Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Mr. Pope answers all your questions

April 25, 2011

In a remarkable acknowledgment that the world has emerged from the Middle Ages, the Vatican staged an unprecedented question-and-answer session with Pope Benedict XVI Friday, including inquiries submitted via Facebook and Twitter.

The Catholic Church was once content to address only queries that people pondered internally via an old-media method called “prayer.” Now, the Church is initiating a push to engage the online world.

Though it’s doubtful that the Holy Father will be issuing encyclicals via text message any time soon, observers said it was refreshing to see the Pope so responsive. Especially since he’s 84 years old and has been known to slip into the occasional papal nap.

The as-yet-untitled talk show, broadcast on Italian state TV under the working title “It’s Pope Time,” was a no-frills production. Benedict sat stiffly in a big white chair behind his desk inside the Apostolic Palace while an unseen interviewer (who sounded a lot like American talk show hostess Wendy Williams) read the letters to him.

The questions were screened from thousands received, to make sure they touched on themes of the Easter season and to avoid embarrassing the pontiff with any that involved algebra. The answers were, by and large, predictable.

“Why do children have to be so sad?’ asked a young girl from earthquake-ravaged Japan.

“Kids today,” Benedict responded in Latin. “What are you gonna do?”

“Has the soul of my (vegetative-state) son left his body since he’s no longer conscious?” asked an anguished mother.

The pope said her son was like a guitar with the strings broken. The son’s soul “is still present in his body,” but “don’t expect extended renditions of ‘Layla’ any time soon.”

“As an ambassador of Jesus, what do you advise for our country?” asked a Muslim from Ivory Coast, where a political standoff has been marked by deadly fighting.

“Discover huge reserves of oil, and wait for the Americans to intervene,” Benedict said.

“We Christians in Baghdad are persecuted like Jesus,” offered an Iraqi concerned with oppression from the Muslim majority.

“Please put your response in the form of a question,” the pope advised.

Though the event was generally well-received by an Italian TV audience used to enduring endless episodes of inane game shows and boring soccer matches, sources in the Church said preparations already under way for the next show would be “tweaked after we focus-group the first show and look at how to appeal to that much-desired 18-to-24-year-old demographic.”

In the interim, the Vatican’s human resources department is working on a set of questions that could better showcase the pope’s firm grasp on both spiritual and interpersonal matters. Hiring manager Cardinal Giuseppe Salameda said his inquiries were designed to bring out the “authentic side” of job candidates seeking positions in the church, and might also allow the world to see “the real pope — the ‘Man behind the Miter,’ as it were,” adding that producers were free to use that as a title for the show, provided an appr0priate licensing fee was tendered.

DavisW’s Blog has obtained a copy of those questions, along with some possible answers, and releases those here:

Q: What do you find most challenging in your current/last role?

Possible answer: Being both Christ’s representative on Earth and the go-to guy for every half-baked plea from the powerless that comes down the pike. I’m definitely a skilled multi-tasker but frequently struggle with prioritization.

Q: Tell me about a time you communicated a new direction during a reorganization or start-up.

Possible answer: When I was still a Cardinal, I had to handle a revamp of the German branch when we had a lot of sexual abuse allegations against some of our priests. I swept everything under the rug with a lot of transfers, and was recognized by my then-supervisor on my performance review for having done “above average” work on the issue.

Q: How do you anticipate the changing needs of your internal customers?

Possible answer: They come to me in vivid visions that feature lots of horsemen and fire and clouds and stuff. I try to write all of them down afterwards, so I don’t forget, but my penmanship is not the best. I’m thinking of taking a typing course so I can use some of that new technology out there, such as the typewriter.

Q: What factors are important to you when hiring into your team?

Possible answer: Of course, they’d have to be Catholic and male and heterosexual and single and at least semi-holy. Also, a strong familiarity with Excel would be a plus, in case we ever figure out how to get all billion believers entered onto a spreadsheet so we can track their sins.

Q: Tell me about a time when you became too hands-on and had to let go and let the team do more.

