The great writer C. S. Lewis was once asked if attending church and being part of Christian community was a necessary part of living a life of faith.
Lewis replied by saying that when he first became a Christian, faith was a solitary affair. Worship was celebrated “on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology.” The institutional church, with its hymns made up of “fifth-rate poems set to sixth rate music” held absolutely no appeal to him.
But Lewis’ faith required him to take Holy Communion and the church was the only place to do that, so he begrudgingly went. What he experienced at church wasn’t exactly what he’d expected. At church, Lewis, “came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education” The hymns were sung with “devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
I know that I’ve written about my love for what’s now disparagingly called “organized religion” in this space before. I’ve touted the benefits of going to church and expressed sadness for those who try to “go it alone” spiritually. But this month my church, Trinity Episcopal Church of Three Rivers, is celebrating its 150th anniversary and I can’t resist writing about it again, but this time a bit more personally.
While I’m no theologian, I don’t think religion is best understood as a set of rules, beliefs or creeds. Instead, I think it’s more like a love affair with God and with all of God’s creation, be it plant, animal or human. The joining together for common worship and common community is the natural result of that love, much like marriage is the natural result of romantic love.
So many beautiful things happen when people come together in that kind of spirit. Relationships are built, hearts are mended, and lives are restored. The church, being the earthly body of Christ, can be a source of great healing and comfort. At Trinity, addicts are supported, the sick are visited and the poor are fed. It may not always make the pages of the Commercial-News, but I promise you it happens every single day.
The people who make those things happen are much like Lewis’ old saint in elastic-side boots.
Carol Boulette, the current Three Rivers Lions Club Citizen of the Year, usually sits a few pews in front of me on Sunday mornings. She’s an amazing woman. You might know Carol from reading about her in this paper. I can tell you from personal experience however, that it is a far different thing to read about Carol and quite another to know her. It’s impossible spend 10 minutes in her presence and not be inspired.
Ernie Porath is another of Trinity’s saints. He’s not wealthy and he’s not famous (at least not outside Marcellus) but Ernie is the kind of man I want to be. He’s loyal, hardworking, kind and he never misses an opportunity to serve his fellow man. I’m quite confident that he’s done more to make the world a better place this week than some people do in their entire lives. He has lived his life exceedingly well.
There are others saints at Trinity too. My departed friend Jeanette Schirs, for example, was a pillar of Trinity, the Animal Rescue Fund and many other groups before her death last year. Our retiring priest, Fr. David Lillvis, has been a profound instrument of grace in my own life. I will never forget his ministry to me and my family as my father-in-law lay dying in the next room. There are others too. There are so many that’s it’s impossible to mention all of them in a 790 word column.
I’ll just say this: I’ve been changed for the better as a result of knowing these people, God’s grace has abundantly flowed through them. They are a constant, if often invisible, blessing to the entire city of Three Rivers.
Trinity Episcopal Church is not a building, but a people and the anniversary of that people’s birth is worth celebrating.
May God continue to bless them all.
While I’ve never talked about it very much - mostly because I'm an uncomfortable self promoter- for the past six years or so I’ve written a monthly column called “Beyond Red and Blue” in theThree Rivers Commercial News. I tend to write mostly about politics but I’ve also written about culture, religion and personal topics over the years.
Recently, someone asked me if there was a place where they could read some of my old columns. I assume the request was to read some of my best ones because God knows they have not all been winners. I selected these columns under the additional assumption that no one wants to read columns I wrote, even good ones, about topics now settled like whether Obamacare should be passed. So although I wrote some killer Obamacare columns, you won't find those here.
With all that in mind, below are a few of my favorite columns that I think have stood the test of time.
Here’s a little New Years quiz: What do the professions of pharmacy and occupational therapy have in common? Take a few minutes to think about it. I’ll wait.
Until a few years ago you could get licensed in Michigan to do either of these jobs with a bachelor’s degree, but now both of these professions require a doctoral degree to get a license.
