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Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Sins of Our Fathers

                                                “When the flowers bloom early,
                                                    Then wither and die young
                                        They are licked by the Devil’s split tongue
                                    Oh the sins of our fathers have beaten us numb
                                           On these tree-lined, white-picket lawns
                                             On these golden Street of Rome…”
                                         --Rick Elias “Street of Rome”

I’ve pounded out an opening sentence at least half a dozen times here. Each one seemed to start off saying what I wanted to say but then fizzled. Then I remembered this brilliant line from a wonderful song my friend Rick wrote.
The sins of our fathers have beaten us numb…
I love eloquence, but eloquence doesn’t seem to capture my outrage right now so I’m going to go with blunt force.
I’m pissed.
If any good has come from the recent wave of sexual assault / misconduct accusations hitting the media –besides the obvious change in the workplace attitudes—it shone a light on yet another unspeakable abrogation of the public trust by our elected officials. Prior to these accusations, did any of you know there was a huge government slush fund, set aside for the sole purpose of paying out claims against congresspersons for sexual misconduct?
I didn’t.
I didn’t and I like to think I’m a student of our government. I know I pay attention. I know I’ve read the Constitution at least once. I have yet to find the part where it says that funds collected from our citizens shall be used to pay for the sins of our leadership.
So far, upwards of fifteen million dollars has been paid out to claimants in order to buy their silence and assuage their wounded souls.
Fifteen million.
The worst part of this is; the list of offending Congressman is private. There is actually a bill being put forth to make this public and disclose the names. So let’s recap, shall we:
Congresspersons, (I’ll not pretend it is only men doing the offending, although they are likely the majority) are even more deviant than we have come to suspect –and that’s saying a lot—and they’ve set up a slush fund, out of our money, to keep it quiet, ostensibly enabling themselves to keep up the bad behavior.
So, while I was sleeping in a 1996 GMC Yukon and eating food samples at Sam’s Club to survive, and fighting with the Unemployment office for the $134 a week I was eligible for after my benefits expired, these people were cornering staffers in their offices for the purpose of copping a feel, and God knows what else, and we paid for it!
It’s not the first time these people have done something like this. Remember the House Banking Scandal in the early 90’s? Where House members were bouncing checks all over Creation on the taxpayer’s dime without even facing overdraft charges? Yeah…they had their own little banking system, separate from you and I, and they were bouncing checks as they saw fit and never faced the music for it. How would that work in the real world?
I’m sure, if I checked, I would find their homes decorated with items they bought on the office supply account, paper they took from the House storage closet, clothes in their closets that they charged to their constituents as the necessities of business. But now I’m paying for their sexual deviance?
I don’t know what makes me angrier; the fact that I had to pay for their sins, or the fact that I could have used a tiny chunk of that money to get back on my feet. Okay, I know I’m angrier about paying for their sins, but honestly…they talk about cutting our taxes like they’re being benevolent, and then we find out they’re using our money like this?
That list needs to be public, today! That fund needs to be shut down by close of business today as well and any Congressperson who has paid out of it needs to be held accountable and forced to repay the money by whatever means necessary. Seize their personal property if need be. Keep their paycheck. Better yet, dismiss them immediately and make them pay it back after they find work in the private sector. Cut off that special healthcare package they have and make them live the way the rest of us live.
I wonder what the founding fathers would think about a slush fund to silence claims about sexual deviance. Perhaps the only thing that hurts more than the exposing of this criminal cover-up is the knowledge that you and I can’t stop it. We’re dependent on the very people who created this smokescreen to remove it. That’s like hiring a drunk for a bartender.
I don’t blame them entirely. I blame us. I blame the voters who keep sending the same people back to Washington every election cycle because they get something in return. Not representation. Not leadership. They get a bribe. They get some pork stuck on the end of a highway bill somewhere and their district benefits and their trucking company or road building firm or consultant group makes some bloated figure because “their guy” got them a contract. Or worse, simply because said guy has an “R” or a “D” next to his name. Generations of voting the straight ticket has done this. That and a lack of term limits. In the end, the sin we’re really paying for is our own. We sent these people there and watched as they became ghouls.
What standard are we holding these people to now? What moral compass do we look to for the outrage we should be feeling? We removed God entirely from our schools and our government and we stand in gape-mouthed shock when we find out we’re here. Here where our leaders create a fund whose sole purpose is to cover their sins, on our dime.
