January 19, 2015
by John Magsam
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A man and his dollies

photo(15)“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

– C. S. Lewis

My daughter calls the little plastic soldiers I build, paint and collect “man dollies.”

It’s not unusual for me to hear something like: “Dad, if you leave your man dollies on the edge of the desk, Indy  (her cat) is going to knock them off and  you’re going to be mad.”

Or maybe: “Dad, Hudson (her 3-year-old cousin) is coming to visit this weekend, pick up your man dollies or he’s going to smash them.”

I’ve been collecting and war gaming with figures from Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 since the very, very, very early 1980’s. I shudder to think how many hours I’ve spent painting the little men and monsters and pushing them around gaming tables all around the South.

When my daughter was born, I decided it was time to be more grown up, and that I had no more time for toys,  so I sold off a lot of my little men, whole armies worth of painted plastic and metal, to pay for things like doctor’s bills and diapers. I did the same thing with my armor and swords and shields I had gathered for just about as long as part of the reenactment group, The Society for Creative Anachronism.

Shedding this stuff seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It was the logical and practical decision to make. It was time to be a grown up.

The money was welcome and I figured I had outgrown such things. I was a dad now. No time for kids stuff, no matter how much I enjoyed it or how much it made me who I was and am. I was busy and stressed and I had this father stuff to figure out.

My wife had never expected me to get rid of my stuff or my hobbies. She knew full well she was getting a nerd when she said “I do.” She’s never tried to change me or unmake me. It wasn’t like she invited me to hang swords from the living room wall or anything, but she gets me.

I can still recall a Warhammer tournament I played in here in Fayetteville when Shan and I were still courting. There I was, pushing around an army of painstakingly painted Wood Elves in a room filled with at least 60 like-minded guys, you know, giant nerds long before there was any cache in the moniker.

In walks Shan and every eye turns toward her. She meanders over, hands me a milkshake, asks me how my games are going, smiles at all my fellow war-gaming companions, gives me a quick kiss and walks back out.

I don’t think any conversation restarted until she left the room. It was amazing. It was like a commercial for financial services, you know those old “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”? I could lose every game that day or until the oceans boiled. I was dating her. I had won. I was Leonard Hofstadter of Big Bang Theory fame and Shan was my Penny long before the idea was ever pitched over a Hollywood lunch.

So, you see, I was never pressured, but I opted to put that stuff aside. Fatherhood and being a husband were important duties. No time for elves, or knights or Space Marines, or Orks. I had to be serious and responsible.

To be honest, it didn’t last that long. By the time my daughter was toddling around I was restless.

When she was age 2 or 3 I had found SCA fencers in Fort Smith and I began to buy gear again and before we knew it  we were going down on weekends so I could sword fight. Then, there was a shift back to armored fighting, so there were helms to be purchased and traded, armor to be researched  and discarded for new gear. In between SCA lulls, I went back to role-playing games like Champions and Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, there was the inevitable return to the little plastic men, the man dollies of my daughter’s endless ribbing.

As I sit here, I can’t imagine what our lives would be like if I had tossed all that stuff aside.photo(14)

Would my daughter be in her room right now wearing her S.T.A.R. Labs t-shirt, working on her art with a cat snoozing at her feet? Would my wife and I share television shows like Arrow or The Walking Dead? Would I have reconnected with the son of one of my good friends after the young man showed an interest in Warhammer, pushing around a horde of Space Orks no less? Almost my entire circle of male friends that I met through gaming or the SCA — or both — would be nearly non-existent.

Granted, if you go into my bedroom closet right now you’ll see a lot of SCA armor collecting dust. I’ve not been in armor for well over a year. But you’ll also see a shining helm with a mail drape in a place of honor.

Even now, every once in a while, I think about selling it.

It’s just sitting there right? It’s really just an expensive, gleaming toy. What are the chances I’ll ever put it on again and sweat and struggle and swing a rattan sword like I did in the good old days?

Then I come to my senses. It’s not childish to love honor, courage, romance, or silly plastic toys and the odd hunks of metal that remind me such things still exist in this world.

I take the helm down and make sure there’ s no rust. I pull its weight down on my head and glare through the eye slots and I can hear the sound of shield walls colliding. I remember my daughter telling me the helmet’s bulbous nasal makes me look like Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants and grin.

I pull the helm off and place it back on the shelf and shift it so it faces just the right way. Then I go to find Shan. She always likes the way I look with helmet-hair.

January 12, 2015
by Greg Moody
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Searching for Meaning

1I got a 3-speed bike for Christmas I was a seven. It was all black with a wide banana seat. The back tire was flat instead of rounded which made me think of the wide, flat tires on drag racers. Because nobody else in the neighborhood had gears, I was the fastest on the block.

Most days there were plenty of kids to ride the streets of our neighborhood, but on those rare days when I found myself alone I’d often make a big figure 8 between the driveway of my house and the neighbors across the street. Their driveway had a bit of an incline, so I’d always build enough speed going down and across the street to get airborne just a touch when I hopped the gutter going back to my driveway.

I’d often see the neighbors, mostly the wife – whose name I forget – tending the flower beds flanking their front door. The husband, Roscoe, drove a dump truck. It fascinated me in the way that big construction vehicles often do with children. I assume he did contract work in the region and the side pad where the truck sat would be empty for days at a time.