Why the change? Were there great advancements in these fields that now require practitioners to be much more educated then they were a few years ago?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The changes are a calculated move to enhance the prestige and salary these professions. The way they’ve done that is by requiring new practitioners to earn doctorates. In other words, Bob the local pharmacist will soon be Dr. Bob and he’d like a nice raise to go along with his fancy new title. Of course, he’ll need that raise to pay for the monumental student loan debt that comes along with his new title.
As licensing statutes require more and more training, students will have to go deeper into debt. These future doctors will probably be able to pay their debt, but students who choose less lucrative fields could be exploited by profit focused colleges.
Regretfully, there’s some evidence that this is already happening. Recently, a senate education committee has raised “serious concerns” about veterans being exploited by for-profit colleges. The colleges are accused of using misleading marketing campaigns – read inflated promises of large salaries - to talk veterans into taking out huge federally back student loans that they have little or no chance of repaying.
But veterans are not the only ones at risk of being financially wiped out by college. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average college graduate has a debt load of $21,000 when they don their cap and gown. Add the fact that college costs have for many years grown much faster than the rate of inflation and it becomes clear our nation has a serious problem.
Some commentators, like David Brooks, point to cultural changes to explain the predicament. Brooks pointed out in a recent column that the children of white collar workers generally look down on jobs that are anything but the whitest white collar. This preference is so strong that many will only train for jobs that can be done in an office. In Brooks’ words, our self directed educational system has led to “too many mortgage brokers and not enough mechanics.”
Our higher educational system is in crisis. We’ve got too many students taking out too much debt to pursue jobs that aren’t productive and don’t pay enough to allow them to pay their student loans. We also have professional organizations and colleges that manipulate students into getting unnecessary training that doesn’t benefit them or the people they serve.
What’s to be done?
First, our current student loan system needs to change. As much as it may seem unfair, we can’t continue to provide social work majors the same amount of student loan guarantees that we give engineering majors. It’s not fair to saddle future social workers with debt they can not repay while at the same time turning out an oversupply of popular, impractical majors. If loan limits encourage students to pursue more productive and well paying careers, so be it. Michele Obama once gave a speech encouraging young people to pursue public service jobs like being social workers or teachers. While these professions are important and needed, they are also fields that often have an oversupply of graduates. With all due respect to the First Lady, that means we need fewer of them, not more.
We also need to crack down on predatory colleges (many of them online) that over promise and under deliver for their students. The government has a regulatory role to play in this, but all of us also need to become more skeptical of the to-good-to-be-true claims they make. If given the choice between enrolling at Glen Oaks for a job specific associate’s degree or enrolling in a sketchy on-line doctoral program, more of us need to choose the former rather than the later. Better an R.N. with a job than an unemployed Ph.D. who can’t make the loan payments.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “without a gentle contempt for education no man's education is complete.” A healthy contempt for the excesses of higher education might be just the thing to move us all closer to the head of the class.
Erv Brinker and the Banality of Evil
If you work in a particular field long enough, eventually something will happen that will make you question your profession, and maybe even assumptions you’ve made about people in general. That happened to me in 2015.
I’ve worked in the community mental health (C.M.H.) system for almost twenty years now. Community mental health agencies–in case you don’t know–are responsible for treating some of the most vulnerable people in our community, namely individuals who have severe mental illnesses. As the public arm of the mental health system, many of those served by C.M.H. are also poor, making them all the more vulnerable.
The C.M.H. for Calhoun County is called Summit Pointe and has been headed for nearly 25 years by a man named Erv Brinker. Brinker is well loved in Battle Creek for his passion, charm and likability. In fact, he was even named Scene Magazine's Man of the Year in 2008.
But in early 2015, accusations of fraud were leveled against Brinker by the Summit Pointe board. The community came out strongly to support him. Dr. Charles Morton was quoted in the Battle Creek Enquirer as saying, “I look up to Erv and think he has done a tremendous job. You, as a board, are destroying the good that he has done.” Brinker too maintained his innocence, writing in the Enquirer that he was, “gratified that each of the charges (made by the board) are refuted by the truth” and that he was “embarrassed for the Board” for making such baseless charges.