In what way are we better since abandoning our Christian heritage? Name one.
We’re not and even speaking this way will cause uproar.
We’d better find our moral compass in this nation and we’d better do it soon. We’d better get back to “clinging to our God, guns and Bibles” to quote the previous “president.” Because clinging to our own devices got us here.
This country needs a moral sea change. We need godly citizens who will start electing godly officials again. Sadly, I don’t see this happening. Thus, we’ll continue paying for someone else’s sins. We’ll be beaten and grow number, until we’re withered and dying.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving Memories...

Thanksgiving was the beginning of the annual "season of peace" at my house. It was the only prolonged period of getting along in the calendar year. The only time when it really felt like a home and a family. The only time of consistent good memories. 
We'd have company (That's guests to you non-north-easterners) that we'd often not seen since the previous Holiday season. Music played in the living room. (The rest of the year, music only played in my bedroom, and it kept me sane) The house smelled of spices and evergreen. 
Thanksgiving we typically went to my grandmother's house by the Philadelphia Airport. She had a huge dining room table and lace table cloths. It was one of two days each year that my grandfather didn't get loaded...the other being Christmas. My grandmother loved having us there. She loved cooking and doting over us. She set out a tray with celery sticks and cream cheese, olives, and pickles. There was the ever-present leaf-shaped glass dish with jelly spearmint leaves on the sideboard. 
We said grace. We laughed and we ate. It was the only time we really acted as a family and it was almost perfect. Thanksgiving day ended and the next day -when I was little at least- we'd take the train into center city Philadelphia to the John Wannamaker store and see that massive toy department, so big it had a monorail that circled high above. My mom would stick me and my brother and my cousin Stephanie on it while she and my Aunt Donna and my grandmother shopped below. When we were done, we slid down a slide into cotton batting and then had our picture made with Santa, next to a little signpost that said "North Pole: 5372 miles" (or something close to that) We'd watch in awe as the now-antiquated light display twinkled, and John Facenda's matchless voice narrated the Christmas Tale. People said "Merry Christmas!" Even people who didn't celebrate Christmas said it and nobody was offended. They seemed to really mean it.
We'd circle toys in the Sears "wish book" and each evening we'd open the doors on the Advent calendar. We'd take McDonald's gift certificates to our favorite teachers and cards to our friends. 
Christmas would arrive and we'd have regular guests. Faces I loved. Faces that brought light and joy and laughter into our tense house. Faces I haven't seen in a long time now. I had a lot of Aunts and Uncles who weren't really my aunts and uncles. I don't know if they do that everywhere but they sure do it in Philly and the surrounding areas. My Aunt Donna was my mom's only sibling. She and my uncle Jack and cousin Stephanie were always there. My "Aunt" Ruth an "Uncle Ed." Other assorted "left handed uncles" as Poppa John once called them. Aunt Marna, Uncle John, Uncle Bill, Aunt Sandy, Neighbors, friends. People who never gathered under our roof during the rest of the year, would stop at Christmas. For me it was magical. There was a friendly crowd I could get lost in. There were people who asked me about me. I was seen.
In the midst of it all was my grandmother. She had an alabaster nativity set she would bring out each year. The figures were hand painted. The little stable made of real wood. I can feel it in my hands right now as I sit here thinking about it. She loved pumpkin pie and candied yams. I never understood the yams until I was an adult. Now I love them as well. 
I think it's her that I miss the most each Christmas. Her voice, her sweetness, her anticipation of her family returning to her house each Thanksgiving. Her being with us each Christmas. I think, looking back, she too recognized the brief period of normalcy in an otherwise tense and dysfunctional family life. 
It reminds me of the power of this season. The quiet, almost silent, reminder that under each Christmas ornament, behind each gaudy string of lights, buried beneath all the crass commercialism and naked greed...but standing out in bold relief to the efforts of the world to silence it, is the truth of this time of the year. 
A baby in a manger. A scandal, hidden in the flesh of a tiny baby. God Himself...among us.
My dear friend Rick put it this way almost 25 years ago: "He was born in a barn and murdered on a trash heap. And I have trusted my SOUL to Him. He was the Son of God, nailed to a cross, with spit running down His face...and I call Him LORD."