I remember my parents pulling me aside one day after school. They asked if I knew Roscoe and his wife and then told me she was killed in a car accident. It was my first dealing with any sort of death. Nobody in my family had died. My pet dog still had many years ahead of him. Still, I had some understanding of death even without experiencing it first hand.

Roscoe’s wife suffered an aneurism and her car swerved into oncoming traffic. A school bus nearly hit her car head on, but before the collision her car continued across the road and off the shoulder. I don’t remember exactly what stopped her vehicle, but the impact was enough to decapitate her.

It was difficult for me not to think about quite a bit. Perhaps it’s a bit macabre, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the steering wheel could have injured her that way or if it had been the windshield. I also couldn’t help wonder if the school bus was filled with kids. If memory serves, it was empty except for the driver, but it was all too easy to let me mind wonder what would have happened if children had been on board – if I had been on board. Would the bus be so big that we would have been ok?

I never felt guilty playing out these scenarios in my head because I’d been told the aneurism killed her instantly and that she was already dead before her body was mangled or before she could have seen a yellow school bus bearing down on her as her car crossed the lane. Believing she was already dead offered me a permission to speculate that was much less frightening than if she had still been alive.

The church gave me further comfort. Some said everything happens for a reason, others that she was now at peace with God. Others said it was just natural – that everything dies. I was encouraged to remember how she lived instead of how she died. Perhaps the most disturbing was when people said she was looking down at us from Heaven like a spectral voyeur. Picturing the dead watching my every move still disturbs me even though I’d like to think they have better things to occupy their time with.

Unfortunately the story of Roscoe’s wife didn’t end there.

We attended her memorial service, which was open casket. Seeing her body was surreal. For all the trauma I’d envisioned in my mind’s eye, here she was looking perfectly normal. I wanted to touch her arm, to see if perhaps she felt much different or if that, too, was the same as she’d always been.

Roscoe entered the room. His eyes were red and his body looked defeated. Someone produced a chair so he could sit beside his wife’s coffin as he seemed without the energy to even stand. I always had the feeling he’d had to leave the room because it was too much to bear, perhaps he’d been soothed and coaxed by the funeral home employees to return before getting the chair for him.

I was in the middle of the room with my parents, who were talking with others, but I kept looking at Roscoe. He seemed oblivious to my gaze, too wrapped up in his own misery and probably too teary-eyed to see.

He stood and looked down at his wife’s body. Suddenly he dove at the casket, wrapped his arms around his wife and pulled her up to his chest. Her decapitated head was never intended to stand up to such treatment and rolled off, dropping back into the casket.

I don’t remember what happened next outside of Roscoe being removed from the room and the casket quickly shut. I could hear his cries from the hallway.

Eventually he returned to the room with an assistant on each arm and they lowered him back to the chair. A line of friends and family formed to extend their condolences one by one. As we approached I could see he met each person’s eyes, but that his mind was elsewhere.

My time came and I extended my hand and said “I’m sorry.”

Having been in the presence of children at other funerals, I know the words of a child can often mean more than the condolences from an adult. Perhaps it’s because we know the child is genuine and not just going through the motions. Perhaps in this case it was something else. Maybe I represented the child they’d always wanted to have. Maybe seeing me made him remember those sunny days when I was on my bike and she was tending to the flowers by the door.

Whatever the reason, he held me and didn’t let go as others in the line continued the procession. I felt his heavy shoulders hitch as he cried. I heard his breath come out in fits and starts and he’d occasionally grip me differently as if to let me know he needed me there.

In the many years since I’ve wanted to ascribe meaning to her death. I’ve wondered why she died so young and unexpectedly. At times I’ve fancied the aneurism didn’t kill her immediately and that she valiantly steered her already-swerving car out of the path of the oncoming school bus. I’ve wondered if her death was the part of some unseeable cosmic plan or if it was just part of the natural order. I’ve pictured her spirit trying to give comfort to Roscoe as he moved on with his life alone.

Ultimately I’ll never know if there’s any meaning to this kind of death. All I know is her death is bonded to my life and my life is no longer the same for having her in it. I’ll never forget her even though her name has slipped my memory. I’ll always be reminded of Roscoe and his big dump truck parked to the left side of their house.

But I’ll also remember the changes. I’ll remember how death suddenly became something very real. I’ll remember how, on those rare lonely days in the neighborhood, I stopped making that looping figure 8 between our driveways. And after Roscoe remarried a few years later, I pondered the nature of how people can still move on with their lives even when nearly debilitating events happen to us.

When we search for the meaning, for the why, we aren’t always satisfied with the answers we find. Sometimes we’re just left with a story that isn’t necessarily our own, yet becomes a part of who we are.

January 5, 2015
by John Magsam
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It’s a Good Life

twilight-zone-billy-mumy-goAnthony Fremont: No kids came over to play with me today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!
 
Mr. Fremont: Well, Anthony, you remember the last time some kids came over to play. The little Fredricks boy and his sister.
 
Anthony Fremont: I had a real good time.
 
