuming the democrats don't flip over and embrace the myth of job growth somehow generating the required tax revenue. Medicare reform will require higher taxes, curbs on procedures available to the very old or very sick, and some serious negotiation with the drug companies. Dealing with the trade imbalance will generate higher prices at Wal-Mart. Energy independence will require some democrats to bend over for nuclear energy and new refineries, and some consumers will have to accept less go-power when they push on the gas pedal. Going forward on stem cell research will alienate some who voted for the overthrow of Bush Jr. All of these issues are touchy. In fact, the only no-brainer is voting to increase the minimum wage to a higher amount that is still under the poverty line.

Will the democrats have the guts to follow through and deal with the big issues, or will they succumb to the pressures of running again in 2008? Right now I give them the benefit of the doubt, and a few suggestions: operate in the open, let all interested parties have their say in public, and make choices based on clear criteria that the 2008 voters can understand. That's democracy. Can the democrats practice it?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Self-Inflicted Wounds Bleed Republicans

In the end it came down to sins of comission, not omission, that cost the republicans the House and perhaps the Senate. The GOP lawmakers were held accountable for supporting the administration's unsuccessful war of choice in Iraq, and they were hammered for losing the moral high ground in scandal after scandal. It's fair to say that the republicans lost rather than saying that the democrats won. But practically speaking, it doesn't matter. The president will now dance to a compromise tune or he won't dance at all.

The election also identified some key trends in social issues.
  • Gay marriages were soundly rejected in (almost) every state where it was on the ballot. Gay couples will continue to have only a few states where they can count on civil protections equal to heterosexuals.
  • The federal minimum wage will be raised. Every state that voted on it, including the red states, chose to increase their state minimum wage. Republicans were smacked on this one.
  • The evangelicals lost ground on abortion and stem cell research. South Dakota did not ban abortion, Missouri OK'd stem cell research, and Santorum got slaughtered in Pennsylvania.
  • Arizona went for an official language - look for many more intiatives and statutes on this issue, most of which will pass.

The republican party should give John Kerry its "Motivator of the Campaign" award. He fanned the fury that was only smoldering in many of the red congressional districts, likely costing several democrats their chance to move to DC. The democrats should require Kerry to wear a dunce cap in the senate chambers. (Likewise, the democrats need to fete Rush Limbaugh for his important last minute assistance in Missouri.)

Will the democrat win result in an onslaught of liberal initiatives in congress? I think not. Nancy Pelosi will go centrist in order to keep her flock together. By forcing the administration to either accept compromise legislation it doesn't like or make unpopular vetoes, she will begin the differentiation process needed to hold the congress in 2008.

Meanwhile, the democrats will sit back and let President Bush simmer in his Iraq stew. They have no incentive to grab the reins on this one, since every new death or tactical setback takes another ounce of flesh off the Commander in Chief. Rummy is history, though, and soon. It's unlikely he will stomach explaining his actions to a new congressional committee every week.

As an "old-time moderate republican", I'm pretty happy with the outcome. Like Bush One, I oppose wars aimed at regime change. I believe two-party rule will curb the outrageous spending that threatens America's long-term viability. Threats to personal freedom will be curbed because the "religious right" lost some key battles. Moderates will take center stage for 2008, and I can live with any of those who have a brain, a little charisma, and the toughness to take on the crucial issues facing our country.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Was Right to be Afraid

The airwaves and phonelines have been spewing Republican political vomit for months now, but especially during these last days before the election. When I see the commercials or hear the robo-phone message, I sense Karl Rove lurking in the background, smiling at how effective he believes his misinformation wil be. And I think it will be effective. The question is, will it be effective enough?

Some robot called this morning to inform me that the congressional candidate I'm working for will raise my taxes. The caller knows exactly nothing about my taxes (I hope!), and my candidate has stated publically that he will not support raising middle class taxes. None of this matters to the robo-phone; it only wants to find the few voters out of the many it contacts who will vote Republican due to tax fear. Those votes could make the difference.

It really pisses me off that the robo-phone message does not open with an identification of the calling organization. Before the next election we need a law to require this. There is something about a voice that begins "Let me tell you something about Candidate X", that makes my stomach turn.

So, Mr. Rove, I sincerely hope that there are election laws that you can be convicted of breaking. I would celebrate your perp walk like I celebrated Saddam's capture, because I believe you, more than anyone else, are responsible for the breakdown of civil discourse in American politics. Your potent money machine is indeed as powerful as the smug right-wing commentators say it is. You really have the potential to shut down American democracy with your shameless propaganda, repeated ad nauseum.