Those baseless charges led to a state attorney general investigation, and in November Brinker pled guilty to felony charges of Medicaid fraud and embezzlement by a public official. In his plea, Brinker admitted that he’d sent a half million dollars in tax payer money to a psychic in Florida under a fraudulent contract.
It’s important to note that Brinker stole at least a half a million dollars from Summit Pointe. It’s very possible he stole even more. When Summit Pointe brought in independent auditors to look for evidence of further financial malfeasance, the auditors discovered that the financial documentation that should exist, didn’t. Because of this absence of detailed financial records, “the financial impact cannot be reasonably estimated” in the words of the auditors.
I was deeply dismayed to hear this. Brinker had been a well-respected C.M.H. leader, entrusted to care for thousands of people. Yet in spite of how loved and trusted he was, Brinker used his power to steal from the poor and thereby deny them essential mental health services.
How did the brilliant and charming Erv Brinker turn out to be such a crook? How did he manage to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes?
Part of the answer has something to do with how we tend to down play the human potential for evil. We want to believe that good people just aren’t capable of doing things like this. To think otherwise seems cynical and paranoid, but as Karl Barth once remarked, “(people) have never been good, they are not good and they never will be good.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt would say that Brinker’s fraud was made easier because he did not steal directly from those that he served, but instead stole money from the state funds entrusted to his case. The insulating effect that makes it easier to hurt others from a distance is part of what Arendt was talking about when she wrote about the “banality of evil.”
In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt wrote about the trail of Adolf Eichmann, the man who oversaw the Nazi extermination camps during the holocaust. During his trial, Arendt observed that Eichmann did not seem to fully grasp the profound evil of his actions.
During testimony, Eichmann argued that his moral and legal responsibility was limited because he’d never killed anyone directly. After studying him extensively for her book, Arendt concluded that Eichmann was neither a monster nor mentally ill. Instead, she came to see Eichmann as a remarkably normal, if somewhat dull, man who just never considered the human consequences of his actions. At the end of the day, he was simply a man who lacked moral imagination.
Arendt wrote that, “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” People like Eichmann and Brinker oftentimes just slip into evil, and once that line is crossed, it can seem easier to continue rather than turn back. Are we any different?
“The problem with Eichmann,” Arendt wrote, “was precisely that so many were like him and that the many were…terrifyingly normal. This normality (is) much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Screwtape and Politics
College Tuition Woes
Trinity Episcopal Church
Dear Fred Upton
Many readers of this column may be familiar with the book, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The book is a collection of letters from one demon, named Screwtape, to his nephew, another demon named Wormwood. In the book, Screwtape provides counsel to Wormwood on how to guide humans into a life of misery, failure, torment and ultimately hell.
Recently, an email between these two devils concerning American politics fell into my hands. I share it with you below as a public service:
My Dear Wormwood,
First off, excellent work during the last election! You continue to impress me with your ability to foment hatred, that most useful of emotions, in otherwise kind and compassionate Americans. I’ll admit that I had my doubts when the lowerarchy put you in charge of winning over the American political system for Our Father below sixty years ago. Frankly Wormwood, you had not proven to be a very useful demon in the past, but you’ve done wonders in this new assignment.
You’ve managed to make the American political system a great force for us and our goals. Polite political disagreement is a thing of the past. Now most Americans believe that people with opposing political ideas are dangerous, stupid or maybe even insane! I applaud you!
As you know, for many years we’ve been stymied in our work with the Americans by their sense of humility. This has been most troublesome for our work because humility tends to make people cautious and reluctant to embrace the extremist positions that best serve our purposes. How many great and terrible ideas have been brought to a screeching halt by the thought, “but what if I’m wrong?”
Fortunately, your work chipping away at humility has born great fruit. Since you took over political operations in the 1950’s, Americans have become much more arrogant and self-involved. I recently read that in the 1950’s twelve percent of high school seniors thought they were “very important persons.” Because of you, that number was up to eighty percent by the 1990’s. As you know, our Father Below is well served when people are thinking much about themselves and little about others.