The baby in that Nativity scene is why my family declared an annual truce. He's why the wanderers find their way home each year. He was what kept my grandfather sober for two whole days out of 365. He was the unseen but not unrecognized guest at the grown-up table...and the kids table. He was present in the toy department, he disguised Himself as Santa, and He lay awake all night on Christmas Eve, even if I never noticed Him there in those bunk beds with my brother and me. He authors all the happy memories.
He knits us together as the year comes to an end. He was heralded by a star, announced by angels, worshiped by lowly shepherds. He is still, the reason for this season. 
And, while very much alive right now, He is also part of every memory I have of this season that begins this week.
A dear friend that I care about very much reminded me tonight that these are the Holidays. And that enough time has been spent on politics, (and will doubtless be spent going forward) Politics will be there in January. Starting now, until then...I'm focusing on the season. It's only here a little while each year. I'm going to drink deeply.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Make this season the best one yet.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Saying Goodbye to my First Fishing Buddy

I lost an old friend this week. I wrote this for my outdoors blog, but I wanted to post it here as well.

It would have been the summer of 1971.
We moved into our house in February of that year, and I think that summer I got my first fishing rod and reel. I got it from the guy who sold sporting goods in the New Castle Farmer’s Market on weekends.
Not long after, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor across the street, took me to the secret fishing hole that the boys on my block all went to on summer mornings. They called it “Nonesuch Creek” and it’s not just a local moniker, it actually appears on maps of the area. A small little outcrop off the Christiana River, about three miles from our neighborhood.
It was tidal, and dirty, and smelled like diesel and dirt. We never caught anything but carp and catfish but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t there for trophy fish or to catch our dinner. We were there being little boys. Fishing by ourselves, at a time in this world when little boys could jump on their bikes after breakfast, pedal three miles to their secret fishing hole, and spend the day in the sun, hidden from the nearby highway traffic, deep in a meadow that ran alongside this dirty little creek with the mysterious name.
We’d dug earthworms from our parents’ gardens the night before. We packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Cokes wrapped in aluminum foil, in a vain attempt to keep them cold, and we set out on our spider bikes.
Tommy Riccio was three years older, and it wasn’t many more summers before his interests in hanging with the younger boys on the block waned, and he discovered girls and KISS records, and we didn’t do much together anymore.
But for those first few years, he was one of my best friends, and my fishing buddy.
He was creative and funny and mischievous and smart. Like all my other friends on that block, Tommy added the color to my childhood that made it fun and in many ways, tolerable. Home wasn’t the happiest place, but out on the block, with my friends from Monroe Avenue gathered on the white block wall that ringed my yard…I was happy.
Tommy and I grew up, and moved on, but we’d run into each other now and then when I’d get home for a visit and it was always good to see him. Somehow, even after 45 years, I still held him just a little in awe. He was still special to me. They all are, those kids from Monroe Avenue. It is always good to run into my childhood friends and Tommy was no exception.
Tommy passed away unexpectedly last week and the news hit me hard. He’s the second of my close friends from childhood to go, and like Sheila six years ago, this is painful for me. I love his family and I loved Tommy. His mom and dad were always the two people I made sure I visited when I’d get home. His mom passed earlier this year and I still struggle to grasp that. Now Tommy joins her.
I keep thinking about Tommy and that fishing hole and those spider bikes and the time we dissected a bullfrog in his garage and it looked like a scene from a horror movie. I think about the first tree fort we built in the big sprawling oak behind the Ferraro’s house. How we’d tar-papered the roof and it was weatherproof and we would sit up there on rainy summer days and talk about what boys talk about, while the Phillies game was on a transistor radio we’d brought along.
I thought about how we’d all pile into my mother’s VW Beetle and head to the Chesapeake Bay, or to the Drive-In on a Friday night or to the haunted houses at Halloween and we’d all go through them together. One big gang of kids, all from the same dead-end street. Friends to the end.
I’ll be thinking of Tommy next spring, when the snows thaw and the James River runs fast and deep and I begin another season of fishing. The James is a far cry from Nonesuch Creek. It’s beautiful, clean, and surrounded by pristine mountains and the fish I catch are true trophies. It’s what I dreamed of when I was a little boy, fishing that dirty creek with my neighborhood friends. In every imaginable way, it’s better fishing than what Tommy and I experienced on Nonesuch Creek.
