All posts by J Dot

Save a few for Lefty too

What do you say on yet another morning after yet another horrible massacre? Despair seems appropriate when it seems like we can’t put the actual safety of children in a place of worship ahead of a socially constructed “right” to fight against the theoretical threat of autocracy. Rage might also come up, an uncontrollable anger towards politicians who appear to be bought and sold by an industry bent on distributing instruments of death. Many of us cry out in lament for what has happened, what we have done, and what we have failed to do. We ask God how long this has to continue.

Prayers are a tricky thing. I put a lot of stock in them, but I don’t think they are magic. Prayers can make us aware of the presence of God in ways that allow us to walk in ways of justice and peace that we may not have thought possible. Prayers can also help us simply live through the unimaginable. Losing a child, a spouse, a parent, or a friend in a hail of bullets is unimaginable. Having to take a life in order to stop that hail of bullets is unimaginable too.

When we say, “a good guy with a gun,” we are talking about someone who can’t imagine using that firearm to kill. And we ask them to kill. We ask a regular person like you and me to do what we are not willing to ask of politicians, gun manufacturers, or the NRA. The person who shot Devin Patrick Kelley did not wake up on a Sunday morning thinking that he would aim to kill that day. Christian theology has worked for centuries to understand how force might be used to protect the defenseless. We come up with theories about “just war” and “Christian realism” to frame our understanding of how Christians might exercise power. Still, the experience of soldiers returning from even the most obviously justified war seems to indicate that they do so with a certain amount of moral injury, the knowledge that they had to do horrible things to survive.

We ask them to do these horrible things. We ask firefighters and policemen to do difficult things. Whether or not these or any people can be truly prepared for what they face, at least first responders do know that they are going to be faced with terrible decisions. I’m not sure the same can be said for the man who shot Devin Patrick Kelley. He did a brave and difficult thing, and his life will be forever changed. In addition to praying for the victims in Sutherland Springs, their families, and our country, we should save a few for this man too. He only did what we asked him to, at great risk to his soul.

When vernacular wasn’t cool

I had a professor in college who liked to ask, “Who first tied a bandanna around a dog’s neck?” He claimed it was Jesse Fripp, a classmate of mine who was then and is now much cooler than I’ll ever be. Finding a dog that is big enough to wear a real bandanna — not some dumb scarf from the groomers — and still chill enough to be low key about it is harder than it may seem (or exactly as hard as it may seem if you have spent much time around Labrador Retrievers.) Matching the dog to the outfit in just the right place at the right time takes some skill and some luck.

That same professor asked a similar question about wearing baseball caps backward. That’s an ostensibly stupid thing to do since it defeats the purpose of a brimmed cap. It can also, in the right circumstances and on the right person, be the epitome of cool. The professor’s theory was that it all started with Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. (This assumes that the catcher in the story is playing the position in baseball, which would require that he wear his hat backward to accommodate a protective mask. [And that’s a literary rabbit hole begging for exploration.]) Whether or not you find backwards caps cool may correlate with your opinion of Holden Caulfield. Opinions vary.

The phenomena he’s describing are memes, discreet pieces of culture that convey larger ideas. The larger idea here being “cool.” Before the internet, it might be hard to track down the source of a meme. Who really was the first person to tie a bandanna around their dog’s neck? A meme can be imitated and passed around like a gene or a virus,  and it often encapsulates a set of ideas that were already floating around in the culture. Now that we have the World Wide Web, we can often trace a picture with some words on it back to a particular source, but that meme has resonance and “goes viral” because it taps into a current that is already present in the culture.

So in the spirit of my nutty professor, here’s a question: Who was the first person to protest the Church of Rome’s practice of selling indulgences that promised to shorten one’s time in purgatory? If the number of “Reformation Sunday” celebrations that have been happening are any indication, the answer is obviously Martin Luther. In fact, he started Protestantism by tacking up 95 debate topics to the door of the church in his college town on October 31, 1517, right?


It’s a little more complicated than that. Concerns about indulgences, outrage over corruption in monasteries, divergent theologies about what happens at communion, and a push to worship in language that everyone can understand are just a few of the concerns raised by people like John Wycliffe, an English priest who lived more than 150 years before Luther and led a group that translated the Bible into the common tongue. Then there was Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch priest who worked to produce new Latin and Greek translations of scripture, a project that raised questions for his contemporary, Martin Luther.