To that end, the Internet has been almost hell-sent. While the Enemy intended the Internet to create constructive dialogue between people from all over the world, you’ve been able to pervert this new technology. The anonymity of the Internet has encouraged people to say terrible, vicious things to each other with no fear of consequences. Your invention of the “anonymous blog post” was sheer genius.
The Internet has also allowed more and more people to get their information about the world from news ghettos where they never have to encounter thoughtful, intelligent people that disagree with them. These “news” organizations have helped us convince Americans that they already have all the answers and couldn’t possibly be wrong about their political beliefs. A closed mind serves us so well, dear nephew. Remember how well this scheme has worked in the past? How, for centuries, we convinced the humans that the earth was flat? That earth was the center of the universe? Remember Wormwood, telling people what they want to believe always serves to keep them from discovering the truth.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t compliment you on the political pundits that you’ve developed. Long gone are people like the recently deceased David Broder of the Washington Post. Broder always insisted on reporting both sides of issues and never called people names because of their politics. It was just terrible for us. Fortunately, he and his ilk have now been replaced with people like your charming new protégée. Although his name escapes me right now, I love how he takes time on every one of his broadcasts to call a number of people “pinheads.” Brilliant!
Although you have surpassed my wildest dreams for your success, you must not think that the game is completely won. The Americans are facing major fiscal problems now and both political parties know that compromise is in the best interests of the country. So far, that thankfully has not happened, but the risk of bi-partisanship is very high now. Very high indeed.
You must act fast else we lose our momentum. Might I suggest you do something to take their minds off working together as soon as possible. Maybe you could toss out a new sex scandal, or a controversial reality television program. Something trivial to stir the pot and to distract them from anything of real importance.
Maybe, my dear Wormwood, we should call in our good friend Charlie Sheen.
Your Affectionate Uncle,
In 1961, N.W. Clerk published a small book about grief. The book, drawn from notebooks he’d kept after the death of his wife, was a blunt and emotional account of his grieving process.
In words that resonated with many, Clerk wrote that after his wife died he felt like one of his limbs had been amputated. He was also overcome by a strange sense of fear. “No one ever told me,” he wrote, “that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
The author died in 1963, and soon after, Clerk’s publisher revealed that the book had not been written by a man named Clerk after all but by C.S. Lewis, under a pen name.
Lewis was a professor at Oxford and a widely acclaimed author. Why had he felt the need to hide behind a pen name when he wrote about grief?
Only Lewis himself knows the answer to that question, but I wonder if part of the reason Lewis hid behind the pen name was because he felt shame about his grief. Maybe he didn’t want others to know how deeply he’d been hollowed out by loss.
I can relate to feeling shame about bereavement. While I'm still pretty young, both of my parents are dead. Although it’s been many years and I have a family of my own now, it still hurts when I think about Mom and Dad being gone. Sometimes I feel like an orphan, lost and unloved. And as much as I tried, I wasn’t able to write this paragraph without crying.
For a few years, I’ve been aware that I also have an irrational sense of shame about my parents being dead. In my heart, I feel like I did something wrong, although I know in my head I haven’t.
It’s rare that I talk about my parents because their death still upsets me. It also tends to make other people uncomfortable, especially people whose parents are still living. If I talk about my parent’s death, it tends to remind others that their parents will also die someday.
C. S. Lewis had a similar experience when he interacted with married couples after his wife’s death. Lewis’ grief reminded young lovers that someday, inevitably, one of them would be left alone. It made the couple feel awkward and Lewis feel isolated.
My friend Heather had her own struggles with grief when her husband Ron Clark died. I’ve written about Ron before. Ron died from a rare disease called VHL two years ago, leaving Heather a widow. Ron was only thirty years old when he died.
“At first, I could not find my reason for living,” she told me. “I only wanted to be with him.”