Mr. Fremont: Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it’s good that you had a good time, it’s real good. It’s, uh, just that…
Anthony Fremont: Just that what?
Mr. Fremont: Well, Anthony, you, uh, you wished them away into the cornfield. Their mommy and daddy were real upset.
My daughter and I caught a little bit of the Twilight Zone marathon on New Year’s Day. I’ve let her watch a few select episodes over the years, Eye of the Beholder being the most recent.
As we settled in, we watched Deaths-Head Revisited, a chilling story about a Nazi concentration-camp guard who returns to the camp he once oversaw with a twisted sense of nostalgia and ends up facing the specters of those he tortured and killed with such zeal.
That was rough to watch but we talked about how we had a duty to remember how horrible and cruel men can be to each other.
Next came a real classic starring a young Billy Mummy as Anthony Fremont, a six-year-old boy with unexplained Godlike powers.
In It’s a Good Life, Anthony can read minds and insists everyone be happy and have good thoughts. Anyone who displeases him or finds fault in his actions ends up wished into the cornfield, presumably deep underneath the stalks.
“It’s a good thing you did that Anthony. It was a good thing you did,” is the mantra uttered by the powerless adults to all of Anthony’s antics, both harmless or horrific.
Some contend It’s a Good Life is a warning about Communism in general, or the witch-hunts of the McCarthy Era. Others think it may be about the deep fears of parenthood or the dangers of permissive child rearing.
My daughter, who toughed it through the story about Dachau, only made it two-thirds of the way through It’s a Good Life. She found the whole concept of the all-powerful child and the fawning, fearful adults just too unnerving. She has younger cousins and it might have just struck a little too close to home with her.
“Can we turn this off?” she asked.
I agreed.
I gotta say I was happy she asked to turn off the episode. It was striking too close to home for me too but for a different reason.
I’m sure It’s a Good Life was never intended to be a tale about sin and mankind’s sin nature. But the fawning voices that kept telling young Anthony everything he did was good, that his actions were good things, hit me like a sucker punch. They were all too familiar.
I had heard those voices and listened to them for far too long in my life.
The voices in my case were not fearful. They were prideful and selfish.
They were stronger before I became a Christian. They’re still around but I recognize them for what they are now.
But back in the day they were so strong in fact that they were a large part of who I was.
They told me the actions I took and didn’t take and all the damage they did were good things. That I was a good person when compared to my fellow-man. That I did things that anybody else would do in any given circumstance.  That somehow, God, if he existed at all, graded on the curve.
If I was honest, even if that were true, I was still in deep trouble.
Sin is one of those aspects of a Christian life that tends to be side-stepped.
You can have a conversation with friends who are both Christian and non-Christian and discuss things like the authenticity or authority of the Bible, evolution vesus intelligent-design, even the direction the Christianity needs to take in today’s world. What the church should do. How it manages to step all over itself at times.
Talk about sin  though and the conversation grinds to a halt.
No one likes to admit those voices have control of them or even that they exist at all.
No, we’d rather insist everything we do is good. It’s a good thing we did what we did. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got caught.
The television screen was blank. The room was quiet.
They were all gone. Anthony, and the Greek chorus who told him everything he did – the monsters he created, the suffering he  wrought — were good.
So I said a quick prayer. Asking forgiveness for all those I had sent into the cornfield over the years.
And then, I said another.

December 29, 2014
by Greg Moody
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I Love Atheists

You may feel like this is a trick headline to draw you into the article – perhaps some sarcastic or self-righteous statement to make before I smack them down – but I assure you it’s quite literal.

At one time I was an atheist, as I’ve mentioned in past posts. The reason I distanced myself from religion was because some really bad things happened in my church when I was growing up. I was a teen and presented with two consecutive pastors who behaved in ways that even a teen was responsible enough to avoid. It wasn’t small potatoes. Marriages ended. Criminal charges pressed.

So, I not only removed myself from church, but criticized all the faults I saw with it. Ultimately I was left with no faith and tended to drift toward like-minded folk. Not surprisingly, I still have friends who are atheists or have other issues that range from a hatred of churches to issues accepting any supernatural power. They are good friends, some are the best of friends. We can talk about our beliefs without being critical or judgmental of each other. I don’t feel like I’m doing them any disservice by not trying to convert them nor do I feel dragged down because of their views on life. I love them.

But I also love a different kind of atheist. I love the wit of the late author Douglas Adams. I love the logic and talent of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Recently I’ve come to love Jaclyn Glenn (jaclynglenn.com), who pulls no punches about her stance on almost anything, and very often rails on the egregious stupidity of Christians.

The reason I love Jaclyn so much is I dearly wish more churches were having the same kind of conversations she talks about. It might not be as seemingly noble as Bible study, but it engages our everyday lives. There are always salient points to talk about even if her subject is an easy target. Had video blogging been around back in my days as an atheist I may have beat her to the punch, though I undoubtedly wouldn’t have been so witty or spry.

When I watch her I can’t help but agree with almost everything she says. I think a lot of Christians could gain insight into their own practices by sitting through a few dozen of her videos. The things Jaclyn does best are:

She’s not afraid of the elephants in the room. Why are people quick to thank God for that rainbow but not the tornado? I know scores of Christians who ignore this kind of uncomfortable conversation. Nobody wants atrocities shoved their your face, but I feel too many Christians never reconcile the God they believe in with the world they live in. It’s easy pretend things don’t challenge Christians or to distance it with talk about “everything having a reason even if we don’t understand it.” Throughout history man has struggled to fathom the big questions. Countless books have been written about a whole host of subjects, yet I feel like the average Christian would rather separate their faith from real-world issues than to face the issues through their faith.