I was right to be afraid. Please, Americans, use your vote put this guy back in the sewer he came from! Let's all feel more free tomorrow.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Have Americans Finally Seen the Light?

There's only one more day until the mid-term elections begin, and in two days we'll know the outcome except in districts where non-trackable electronic voting has failed. Will my faith in the American people be restored? The suspense is killing me!

I don't blame Americans for being fooled about our invasion of Iraq. We are a trusting people. We truly believe our leaders would not lie to us on a topic so consequential as a decision to go to war, or about the status of that war or the country where we are now engaged in battle. Our trust is a lasting trust; it takes clear evidence to shake it. We want to believe our country is doing the right thing because, by and large, we are a righteous people. But the evidence is now overwhelming. We were fooled into supporting the Iraq war, and we've been deceived since the day our victorious troops stood by, dumbfounded, as the infrastructure of Bahgdad was trashed by the Iraqis they had just "liberated". Will the voters continue to stand by those who have so foolishly squandered our country's young men, our treasure, and our standing in the world?

I don't blame Americans for not understanding that debt, not tax cuts, has fueled whatever economic recovery we are now enjoying. The fact that our national debt has increased 45% under the current administration is not headline news. But the truth is that every American owes $7,000 more to creditors of our goverment than they did in the year 2000, and our country is far more subject to economic blackmail by our enemies than we were six years ago. Will the voters decide to reject this administration because its financial Katrina is overflowing our economic levees?

I don't blame Americans for supporting those who profess the religious beliefs that many think underlie our country's freedoms. Underneath all the simplistic theology that evangelicals blindly accept is a deep concern for the values outlined in the Ten Commandments. They prefer that the recipe for a proper life be laid out in a straightforward manner, no "pinches of this or that", no optional adjustments for differing flavors or textures. Have they come to realize that the leaders they elected for religious reasons are no more genuine than Ron Haggard? Will the voters reject supporters of the George Bush whose hired gun, Karl Rove, uses "false witness" as his primary campaign tool?

I don't blame Americans for thinking a goverment of one party could finally enact new laws to solve the looming issues of Social Security and Medicare, and to simplify the labyrinthine tax laws that support a huge but inefficient industry and drive us all crazy at the same time. Will the voters strike back because their candidates bypassed these substantive issues in favor of pushing "loser" laws regarding gay marriage, abortion, and flag burning?

As President Bush famously said, "You can fool me once -golly, how does that go again?" Have Americans got to the point where they realize the Republicans are trying to fool them again? My antennae tell me that the time has come for true realization, and that the people will speak clearly in this election. They will speak out against a fraudulent war, spendthrift economics, phony religion, and do-nothing debates in congress. If they don't, they will have been fooled twice and deserve whatever carnage the new "old" government will certainly inflict on them.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

New Life Church Acts!

Good for them! New Life Church in Colorado Springs has dismissed its founding pastor, Ron Haggard, for "immoral conduct". They must be very sad, and I don't blame them. Haggard has been their shepherd for twenty years, but he has been proved to be someone they really didn't know very well at all. They have found out a key truth that Christians must keep in mind at all times - that the church is not a person, nor a building, nor even a rigid theology. Rather, the church is a whole bunch of individuals striving for a relationship with a God who says "my thoughts are not your thoughts". Even pastors do not have the same thoughts as God, much as they would like to convince their congregations otherwise.

Hopefully the Haggard mess will trigger the evangelical movement to become a bit less pastor-centered and a bit more open to the Jesus of the gospels. That Jesus was not enamored with big temples and self-righteous religious leaders, and he did not preach the gospel of success in this world. That Jesus commended praying in secret and said that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God. That Jesus died on a cross, rejecting power and prestige in this world.

As far as I'm concerned, Warren Buffett in his little house and old car and cheap suits is far more of a minister than every TV pastor who looks as though he or she stepped out of a fashion magazine. Warren Buffett has lived right and given his riches to the poorest and most needy of our world, while the TV pastors ask you to live right and give your riches to them!

Ex-reverend Haggard, I pray that the humiliation of this experience will help you renew your striving for God and give you a new heart for the poor and the fallen. I sincerely hope that you have not accumulated wealth and possessions that will keep you from being the servant you were called to be. Your story is not over yet.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"But I Didn't Inhale", Redux Courtesy of Ted Haggard

Rev. Ted Haggard went to a gay prostitute for a "massage", and he bought chrystal meth "but he threw it away". Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, sounds a lot like Bill Clinton but his parishoners are sticking with him so far. I guess that just getting a massage from a gay prostitute and simply buying chrystal meth doesn't cross the line for these conservative Christians. But this story is not over yet.