“Every day without him hurt me. But for me to say that openly hurt others who cared about me. There was a sense of ‘What about us? Aren’t we enough?’ going around that made me feel guilty for feeling the way I did. So I started to keep some feelings quieter. It’s hard to explain to people you care about that of course they mean a lot to you, but they do not take the place of the relationship you had with your soul mate.”
Not wanting to upset others, Heather isolated herself and saved her most intense grieving for when she was alone.
“I mean, I enjoyed grieving alone because it allowed me to really, really be sad in the most intense way possible. And although I did need to experience that, I didn’t need to wallow in it endlessly, which social isolation allowed.”
It’s hard to know what to do when someone you love suffers a loss. While many people like to offer up saccharine reassurances of heavenly reunions, that’s often not helpful. Lewis, a devout Christian, felt these platitudes were little more than a misguided attempt to wallpaper over a gaping hole in the heart. I agree.
“What seems to be needed,” Heather told me, “is more openness and compassion for those who have experienced a loss. It’s going to affect someone however it does, whether the loss is perceived by others as small or large. How long it takes to work through grief and how many times the wound is reopened…is unique to each person and unknown by any of us, even the griever. To be able to grieve without fear…seems to be what is needed.”
Lewis came to see grief as “a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Grief is “not a truncation of the process (of love) but one of its phases.” In other words, grief is often the final stage of loving someone.
The next time someone you know loses a loved one, remember that grief can be an act of love. It deserves to be honored, and respected.
It’s time you and I had a talk about our relationship. We’ve had a good thing going for the last few years but lately things just aren’t the same as they used to be. I’m not going to beat around the bush, I’m just going to lay it all out on the table right from the beginning.
You’ve changed, Fred.
Ever since you started campaigning for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce committee, you’ve been another person. You’ve become completely blinded by ambition. Worst of all, you seem to have forgotten all about me. It’s like you don’t care anymore, Fred.
Now I’m the first to admit that our relationship got off to a rocky start. When I first moved into your district over a decade ago, I had a lot of baggage from my ex-representative and I took that out on you. I’m ashamed to say it now, I thought you were a partisan hack like most other politicians. It was a cruel thing to assume Fred, but I’d been hurt before.
Back in those early days, I didn’t like you one bit. But I discovered that my initial feelings for you changed the longer I lived in your district. I started to realize that what people said about you really was true. You, Fred, were a bipartisan, moderate congressman, nothing at all like my former congressman and certainly no republican hack. You were your own man. You marched to the beat of your own drummer and didn’t always vote the way the RNC told you to. You were a rare jewel, a republican that took climate change seriously. In 2007, you even co-authored a bill to outlaw inefficient light bulbs! You were even quoted as saying “climate change is a serious problem” back in 2009! Those were the sweet nothings that that swept me off my feet, Fred! Even though I wanted to resist you, I couldn’t. My dislike for you lessened and before I knew it I began to admire you until finally I was ready to take our relationship to the next level.
I voted for you, Fred.
I was so proud of you, so proud to call you my congressman! But now you don’t care for me anymore. Now all that seems to matter to you is the limelight. As soon as you made your push to get promoted, you started to appear on Fox News and before I knew it, you’d gone all Rush Limbaugh on me. You co-wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal where you implied that climate change wasn’t real in spite of saying exactly the opposite a few years before. Were all those words lovely words you said in the past lies? Was our relationship based on lies?
I guess the last straw for me was this whole repealing health care reform stuff. I couldn’t believe it when I read in the paper that you were touting a bill, which was guaranteed not to become law by the way, to repeal health care reform. Did you really expect me to take a bill seriously when you named it the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”? Since when do you let Glenn Beck name legislation for you, Fred?
I couldn’t believe my Fred was behind this bill. First off, it was a complete waste of time. You knew it would never become law and yet you promoted it solely to pander to the people in your party that like to complain about problems instead of solving them. Did you really want to give back to insurance companies the ability to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? Did you really want to take away health insurance from 30 million Americans slated to get it, Fred?