She finds strength in knowledge. Nobody wants to look like an idiot for questioning the Bible and that – all by itself – is a problem. Folks would rather keep their lips zipped than admit they have some serious problems believing someone lived in a fish for a few days or difficulty believing the Garden of Eden is literal or that the Great Flood actually happened or a host of other issues. How does not asking questions help your faith? Perhaps the real question is why does it feel like you’re threatening your faith to admit parts of the Bible seem really wacky?

She doesn’t sweep it under the carpet. She’s not afraid of intimate issues. Jaclyn isn’t afraid to talk about any subject – even if it’s her own shortcomings. Often she brings up extreme cases or radical stances to point out their absurd nature but it’s in an effort to illustrate their disparity from a productive, respectful society. If only more Christians weren’t afraid to admit protests or niche agendas pretending to be God’s will are often more harmful than beneficial to the communities in which they live. Think of what might happen if a church decided to use their members to feed and help the poor in their community for six months instead of dumping thousands of dollars into a political agenda, for example.

But at the end of the day I would love to see more people with Jaclyn’s energy and conviction working for the church. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect her for who she is, nor does it mean I feel like she ought to convert back to being a Christian, but it would be refreshing to me to see more youth in our society become so passionate about doing God’s work. And here I specifically mention youth because it’s that late-teen to mid-30s age group that are who I most often see as being completely disillusioned with any organized religion.

What could happen if every day we were talking with and helping our neighbors? What if we were better at embracing scripture as a way to measure our own lives? What if we found ourselves in the places Jesus was – among the poor, sick, outcast and oppressed? And what if we put the energy into all of it that Jaclyn seems to have?

December 22, 2014
by John Magsam
2 Comments

It’s begining to sound a lot like Christmas

bingI could always tell Christmas was near when my mom would drag out her special albums.

One day the house would be relatively quiet, the next it was filled with holiday music from the record player. Usually that meant Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby crooning yuletide tunes.

My mom’s Christmas albums signaled that time was getting short. Next, we would go pick out a real tree in a scene reminiscent of A Christmas Story. Then right before the big day, we’d decorate that sucker – complete with tinsel that my taskmaster father demanded went on one strand at a time. Then came midnight Mass and the Big Day, complete with presents and presents and presents.

Nowadays the Christmas music comes right after Thanksgiving on stations dedicated to the stuff. We’re bombarded by it and it loses a bit of its wonder.

This year the CD player in Shan’s car is busted, so we haven’t been listening to our custom Christmas playlists. I’ve intentionally steered clear of Christmas tunes in my car to avoid early burnout.

But, as we drove down to my in-laws place this weekend we listened to some songs on my wife’s iPhone. It started to get me in the mood. Then, the next day, I went into Conway and spent the day with holiday songs as my  sole companion as I did a little shopping.

All that music got me thinking (which  is always dangerous).

You know, there’s just not much rock in Jingle Bell Rock. In fact, it really doesn’t rock at all. At best, it could be called Jingle Bell With a Bit of Electric Guitar Thrown In (Sorta) in the Background. Now, if Metallica or Zepplin covered it, that would qualify as actual rock.

There’s also a lot of seemingly needless pleading that goes on in Christmas songs. Please Come Home for Christmas seems pretty demanding and super-needy. I mean, if whoever this person is can’t make it home, quit with the guilt already. If they can just get in a car or even a plane and show up for the holidays and choose not to, for goodness sake show a little dignity. Accept it, whoever you’re singing to is not coming. Quit begging.

And let’s face it, Baby It’s Cold Outside is downright creepy.  Gee guy, no means no and all that stuff. And what did he slip into her drink? I shudder to think. Run, I don’t care if is snowing, get out of there!

The Little Drummer Boy is just terrible, so stop doing new versions.. The original is bad enough – pa rum pum pum pum.  The  Bowie/Crosby version was downright scary – pa rum pum pum pum. I don’t know which updated version I heard while I was out driving, but it forced me to change stations – pa rum pum pum pum. Instead, I listened to Ozzy Osborne and Lita Ford sing, If I Close My Eyes Forever for a bit – pa rum pum pum pum. It made me feel more cheery than the other drivel – pa rum pum pum pum.

Oh, and singing Twas the Night Before Christmas does not make it a song. It’s not a song. At best, it’s an okay poem. Stop it.

You might come away from this thinking I don’t like Christmas tunes. You’d be wrong. Let’s face it, as my mom would say, I have a smart mouth.

I like most versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, even though it is really pretty short to qualify as an actual song. It’s really more like a ditty. My favorite version is the one sung at the end of the first Simpson’s Christmas episode. It was vintage Simspons, when the animation was a little squiggly and Homer was still just a hard-working dad, not a total simpleton. The song has all the funny asides, with Bart finishing “You’ll go down in history” with “Like Attila the Hun.”

My wife loves Up on the Housetop and it’s become one of my favorites by association. Though,  I have to admit, I’d like to give a modern-day kid a hammer with lots of tacks for Christmas just to see the reaction. Could get painful. Also, I don’t think a lot of people would choose to go “down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.” It sounds painful and a bit claustrophobic (no pun intended).