Ted Haggard will not be arrested or face a trial in court. Rather, he will be subject to an internal investigation by his church, and he will get a lot of unwelcome scrutiny from the press. The latter will likely fill out the details of the life lived by Ted Haggard, and judgment will be rendered by the public and his congregation. What should their rules be for judging powerful people like Haggard?

First, they must hold powerful people to a high standard of conduct. Like us, powerful people are fallible. CEO's can be honest or steal, police can be squeeky clean or take bribes, and presidents can go to war for the right or the wrong reasons. The difference between the bad choices made by powerful people and average people is often in the scope of the impact.

Ken Lay wrecked the lives of thousands when he trashed Enron; crooked cops facilitate the crimes of those they take bribes from; and, Lyndon Johnson divided a nation and spent its youth for nothing in Vietnam. These examples show that oversight of powerful people is especially important because their bad choices tend to have powerful conseqences. And when oversight fails to identify or deter these bad choices prior to the damage being done, the punishment of powerful people should be stiff.

Ted Haggard held others to a strict standard of morality when he spoke from the pulpit. If he is guilty only of the behavior he has already admitted, his role in the pulpit and the administration of that church should be over. Harsh punishment? Not. Contrition, to be realistic, must have self-imposed penalties - "sackcloth and ashes", for example. If Haggard does not volunteer for exile, he should be exiled by his flock to a new occupation and a considerably reduced lifestyle. He must live by his own rules if they are to have any meaning for his followers.

Is there a parallel between Haggard and Clinton? Perhaps in terms of the level of embarassment they caused their constituencies the cases are similar. But on another level, the cases are very different. Clinton was elected president by people who knew he boasted of having a carpet in the back of his pickup truck. People were aware of Jennifer Flowers. Clinton never claimed to be pure. Haggard, on the other hand, set himself up as an example for all. That makes his claim of "I bought the meth but threw it away" ring rather hollow. He crossed his own line, and that makes him subject to his own rules. More to come on this one, for sure.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ambulance Man

It's 12:10 p.m. in Pittsford, NY, and all is quiet at the volunteer ambulance. I'm the medic tonight. My driver is watching one TV, my dispatcher the other. In a moment all that can change. The horn goes off, my pager goes off, and then my jacket and stethoscope go on. In about one minute we'll be opening the garage doors and heading out with lights flashing and siren also blaring if there's any traffic.

Since I retired at age 53 back in 1998, I've volunteered about 8,000 hours at our local ambulance corps. We get about six calls every day on average, and I've answered about 1,275 of them over the years. Most calls are not too challenging because the patient's condition is not unstable (unstable means they could possibly die). We comfort those patients and their families, provide whatever emergency medical care they need, and deliver them safely to one of the four emergency rooms in our town. Mostly, that's what EMT's do.

On more rare occasions the patient's condition is unstable, and we work pretty hard to keep them alive. If I'm lucky, a paramedic is close by to join my driver and me on serious calls. Sometimes we fend for ourselves during anxious minutes when things are happening fast. The minutes may be anxious, but we are trained to not look anxious. We do what we have to do, quickly and efficiently. Most of the time we get these patients safely to the ER, but sometimes (mostly due to major heart attacks or car accidents) the patients are not so lucky. We do our best, and soon we are back at the base waiting to go out on our next call.

You might think that dealing with death is a tough job, but most times it is not. "We are all terminal", as the saying goes. We deal with the death of an older person in a respectful way, but we accept it for what it is. But the death of a younger person is very hard to take - so much life is now gone. Similarly, some people have major injuries or sudden illnesses that we know will affect the entire rest of their life in a most negative way. Even a badly smashed wrist can be life-changing. The "bad calls" generate traumatic stress, and often the next week is not so good.

It's now 9:45 a.m., and I got 1 1/2 hours of sleep last night. Three calls, two fairly serious but not life-threatening. Those two serious ones were people with medical issues causing "10 on 10" pain - more than they have ever had in their life. I found one person balled up and shivering on the floor of the upstairs bathroom shower stall. Some of the details are too unpleasant to write about. That's the kind of thing EMT's deal with on a regular basis.

If you've got a few hours of free time each week, think about volunteering for your local ambulance or fire department. There are few better opportunities to serve your neighbor and follow the commands of Jesus or whatever deity you recognize. You will soon find out that plenty of other people have it worse off than you do, even on your worst day, and you will wake up every morning thanking God for the good life you've been given.