Possible answer: When I was a member of the Hitler Youth, growing up in Germany, some of the guys wanted to burn down the house of a Jewish shopkeeper. I was the only one with any experience in firebombing, but I figured it might get held against me some day if I ever wanted to be the infallible representative of Christ on Earth. So I showed Heinrick how to do it.

Q: Tell me about a time when you handled an arrogant person or one who made you angry.

Possible answer: Well, I don’t know if He counts technically as a “person,” but there is Someone whose Name I won’t mention here that comes off as a little — shall we say — self-important. I find it best just to give these kind of folks a wide berth and deal with them as little as possible.

Q: Describe a time when you had to give honest negative feedback to a colleague or team member.

Possible answer: When the Cardinals opened their season playing sub-.500 ball, and Albert Pujols was in that terrible slump, I called him up and suggested a slight adjustment in his swing and maybe an extra “Hail Mary” or two while he warmed up in the on-deck circle. Now, he’s slamming it out of the park, just like the old Albert.

Q: Tell me about a time when you had to determine a situation warranted an exception to policy. Describe the situation and your thought process.

Possible answer: There are no exceptions allowed in the Catholic Church. You sin, you burn in hell — that’s just the way it is. The only exception is if you ask for forgiveness of an entire life’s worth of horrible sins on your death bed. Only then can I say, “Don’t worry about it. No prob.”

Q: What did you enjoy most about the culture and environment in your last role?

Possible answer: Between the time I was just a cardinal and the time I became Holy Father in 2005, there was a brief break in service where I worked at a convenience store. There was a guy who came in every morning to buy lottery tickets who always told me a funny joke. I got to know a whole group of regulars and used every opportunity I could to impart the Word of God to them. Also, I got all the free Slushees I could drink.

Q: What did you enjoy least about the culture and environment in your last role?

Possible answer: People pumping gas and then driving off without paying. They took that out of my paycheck, for which I firmly believe the local franchise operator will suffer for an eternity. At least if I have any say in the matter.

Revisited: Holy Saturday — how Jesus spent his day off

April 23, 2011

During Holy Week, much is made of the days leading up to Easter. First was Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, then was ratted out by Judas at the after-party. Yesterday was Good Friday, though Christ Himself would probably choose a different adjective than “good,” since it marks the day He was crucified (for example, “Bad Friday” or “Painful Friday” both seem more accurate). Sunday is Easter itself, the day Jesus rose from the dead and was presented with a beautiful ham.  

But today, sometimes referred to as “Holy Saturday” or “Silent Saturday” on the liturgical calendar, plays a much smaller role in Resurrection Weekend. There are no special church services, no ceremonial waving of palms or schlepping of crosses. It’s just a plain old Saturday, plenty good enough for the rest of us to spend in relaxation, and not that big a deal to those who celebrate the life, death and rebirth of our Lord and Savior.  

Little is known of how Jesus Himself spent that solemn day almost two millennia ago. It’s generally thought that He mostly just lay around, recovering from one of the worst weeks anyone ever suffered, including that one you had in February where not one, not two, but three PowerPoint presentations were due on the boss’s desk by close of business Friday. Traditionally, it’s believed that Christ’s actual reanimation took place Sunday morning shortly before the angels rolled the stone away from the grave. It’s entirely possible, however, that it occurred much earlier, and that Jesus had a whole day to kill on Saturday while waiting for the dramatic Easter morning reveal.  

Think about it: if you just moved into a new place, you’d be using your first day off to spruce it up bit, do some cleaning and some chores, and find a little time to absorb the ambience of what has become your home. Maybe the tomb had a little-used back door that allowed Jesus to freely come and go for a day before inviting his friends over to the house-warming bash on Sunday.  

Some historians are now ready to speculate how the founder of the world’s one true religion spent his Holy Saturday:  

9 a.m. — Wakes up late, hoping that a good night’s sleep will ease the pain of one of the worst methods of execution known to mankind.  

9:15 a.m. — Slips out to nearby Panera for coffee and a cinnamon crunch bagel. Hasn’t unpacked His laptop yet so He has to get His news the old-fashioned way, by picking up a newspaper (lead story: “Son of God Executed”; second lead: “Idol Castoff is Gay”). Spends a leisurely hour sipping free refills of the dark roast blend, and wondering why they gave Him a fork with His bagel.  