Silver Bells is one of my daughter’s favorites. I could be proud of that, it’s a good choice. It’s even better when you know she prefers the Dean Martin version. Now that shows class. Deano is the best. I always picture him crooning “It’s Christmas time in the city”, all dressed to the nines, with a leggy showgirl nearby and a glass of Scotch on the rocks hoisted in his hand. That’s my kind of song.

So, if you’ve not listened to your favorite songs yet, get to it. You’re running out of time. If you’re a bit burned out, try just listening to a few of your absolute favorites.

Sure it’s a  pretty secular activity at a time a lot of Christians get beaten up by their critics for not doing more for the suffering the the world or for trying to focus the holiday on Christ Himself.

You’re never going to win that one.

So, turn on your tunes if it puts you in the spirit. If The World gives you the stink-eye , don’t sweat it.

My mom would give the raspberries to that special type of non-believer who seem oddly focused on how Christ’s followers mark the day of His birth. They contend we Christians are either too secular or too religious. We either ignore our Lord or point to Him too much. They sneer at the Christian listening to Jingle Bells and scoff  even more if he chooses Silent Night.

My mom would likely note, in the arithmetic of The World, Christians can always do more, because quite simply, we can.  We are only human and all too likely to get it wrong. That’s why He came in the first place.

Then, I’d be my last nickel, my mom would  offer the nay sayers this little piece of advice, “Pull down your britches and slide on the ice.”

That was one of her favorites.

Pa rump pum pum pum.

December 15, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on The Little Things

The Little Things

Fear can start in the smallest of places.

As a child I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of some of the creatures from the late night horror movies and I wasn’t particularly fond of my closet. The doors of my closet were louvered and it was all too easy to envision something peering at me between those slats waiting to grab an ankle and drag me inside.

Since my closet was between the safety of the lighted hallway and the comfort of my bed, that distance was often closed with a sprint and jump technique I’d perfected. It was my defense against the unknown until I could get under my blankets, through which no monster could penetrate. One thing was for sure: no amount of  “there’s nothing to be afraid of” calmed my nerves – not even a bit. My ignorance couldn’t overcome the confidence I had in my fear.

Like most children, I outgrew my fears because I saw the faults with them: darkness can hide, but isn’t inherently bad; monsters from those late-night movies don’t exist; and if there’s anything scary in my closet it’s probably the cat.

I was reminded of how irrational fear can be when I stumbled upon a video claiming peanut butter was proof that evolution is completely wrong. Sound crazy? Check it out here.

It’s easy for me to see the faults with their logic. They assume energy and matter instantly form life, which it doesn’t, but even if it did that life would be microscopic and not visible to the naked eye as the video implies. The biggest mistake is assuming all energy and all matter are on equal footing. If that were true then someone with a match and a jar of salsa they could make life even if it takes a few million tries to get it right. And last time I checked there weren’t planets made mostly of peanut butter.

It seems innocent and laughable enough. Right? These people didn’t understand a couple of things properly and it led them to draw conclusions that were even further removed from the truth.

So let’s take the increasingly viral Megan Fox. No, not the actress…the other one. The one who knows Monster Energy Drinks are the work of Satan, the antichrist, witchcraft and potentially a host of other things. Her shakedown of the issue is here.

The difference here is the shapes she sees are actually present. The words she singles out actually are on the can and box and poster. The trouble here is that it makes huge jumps in logic that don’t add up.

Profanity isn’t inherently Satanist. The so-called cross she sees could just as easily be the Greek character for phi, a snake eye or – heaven forbid – just a design for the font. Finally, if it’s really Satan’s work to use Hebrew on a soft drink can (because I suppose there’s no way they could be a monster’s claw marks) then I think I’m missing what it’s supposed to imply. That Satan needs a publicist? She seems like a clear-cut case of someone who sees what they want to see. Right?

Yes, like the equation of Darkness + Monsters + Closet in my childhood. Sometimes these small fears can grow into something more than the sum of their parts.

Intelligent Design is a wonderful example of scores of small understandings building into a huge movement that’s been met with an alarming – well, alarming to me at least – acceptance.

Let’s take the eye, for example. It’s often used as an example for understanding Irreducible Complexity (an argument that states certain things are far too complex to have sprung into existence in their present state).

I mean, if you take away any one part of the eye it’s basically useless – so how could a lens, a cornea, the optic nerve, the retina and all the other bits have just popped into existence at the same time by accident for so many species without some designer controlling the outcome?

They often quote Darwin, who said “to suppose that the eye … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” Of course Darwin was merely agreeing that it’s improbable that a fully developed eye would spring forth instantly. Instead, he argued it would take a gradual evolution. And if we look to science we can see how scores of more primitive eyes have existed and continue to exist.

But because of smaller mistakes we have Misundersanding of Darwin + Incorrect Assumption of Eye Development + Other Incorrect Hypotheses = Irreducible Complexity. And with Irreducible Complexity added to a few other concepts, such as a Fine-Tuned Universe and Specified Complexity we suddenly have a monster to deal with called Intelligent Design.

And when it then gets some celebrity support from Ben Stein it becomes a really big monster even though in many ways it’s still very similar to the closet monster of my childhood. The credence people lend to the errors in logic at this point no longer appear as absurd as the peanut butter argument. Instead, believers are at the same place I was when I confronted my closet monsters: they are unwilling to listen to anything that counters what they’ve taken to heart as the truth.