If you read anything by Luther, it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s a lot more than a late medieval Pat Boone, just ripping off other people’s work and making hits out of it. Luther had a talent for encapsulating the concerns that were prevalent in the culture around him. He also had the protection of an indulgent prince who was willing to shelter him from clerical and civil attacks.  Luther wore that bandanna in just the right way for the moment.

But whether or not you think the bandanna (or the cap, or the Reformation) is cool should not depend on what you think of Martin Luther (aka: Protestantism’s Holden Caulfield.) Reform of the church, and of the cultures in which it is embedded, is a project that began well before All Hallow’s Eve in 1517. It’s a task that the Roman Catholic church returned to as soon as it excommunicated Luther et al. Reform continues to this day.

Maybe that’s the reason The Episcopal Church chooses to remember John Wycliffe on October 30.  I’m not saying that The Episcopal Church’s Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music is dragging our Lutheran sisters and brothers, but The Episcopal Church’s Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music may be dragging our Lutheran sisters and brothers.


Prominent Ontologists (a poem for ordinands)

Do prominent ontologists
Recognize each other
In the liquor store
The weight of their
Being there having become
Too much to bear

Or do they wink
As they choose their drink
To soothe a back made weary
Toting the barge of our identity
Along the towpath of history
But rarely considering
The flooded canal beneath
Us borne toward the crystal sea

Late night in the craft shop

My brother turned 46 this week. Not my oldest brother. He’s 54. The brother who turned 46 is closest in age to me (which makes me older than I thought.) This brother and I used to fight a lot when we were kids. I’m not really sure anymore what we fought about, but maybe we just spent too much time in close proximity.

When we got old enough, our parents separated us for the summer. I’d go to camp for a month and then he’d go to camp for a month. That worked until he was old enough to be a counselor. Then he went to camp for both months. Which turned out to be fine because, for whatever reason, we did not fight at camp. We got along pretty well there, actually.

When I became a counselor, we actually hung out together. We’d play cards late at night when all the campers were asleep. Some of the counselors would hang out in the dining hall, but a group of us would go down to the craft shop and play spades. If you don’t know the game, it’s something that people play in teams and it helps if you can guess what cards your partner has. It especially helps if your partner has the Ace of Spades.

The deck we played with most often was a set that commemorated the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Each of the cards had a historical fact about Texas, and the Ace of Spades had directions to the LBJ Ranch. When our opponents did not know this particular deck of cards, I could ask my brother something innocuous like, “Have you ever been to the LBJ Ranch?” If he said yes, then I knew he had the trump card.

It was cheating, but it seemed like a fairly benign form of cheating. There were other benignly illicit behaviors going on in the craft shop. Since the campers were not allowed to have cokes, drinking them was our chief pleasure. We used the cans for spitting juice from the tobacco we chewed. This was definitely against the rules for us as well as the campers.

At some point, word got back to the camp director about the Copenhagen we’d been using. He was a very good man, and none of us wanted to disappoint him. For me, he had created a place of peace and stability in the midst of an uncertain childhood. I owed him a great deal, but when he asked me a direct question about goings on in the craft shop, I lied to his face.

About ten years later, I took a car trip across the country. On the way back home, I stopped off at camp. It was the middle of the summer and the middle of the day, but the camp director stopped what he was doing to spend a little time with me. I told him how much camp had meant to me, how it had provided a shelter from my stormy family life. I also told him that I had lied to him, and that I was sorry.

He looked at me through slightly teary eyes and said, “That must have been really hard for you to say.” And then he thanked me and invited me to stay for lunch. I still had a place at his table.

Malcolm Williams died this summer. There was a memorial for him at camp today. Hundreds of former campers were invited to attend. A few weeks ago, I found some decks of those LBJ playing cards on Ebay. I bought a couple of packs and sent one to my brother, along with a poem.

In the Craft Shop
(For Allen on his 46th birthday)

On summer nights
Under a bare yellow bulb
We observed a truce
Called brotherhood
Which trumps all

Do you know the way?