10:15 a.m. — Swings by Home Depot to pick up some grass seed and fertilizer for a little lawn work He wants to do later in the afternoon.  

10:30 a.m. — After returning to the crypt, Christ starts tackling the “honey-do” list of chores around the house. Since He’s not married, the existence of the list is itself something of a miracle, and the scrap of paper is now enshrined at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s believed the hand of the Lord Himself crossed off “fix hinge on sunroom door,” “replace porch light” and “heal dishwasher.” One chore is sadly left unmarked: “Make sure followers don’t kill others in My name.”  

12:15 p.m. — Grabs a quick lunch at Arby’s drive-thru and says “hi” to Dad who’s working there at His part-time retirement job. Orders the junior roast beef sandwich from dollar-menu but has to get the barbecue sauce because He gets embarrassed asking for His real favorite, the “horsey sauce.”  

1 p.m. — Back at home, which He now thinks of by the nickname “The Sepulcher” or maybe “The Sep,” it’s time to pay a few bills. Jesus has refrained from using online banking and still writes checks and drops them in the mail. Just as He wanted to mingle with the lepers and the prostitutes, He also likes to keep a personal touch in dealing with the bankers and the utility company.  

1:30 p.m. — Lies down for a quick nap but wakes up after only half an hour when His cat tries to sleep on His chest.  

2 p.m. — Walks over to the Golgotha Driving Range to hit a bucket of balls. Considers trying to get in a quick nine but remembers He’s got to get that grass seed down before it germinates in His shed.  

2:45 p.m. — Begins yard work but finds it tough going in the sandy soil of the Negev Desert. Manages to scrape clear a small patch and get it sufficiently watered to possibly grow a little fescue, though He’s concerned the spot He’s picked won’t get enough sun in the shade of an olive tree. After sweating away for almost two hours, finally gives in and waves His mighty hand across the land, miraculously creating a lush garden complete with perennials, which shouldn’t take as much work as those damn annuals He had back in Nazareth.  

5 p.m. — Time to fire up the grill for some hamburgers and corn on the cob. He’s dying for a Yeungling but knows, according to the laws of the scripture, that He must drink wine instead, though even the prophets would have to admit that it’s not as refreshing as a cold beer.  

6:30 p.m. — Resists the “great temptation of Christ” — to turn in early — and decides instead to catch a movie over in the Gethsemane Mall. Though He’s already seen it four times, Jesus again chooses to watch “Avatar,” because James Cameron reminds Him so much of Himself, and because He thinks He looks cool in 3-D glasses.  

9:15 p.m. — Makes a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up some Peeps for the nephews He suspects will be dropping by tomorrow. Ends up filling a whole shopping cart full of chocolate rabbits, robin’s eggs, jelly beans and other junk, most of which He proceeds to eat while watching Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS.  

10:45 p.m. — Falls asleep on couch even though sugar rush haunts His dreams all night, and gives him the wacky idea of ascending into Heaven before a gathering of believers. Thinks He might just be able to pull it off if He can spend the next 40 days being nice to that friend who owns a jet-pack.  

I pray it doesn’t rain before I can get that grass seed down

How yardwork became a religious experience

April 11, 2011

Older folks out there might recall a childhood game we played called “Pickup Stix.” The point of the game was to drop a collection of colorful sticks, each about the circumference of a toothpick and the length of a pencil, then pick up as many as we could without disturbing nearby sticks.

You younger people brought up on your fancy, hi-tech video games won’t be able to appreciate a contest played in the physical world, of course. Actually, I’m having a little trouble myself reading a description of the rules and trying to fathom how we viewed this as a “game” rather than simply cleaning up a spill. Regardless, we found it fun at the time, especially compared to mourning the assassination of one political leader after another.

Saturday, I spent the afternoon engaged in an adult version of the game. Not “adult” in the sense that you got to be naked; adult in the sense that you do it not because it’s fun, but because it’s your responsibility.

It was the first warm, dry day of the spring that I haven’t had to work. A winter’s worth of twigs and small branches covered my yard, made all the worse by several spring storms in the last few weeks. It’s traditionally the first bit of yardwork of the season to clear away this debris so that mowing and raking and seeding and mulching and all those other chores can take place. Besides, my neighbors were starting to give me dirty looks over a lawn that was beginning to look more like a lumber yard for robins.