The difference is we’re not children afraid of easily dismissed fears – we’re adults and we’re faced with very complex issues that are much harder to dismiss. Our fears are no longer as easily laughed off as the monster under our bed and misconceptions are very often intermingled with truth, making it all the harder to ferret out what’s real and what’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Our stance of fear becomes our inherent ignorance of important issues in our lives that are too complicated to fully understand.

And our ignorance is completely understandable. Much of what we face is massively complex – more than any individual could perhaps fully understand. Instead of darkness it’s the medical system or political parties or complex scientific issues and the fear becomes a form of ignorance that’s daunting to overcome. It’s almost as though we must become an expert on these issues to differentiate spin from facts. Furthermore, we’re often seeing these issues through some third-party – such as the media – which can sometimes muddy issues further because they must only report on certain parts because time and space restraints are too constricting.

I have to admit that when people bring up Obamacare my eyes glaze over. It’s not my strength to understand the implications. Someone could pretty easily persuade me that it’s the best thing since sliced bread and then 5 minutes later someone else could convince me it’s the worst thing to ever hit the medical system. And it’s my very ignorance making me vulnerable to being hoodwinked or becoming a pawn for a politician who may not have my welfare in mind. It makes it very tempting to side with someone I trust instead of educating myself.

And the monster may be global warming, vaccinating our children or trying to figure out which investments will allow us to retire some day. Undoubtedly we all have these monsters living under our beds and they seem every bit as scary as ever. But we can’t dismiss them because to ignore them would be irresponsible, and we all wish to do what we feel is best for our family and our community.

I think the real issue is whether we allow fear to control our lives. There is an alternative and, at the risk of oversimplifying fear, I’m going to suggest love is the answer.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” – 1 John 4:18.

In fact, I would suggest the passage from 1 John 7- 21 about looking to God’s love. There’s really an overwhelming number of passages in the Bible about the nature of fear. I pick this one because it speaks more to me than some of the others, but you be the judge and do the research for yourself.

It’s not a magic wand we can wave and make everything disappear, but when we love our neighbor we must first listen and try to understand. We must question that which we do not know and assume that if people are not against us, they are with us (contrary to the popular expression). For it’s only when we give our neighbor respect and love that they can disentangle themselves from fear long enough to respectfully listen to a differing opinion without resorting to anger.

These monsters we find ourselves fighting can dominate our lives. Our fears can cripple and debilitate us. They seem colossal and so complicated that we may never understand them in a lifetime of study, but they are little things with a simple solution. Go forth and love.

December 8, 2014
by John Magsam
Comments Off on Wait for it …

Wait for it …

Kipper Let it SnowIt may come as a bit of a surprise to most folks, but I love this time of year.

Yes, dear friends, I am a card-carrying cynic. Yes, I tend to be critical more than I’m kind. Yes, I dislike sugary sentimentality.

Oh, and yes, I’m a Christian, just not a perfect one, arguably a cranky one.

Back in the day, I was such a skeptic that my friends used to say stuff like, “I’ll believe in ghosts when Magsam says he’s seen one.”

Of course, this was before ghost hunting programs were all the rage. I  like to watch them and make fun of them with some regularity. I can usually get a good eye-roll from my daughter when the ghost hunters react to any number of phenomena earnestly  – be it a shadow, or a noise or draft of cold air – with the line from Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.”

My wife recently pointed out that I tend to criticize first and ask questions later. I never criticize her, she’s perfect, but I do tend to offer an opinion about pretty much everything. I comment on things like the number of times someone posts pictures of themselves on Facebook, to their interest in horrible things like the Kardashians or their failure to be interested certain vital things like, say, reading.

I can’t stand sentimentality for sentimentality’s sake. It’s not that I don’t love nostalgia, or the stuff that pulls at our collective heart stings, it’s just that I don’t like ham-handed attempts to manipulate me and I wonder about folks that do. It makes me consider how stiff their heart must be if they really need that much sappiness to get a reaction.

So with all that full disclosure, I love the buildup to Christmas.

I still watch the calendar and count the days till Christmas. I love putting up our Christmas lights,  riding home from work with Christmas songs playing on the radio, and Christmas shopping for my wife and daughter.

And as a child of the television generation, I love some of the classic TV specials – The Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and yes, those Rankin/Bass winners like The Year Without a Santa Claus and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

When my daughter was little, we stumbled upon the Kipper animated series. My wife and I fell in love with the cartoon dog and his pals and their soothing story lines and lilting dialog in the Queen’s English. In Kipper’s Let it Snow, we find our canine hero out on Christmas Eve cutting down a Christmas tree. He wonders which is best: Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Presents or expecting presents?

I think in a lot of ways, it’s the anticipation I treasure. That’s why I love Christmas Eve so much. It’s like all of creation takes a collective breath and holds it, remembering a day when something amazing happened.

And take it from this cynical, critical, sour puss, it is amazing. And yes, it happened.

December 1, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on What the Bible says

What the Bible says

“The Bible can say whatever you want it to,” I hear people say.

I absolutely hate, hate, hate it when I hear educated people make such broad assumptions.

You could make this statement about most works of literature. I could cherry pick the Bible, or Shakespeare or a Harlequin romance book and pull individual lines that could be cobbled into almost anything.

But the reason we can’t do this is because words mean something, sentences have more meaning and broader passages have even greater meaning.