Or is it?
There won’t be three other boys there; bikes piled clumsily nearby, with a coffee can full of earthworms nearby and cork bobbers floating anxiously on the water.
We won’t be telling jokes and peeing in the bushes, and getting tanned and sweaty and dirty and enjoying just being out there with each other.
It will just be me. Floating a section of one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, like I dreamed when I was a boy.
In my heart though, where the best memories live forever, Tommy will be there. He’ll be there laughing at my jokes, telling me a few of his own, casting to the best spot and watching that bobber with an eagle eye.
He’ll live on in my heart, this old friend of mine, and he’ll fish with me in those brief, flashing moments when I’ll think of him, and Johnny and Richard, with our rods and tackle boxes in our hands, pedaling our way down the path that led to our secret spot.
I can still see his face as it was when we were kids. He’ll laugh, he’ll cast his line in that perfect clear water next to mine, and then he’ll go back to the place in my heart where he’ll be forever.
Godspeed dear old friend.
I’ll see you on a bright Saturday morning next spring. You’ll come out from your place in my heart, and we’ll fish together for a few moments.
Hug your mom for me.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dear Justin Beiber...please just go away

Justin Beiber.
I can barely even type the name without my skin crawling. The bad behavior. The crappy music. The posing. I admit to my disdain for this kid. My dislike is exacerbated by the fact that he openly claims Jesus.
His behavior has been so atrocious as to have been cornered and throttled by none other than Keyshawn Johnson for speeding through a residential neighborhood.  He’s groped women, allegedly drugged at least one, punched fans, pleaded guilty to a DUI and –if you believe the account of the pilot—forced his private plane to land because he was smoking so much weed in the cabin that the pilot was getting a contact high and didn’t feel safe to perform his duties.
About six weeks ago he cancelled the remainder of his “Purpose” tour and said he wants to focus on being a better person and working on his faith. Being a better person wouldn’t be hard…he’s pretty much a scumbag so anything he does to improve will look great by comparison.
So, we’ve established that I don’t like him. Here’s why:
I live in Lynchburg, Virginia now, but I spent 17 years in Nashville. I had a long run of bad experiences in Nashville and I admit it tainted the waters for me. Nashville is a very cool town with lots to do. But it has a seamy side that I hated. It is a town built on entertainment, after all, and there is a certain intrinsic danger to that. Nashville loves it’s celebrities. I mean loves them. Everybody loves posting on social media how they ran into Carrie Underwood at the car wash or saw the late George Jones at Nacho’s, a wonderful Mexican joint in Franklin where he used to go for dinner quite often. Everybody has their celebrity close encounter stories and they love dishing them out.
Pastors are not immune to this disease either. They never shy from mentioning the latest famous face to attend their services. And if a music star, or a famous author, (beside music, Nashville is a massive publishing hub) or an athlete from one of the pro sports franchises should actually call them their pastor…well, brother, you’ll hear about it soon enough.
I attended three churches during my 17 years in Nashville. The first was pastored by a wonderful godly man who was only slightly affected by the stardom of the town. He loved being friends with Christian musicians. He was a very accomplished musician himself and after forty years in ministry, knew quite a few of them. They came to visit, and often played in our church. He didn’t give them any special treatment and never hesitated to introduce them to congregants who were curious. I met Armand Morales through him because he knew I was a huge fan of the Imperials and sang bass in High School. He never cow-towed to the famous, but he sure loved when they stopped by.
The second church I attended was different. (I changed churches because I had bought a house about 25 miles away.)
It was an average sized church when I first attended, maybe 600 people. Then word got out about the music. (It’s never “Come here this pastor, Man! He can call down the fire! It’s “Come hear our music, the band is incredible!” Because it’s really about entertaining the masses, not preaching content) and word got out about the celebrities who started showing up because of the churches proximity to their neighborhood, and the numbers exploded. Within a few years, they were running about 5000 between the two Sunday services. You never knew which celebrity would show up next…but you always found out when they did because the pastor namedropped on social media. Oh, sure, it was the classic “Humble-brag:” something like this… “So blessed and honored to have [insert famous musician / athlete / politician] in our services this morning. God is good!” Then came the requisite selfie with the celebrity.