I know of no automated way to accomplish this task. We’d never consider cutting the grass one blade at a time, or picking up each individual fallen leaf instead of super-sonically blowing them onto the property next door with a leaf-blower. If the technology didn’t exist, we’d simply accept nature’s ways and allow our lands to grow wild. But picking up twigs — even though it has to be done by bending over and selecting each one individually — we grudgingly do by hand, over the course of any otherwise gorgeous spring afternoon.

I had forgotten, during the long indoor months of winter, just how exhausting it can be to bend over. You watch athletes doing it effortlessly on television all the time, but forget that they’re professionals who have invested a tremendous amount of training into the process of bowing at the waste and going into a half-squat. I bent over perhaps a half-dozen times during the cold-weather months, and most of those occasions were due to deep abdominal pain. I was hopelessly out of shape.

Still, I gave it my best effort as the heat built and the sweat saturated my clothing. I soon learned to conserve energy by picking up more than one stick with each stoop, and what had looked initially like a week-long task now might be mostly finished in a day. Occasionally, I broke the tedium by plucking branches that hadn’t fallen all the way to the ground out of the trees themselves. I was particularly proud of the effort I made to free a 20-foot branch that had dangled and swayed outside our living-room window for months from a crook high up in an oak. I nearly gouged my face out when it finally broke free, yet I was willing to take the risk rather than allow a hardwood with half my education to get the better of me.

About three hours into the effort, I started to see how my work was making a difference. The yard still looked pretty junky, but an impressive pile of sticks was growing ever-larger next to my driveway. I walked around the back of the house to survey an area I thought wouldn’t need much work. Unfortunately, it was every bit as bad as the front yard had been. More hours of physical toil lay ahead.

“Jesus,” I muttered to myself in disgust. Then, as if on cue, I looked up to see a pair of smartly dressed women walking down the driveway from my house. They had just been speaking with my wife to inform her of a man who lived 2,000 years ago … a man who, though now presumably dead, was ready and eager to turn her life around. Rudely awakened after having just finished up a Friday night shift of work at the office, Beth was less than rapturous to hear of such Good News. I, however, looked at it as an opportunity … an opportunity to stop working and start reading the brochure they had left behind.

The green pamphlet was a simple affair, notifying us of two upcoming events sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would explain how Jesus “takes away the sins of the world” and would explain “how does he do so?”, “why is this necessary?” and “how can you benefit?”. They would’ve had me if they said He could make the sticks and the twigs rise up and ascend into Heaven.

I was ready to discard the handout and head back outside when a strange feeling came over me. I looked again at the artwork, and had a feeling I had seen this man somewhere before. The figure in the robe and flip-flops, reaching his hand out and beseeching that I join him, bore a striking resemblance to George Clooney. With maybe a little Zach Galifianakis thrown in. And just a touch of American Idol contestant Casey Abrams.

I looked deep into the eyes of Jesus/George/Zach/Casey, hoping to find answers to problems that have left me world-weary in recent months. My eyes wandered slightly higher to the Holy Perm, teased just so. His mouth was formed into a word that I couldn’t quite lip-read. It could’ve been “peace” or it could’ve been “love,” or it could’ve been a lyric in Casey’s rendition last week of the Credence Clearwater classic “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

I immediately dropped to my knees, even though I knew it would mean yet one more time I had to struggle later to get myself standing again.

“Oh Lord Jesus, or George Clooney, or Zach, or Casey, or whoever you are,” I cried out. “Deliver me from this world of pain and sorrow! I am going to be so sore tomorrow, and I know my doctor won’t give me any more Vicodin. Please, make me whole again.”

I stopped my work for the day, took a refreshing shower, and waited for the Almighty Intervention I’ve sorely missed for so long.

It never came, though we did get hit by a tremendous hailstorm later that evening, freeing a whole new batch of debris and rendering all the work I had done earlier completely useless.

Mysterious ways, I guess.

I find comfort in sacred music

March 28, 2011

As I cast about for solace and comfort in my currently troubled life, I can’t help but wonder if organized religion might provide an answer.