I suspect the reason people assume the Bible can say anything and omit comparing it with other literature can be seen in this example:

Bob: I really hate gays. They challenge my views about what marriage out to be. I wonder what God says about gays.

(Bob Googles “what does the Bible say about homosexuality”)

(Bob sees the first four results say it’s a sin, morally wrong and that God doesn’t create people with homosexual desires)

Bob: I knew it. My opinion was right. God hates gays.

Though there are many things wrong with this example, the most obvious fact is people using the Bible as they would a dictionary, which is horrible. The Bible isn’t reference material. It’s not intended to be used as a way of finding individual lines to be heard independently of the broader picture.

One consequence of picking lines out of context is they often evolve into something different. Look at Shakespeare’s “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” for example. That’s what it says in Macbeth. Right? Actually, no. It says “double, double toil and trouble,” yet I hear “bubble” used far more often than otherwise.

Similarly, Bob’s assuming the passages he’s found are the word of God. Sure, some claim the whole Bible is literally the word of God, but in this case none of these phrases actually quote God or Jesus directly.

So how do you get through to Bob? Well, you could pick your own lines from the Bible and see how he reacts:

“Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children.” – Hosea 1:2

“There is no God.” – Psalm 14:1

“Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!” – Habakkuk 2:16

Bats are birds. – Leviticus 11:13-19

My guess is he’d laugh off these instances as being clearly absurd and obviously out of context.

I’ll be the first to admit there are parts of the Bible that aren’t very clear. Though there are parts a six-year old can understand, it’s not an easy book to plumb. Most of the verses above clearly do not read the same way when you read the surrounding verses. There would still be the factual issue with bats being birds, but apparently as long as we don’t eat them we’re ok – not that I’ve ever known this to been an issue for anyone.

Fairly often I hear “Ask and it will be given to you…” from Luke 11:9. Looked at independently it almost seems to say “Pray hard enough and I’ll give you whatever you want.” It’s like Jesus has told us we can have anything – money, happiness or that corner office at work, yet the surrounding sentences clearly make this passage a much less material statement.

The point is this: we have to ask ourselves if the surrounding sentences are things we equally agree with or if they change the picture. So if Bob’s using Leviticus to justify his stance we have to wonder if he’s accepting that chapter and the surrounding ones with equal fervor. If he’s not then perhaps he’s using selected lines merely to justify his opinion. Maybe Bob even feels like his opinions are under attack and puts a stranglehold on scripture to lend credence to his stance.

“But aren’t you equally opinionated in challenging my beliefs?” asks Bob.

To some extent, yes. When I hear Bob I sometimes think of my mom, who would say “Well, that’s how I was raised. All the pastors I’ve ever had said this was true. The only reason people saying the Bible’s not right is because gays are in the news and it’s popular to be on their side.”

Culture certainly makes a difference. When my mom was growing up there were different water fountains for black people to use and she still struggles to see blacks as equals. Fortunately this isn’t something she passed along to me. I suspect she understood times were changing even if she was unable to break free from her own upbringing.

I’d like to think I’d be able to change my mind about something I’d been taught my whole life, but so far I’ve never been faced with a similar circumstance. As for mom, once her mind is made up there’s no changing it.

I think the only thing I could remind her of is that the Bible says many things very directly. Furthermore there’s a hierarchy of what’s central to faith as a Christian and what is much more peripheral. So I would leave her with one of the most serious consequences of picking lines out of context:

When we place our beliefs paramount to what the Bible instructs we lose the ability to love our neighbors because we’re placing ourselves first – before love, before compassion, before scripture and before the words of Christ.

So tell Bob to keep using the dictionary and encyclopedia for his reference work, but to stop doing it with the Bible. We wouldn’t just read exerpts from Hamlet, so why would we do anything different with scripture? To my way of thinking you miss an awfully good story when you only look at the lines you find interesting and toss away the rest.

November 24, 2014
by John Magsam
Comments Off on Thanks for the faith

Thanks for the faith

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.  For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.

– Psalm 95: 2-3

My Thanksgivings are a little bit unconventional.

If work allows, I spend it with my wife’s family in central Arkansas. It’s a time of food, reminiscing and lots and lots of relatives. But, in recent years, since I tend to work on the Friday after, I often spend it with my buddy and business partner Greg Moody and his fine family.

Greg is an amazing cook and host. We usually sit down to the meal by early afternoon and eat and drink and laugh for hours. Greg’s daughter is charming, his wife is always kind and the guest list usually includes mutual friends, so I always feel quite at home.

When things finally wind down I  walk away thankful for Greg’s friendship and the hospitality of his family.

Part of that gratitude centers on how much the evening reminds me of the Thanksgivings I used to have with my family and friends years ago.

The formal sit down. The lifting of a glass or two. The banter of good, long time friends. It all gets me roaming the old hallways of my memory and this year, just thinking about the upcoming meal has gotten me started dusting off old thoughts and feelings  a bit earlier than usual.

The last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and one of my old friends Steve.

My mother passed away years ago, when I was in my early 20’s. I still miss her a lot and  I catch myself wishing she could have met my wife and my daughter and my in-laws.  But my more recent thoughts of her have veered in a different direction.

I’ve been remembering what a strong woman of faith my mother was.