That bill was not about fixing last years health care reform bill. It was just a big political show. If there’s any of the old Fred left in you, you know that’s the truth. The old Fred was an honest and fair. He worked for his constituents instead of seeking the limelight and playing political games. If the old Fred had been made chairman, I bet he’d have crafted a bipartisan plan to fix the problems in the health care bill instead of wasting time playing games. But the new Fred is more concerned about impressing the RNC leadership then solving problems.
I want to make this work, Fred. I know deep down you’re an honorable man. You’ve just gotten blinded by ambition, that’s all. It happens to a lot of people. But please Fred, bring back the old you, the one I voted for and send this new Fred out to L.A. to work on his acting career or something. That’s where he belongs.
I don’t want to leave you Fred, but if you don’t change I’ll have no choice. I refuse to stay with someone who doesn’t care about me. I await your reply.
Don Blankenship was mad. Real mad. Hulk smash kind of mad.
The year was 2002 and Blakenship was the CEO of a coal company that had just been ordered by a West Virginia judge to pay out $50 million over a canceled contract. Blankenship’s company had appealed the verdict to the state supreme court but as I said, he was mad. He was also very rich.
So Blankenship came up with a brilliant idea. He set up a political action committee and through that PAC made a $3 million donation to a candidate running for a place on the court scheduled to hear his case. This huge donation bought a ton of negative advertising and won the race for Blankenship’s candidate. The newly elected judge was sworn in just in time to rule in Blankenship’s case, overturning the $50 million judgment against him.
Another triumph for our free enterprise system.
Unfortunately, Don Blankenship’s ability to buy the justice he wanted in the marketplace is one of the reasons some people are uncomfortable with the election of judges. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner has called judicial elections “a very poor way to pick judges” and thinks that forcing judges to undergo a popular vote transforms them into little more than politicians wearing robes. It’s potentially corrupting and usually undignified, she thinks, turning judicial races into little more than popularity contests.
Justice O’Conner clearly needs to chill out and not take herself so seriously. It’s really to bad she wasn’t in Three Rivers with me last month to attend the “Rock, Rhythm and Blues Concert” sponsored by The Committee to Elect John L. Barnes for Saint Joseph County Probate Judge. In addition to being free, this concert was without question the hardest I’ve ever been rocked at an event related to a judicial election. And contrary to what Justice O’Conner might think, with the exception of the political banners, political yard signs, political stickers, and political shout outs from the band, the concert was not political in any way.
As the band covered “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, I had a conversation about judicial elections with candidate Barnes. He told me that because lawyers running for judge are barred from discussing how they would rule on any issue, voters must decide whom to vote for based on the character of the candidate and how long they’ve practiced law. Based on their ubiquity, yard signs probably play into it as well. Barnes also told me that it’s up to judges to decide whether to recuse themselves in potential cases of conflict of interest. So if a Michigan judge gets, say, a $3 million contribution from someone but feels that they can still remain impartial, there’s no one to tell them that they can’t hear the case. We trust judges like this because they are in no way political.
I enjoyed my time at the concert and learned a lot talking to candidate Barnes. He’s very knowledgeable about the law and about St. Joseph County. Plus, he knows how to a have a good time. I mean, if John Barnes can rock a court room like he rocked Scidmore Park last month, he should have the bailiff charge admission.
But as the internet meme says, “haters gonna hate.” Anti-fun killjoys like Justice O’Conner persist in pointing out that America is the only nation in the world that elects judges. No other nation, they say, uses a popular vote to determine the quality of justice provided to citizens. But don’t listen to people like her. She probably thinks Deep Purple is a paint color.
Thomas Robertson, who is running against Barnes for judge but regretfully has no plans to throw a concert to make the case for his superior judicial acumen, told me in an email exchange that although, “you could argue that electing judges is inappropriate, because it should not be a popularity contest” he does believe that the election of judges serves a purpose. Judicial elections allow voters to “have a voice in setting the standard” by which laws are interpreted. Fortunately, I’ve read a number of John Grisham novels, so I feel very qualified to do this.
While it’s still undecided if John Barnes will win the probate judgeship, there’s no question that he threw a cool party last month, and at the end of the day that’s what’s most important.