You couldn’t get five minutes with the pastor because his schedule was just so jammed. But if you were famous, oh man! “Clear the calendar and hold my calls, Gladys!”
God might have been doing something amazing in the life of Joe Average, but the pastor seldom found out because he was only concerned with the life of Joe Celebrity. It was as if James chapter 2 was entirely torn out of the bible.
The problem is that so many of these celebrities were new in their faith, or if they had been claiming Christianity for a long time, they were stunted because nobody ever dare call them to account. You can’t have Joe Celebrity on your speed dial and expect him to return your call if you were to ever hold him accountable, or preach a sermon against sin; particularly sin he might be committing. (This is why you never heard sermons in Nashville about divorce or drunkenness or adultery. It’s also why Nashville has the second highest divorce rate in the U.S. to go along with the most churches per capita) No way! You can’t run off those famous folks. They write big checks and even more…they add a glamour and air of importance to the pastor’s resume.
All this is in explanation of my issues with Justin Beiber.
First, there’s his Pastor. It’s like the guy is writing his own personal encyclopedia of bad / questionable behavior. Case in point: This is Beiber and his “pastor” Carl Lentz, doing shots in a bar in New Zealand: 

Now I can’t tell for sure, but the guy looks like Bono and George Michael had a love-child. Is there anyone more desperate for outward approval than this shallowman?
His track record is atrocious. I won’t delve into it here because this isn’t a Carl Lentz article but here is a link to one of the many informative stories about this guy. I’ll let you decide: Carl Lentz: Heretic?
So back to Beiber…
If he is serious about rededicating his life to Jesus, returning to the Faith he allegedly claimed as a child, and answering the prayers of a godly mom, I hope he’ll consider doing what Bob Dylan did.
Go away!
That’s right. Justin Beiber needs to go away.
Go away for a while. Hide from the public eye. Spend your “forty years” in the desert. Get ahold of someone who can really disciple you (not this poser you call a pastor. I mean how much discipline and training can you get from a drinking buddy more concerned with popularity than the Gospel?) and let them hold you accountable.
In the late seventies, Bob Dylan made a conversion to Messianic Judaism. He subsequently released three, very powerful, very direct Christian themed albums that rank among his best work. In the years since, he has not overtly written lyrics about his Faith, but it’s there if you’re listening. (Dylan has stated that he tends to keep his personal life out of his music and once he’s addressed a topic, doesn’t like to repeat himself. This is why he stopped at three Christian themed records)
Beiber needs to do the same. 
He needs to go away.
He needs to stop being seen in public, decide if he can really live without the fame and the accolades and the young girls fawning over him. He needs to see if he can really obey Jesus...not just love Jesus. He needs to feel how heavy that daily cross is, and decide if he really wants to carry it or not. he needs to see if he can say with John the Baptist: "He must increase but I must decrease." He needs to spend time with a man of God who will stick a finger in that tiny chest of his and say "Listen, dude...this is wrong what you're doing and you need to stop. You're disobeying Scripture and I don't give a rat's butt who you are!"
He owes Jesus this. He owes us this. The people who claim the same faith and name the same Name. He needs to decide whether he could live without booze and drugs and girls and the fame he so obviously craves. He needs to be stripped of everything he uses to define himself and let himself be transformed by the renewing of his mind.
He needs to get to a point where he says “I’m laying this down and I may never pick it up again."
That or he needs to never mention his faith again. Go slam shots with your poser buddy. Get arrested again. Grope women and irritate former football players. Write embarrassingly stupid things in the guestbook at the Anne Frank museum. Just don’t tell people you’re a Christian. Because you make us all look bad. And anyone who can make me look worse than I already am, is really doing it wrong.
Pastors…please, I BEG you, please don’t ask this kid to come speak to your church. Don’t hold him up as another reclaimed soul. Nashville…don’t give him a book deal and a record deal and a speaking gig. Not yet. Let him prove himself. Let him go a year or two without the bad behavior. Let him mature. Bob Dylan waited over a year before even mentioning his conversion, because he knew, and distrusted, the culture that holds famous converts up like trophies far too early in their spiritual life.
Justin Beiber should do this as well. If he’s serious, and this new chapter is the real thing, then I say “Thank God” and welcome him with open arms. But until then, he needs to take a cue from Dylan
…and just go away.