She was a staunch Catholic and active in the church. She also was kind and friendly. Not a church-lady, more a cool, loud, funny salesman. She never met a stranger and to know her was pretty much to love her. When I hit my late teens and rebelled against the church she never turned her back on me. Sure, we had our dust-ups but in the end she was patient and simply had faith I’d figure it all out.

And it took some time but she was right.

My friend Steve, well, I’ve not seen him for years but he recently surfaced on Facebook. We met in my 20s, when I was big into war gaming and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Those were times when I pretty much did what I wanted with little regard for others. At my core I was pretty selfish and prideful.

Steve was part of a pretty close circle of friends that included Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, general searchers and folks who just didn’t give much of a flip. He was our Catholic. Looking back, I never remembered him doing anything mean, or dishonest or egotistical. He always just loved us all no matter how jerky we were.

I remember a Sunday morning decades ago when we were all piled in my car  heading back home from an SCA event in another state. We were getting gas, exhausted from the weekend. From the back seat of my tuna boat sized car, Steve suggested politely we find a church and hit Sunday Mass. His idea was met with groans and good-natured nay-saying. It was clear we were not going to indulge him, our good friend, even though it was an honest and reasonable request. Boy, were we jerks.

In the face of that, Steve just smiled at us and took the flack. Looking back, I’m sure he made 5:30 p.m. Mass when we got to town despite his hoodlum friends. Likely he prayed for us. We needed all the help we could get.

Today, when I see his Facebook posts that boldly proclaim his faith I think of that guy long ago who was always kind, always gentle, always a servant of the Lord. I’m glad he was so patient and kind with us all those years ago.

This year, I’m feeling especially grateful for these two people of faith. My mother’s influence was significant and dramatic as most parental relationships are, while Steve’s was more subtle, there in the background seemingly unnoticed but vital none the less.

On Thursday I’ll be thankful that Greg opened his house to me, that I have a loving family, that we’re all healthy -all the blessings God has bestowed on me. But I’ll be especially thankful for these two Christians and their influence and love.

Thanks you two. I got there eventually.

November 17, 2014
by Greg Moody
Comments Off on What do you hear?

What do you hear?

“Obama’s a moron,” I hear a relative say. “We know he was really born in Kenya.”

It’s easy to laugh off such things.

“And now he’s just waiting to take our guns.”

“And why’s that?” I humor the issue.

“So we can’t fight back when his Muslim terrorist brothers unleash ebola on the U.S.” This part is said with a look that says “Duh, are you so stupid you can’t see that?”

“Ah, yes,” I say, “Naturally that would be the reason.”

“I’m not kidding.” He leans forward. “Obama just ordered the coffins for all the victims. He spent a billion bucks for them. I just can’t believe how irresponsible he is,” he says, shaking his head. “And who do you think’s paying the bill? That’s right. Our taxes!”

He leans closer, as if to take me into confidence.

“But I’ve ordered an AK-47. Serial numbers scratched off so nobody can trace it.”

Fortunately there’s Snopes, so anyone can readily check out the coffin story. But I suspect my relative would just say that Snopes is secretly owned by Obama or one of his terrorist cells and still wouldn’t listen.

We all know people like this.

They may be the guy at the water cooler quick to say “Where’s that so-called ‘global warming’ now?” whenever that unexpected cold snap hits. It may be something about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Perhaps after a few drinks at the bar that guy you work with tells you about his clandestine adventure at Area 51 in an attempt to expose the aliens living among us.

When I see people leave the church I can’t help but think of these scenarios to some extent. Certainly they’re not conspiracy theorists, well, at least not as far as I know, but their logic is often equally elusive. Typically you hear the same lines:

“I didn’t show up for a week and nobody called, so I just quit coming.”

“It doesn’t really meet my needs.”

“I was offended by something the pastor/church leader/Sunday School teacher said.”

It’s hard for me not to envision a whining child when I hear these. They might as well be saying “Look at me! Look at me!” and then pouting when everything isn’t about them.

I mean, the church isn’t supposed to be a form of entertainment, nor some sort of social club to rub elbows with they type of people you deem as acceptable to be seen with.

More importantly, it’s not a place that should feed us what we want to hear.

Like the Obama hater who repeats any bad news – even fake – and refuses to hear any good news, I think some folks make up their own mind about certain issues, certain lifestyles and certain comforts of life and never hear anything they don’t want to hear at church.

Can those people be reached? I don’t know. I’m sure some could, but reaching out to others may only delay their inevitable departure. If the tables were turned and they were asked how well they were reaching out to love their neighbor, if they were giving 10 percent to their church or how many people they’d invited to worship in the past month they’d take a step back.

When they realize church is a community effort and not just about them and their needs it may scare them. It may snap them out of their self-centeredness or it may make them stop coming entirely.

Like the old saying about the “i” in team, there’s no “me” in church.

Sure, the church is made from its parishioners, but when “me” is more important than the Bible there’s an issue. When it’s more important for you to chat with your friend, get a cup of coffee or have the spotlight be on yourself rather than the sacraments of church something very important has been unplugged.

Really, if you’re not plugged in – if you’re not actively involved – then I’d suggest you may need to look at what church means to you.

Christ did not call us to be spectators. He did not ask us to satisfy our own needs first. He didn’t say to fill our ears with whatever we wanted to hear and to turn a deaf ear to all else.

What are you willing to hear?