Generally, there are two ways that people come to their god in a prayer of “Hi, how’s it going? Maybe we should hang out.” Most people are born into the faith of their fathers. This is how I came to be a pious Lutheran during the first 16 years of my life. I was an altar boy, I was an off-key alto in the junior choir and I was confirmed at age 14 following a year of catechism study. (To this day, I remember a key tenet: God good, Devil bad). I believed in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and any other god they might want to come up with.

One of the Gods

Then, in 1969, I experienced a revelation. It came in the form of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, revealing his private parts during a concert performance in my hometown of Miami. An outraged community of South Florida Christians, led by songstress Anita Bryant, decided to stage a “Decency Rally” in the Orange Bowl. The goal was to demonstrate that most area teens were repulsed by the idea of breaking on through to the other side, lighting fires, and touching Jim, no mater how many times he pleaded “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon”.

My church youth group planned to organize a bus trip to attend the rally. By the time they got around to calling and inviting me, my conversion had become complete.

“Gee, I kinda like the Doors,” I told Pastor Papke. And that was the end of my life as a Lutheran.

After a few years had passed, Morrison died of a heroin overdose in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, and Anita Bryant began a long and fruitful career promoting orange juice, homophobia and uplifting music. I had made the right choice.

Now, I am contemplating the possibility of arriving at a religious belief by the second most-common means: a conscious, intentional decision. It’s not a choice I’m quite prepared to make. I’ve spent over 57 years leading a mostly charmed life, free of the major trauma that usually inspires such conversions. (I thought about coming to Christ once around 20 years ago when I got a $280 ticket for speeding in a school zone, but when the judge said he wouldn’t put any points on my license, I lapsed back into apostasy).

Most of American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by right-wing political ideologues and, while I might otherwise consider adopting a mythical worldview involving angels and resurrections and miracles, I’m not quite ready to give up on my belief in national health insurance and the rest of the progressive agenda.

For now, I’m holding onto my plans for a death-bed conversion to each of the top 20 world faiths, hoping the scattershot approach will buy me entrance into somebody’s heaven. (I just hope it’s not Zoroastrianism that turns out to be the One True Religion; I hear they let vultures pluck at your deceased body rather than bury or burn you. Vultures, you may have noticed, are ugly).

See? Ugly, I tell you.

While I might, for now, be able to deny the lure of Christianity, it’s a good bit more difficult to deny that the creed sure has a great soundtrack. Just as I might hate the TV show “Glee,” I still find myself singing along to the cast’s spirited rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. (Ironic, huh?) By the same token, I’ve begun recently to search out the traditional hymns and sacred music I recall from my youth as a halfway measure to giving my life over to Christ.

The Lutheran songbook is a rich and inspirational collection of mediocre music that instantly transports me back to those early years of piety. I listen to “Just As I Am” and remember the procession down to the communion font, where I’d get my first sip of wine. I recall “Bless’d Be The Ties That Bind” and remember having to don a too-tight necktie every Sunday morning. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art” remind me of Protestantism’s appreciation for architecture and the classic paintings of the Renaissance.

But there was no piece of sacred music I’ve ever found more uplifting than Handel’s “Messiah.” My parents incessantly played the Eugene Ormandy/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version on their ancient hi-fi while I was growing up, and ever since I’ve been spiritually moved by the soaring 18th-century oratorio. When I went off to college in 1971, that record occupied as hallowed a place in my collection as did Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Deja Vu” and the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Past.” Though my classical purist roommate scoffed at the flaws of the work while simultaneously pointing out it was “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” and Handel was actually pronounced “Hen-del,” I was inalterably down with George Frederick.

The great "Hen-del"

(The only part I didn’t care for was that you were supposed to stand up during performance of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus,” which I always found to be awkward and arbitrary. Why did you have to alter the position of your body just because somebody was playing a catchy tune? Next thing you know, we’d have to bend over for each playing of Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” or put our hands over our ears during Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Actually, that last idea kinda makes sense).

So now, I while away a Sunday afternoon in search of succor, watching funny YouTube videos while Handel’s masterpiece plays over and over as the great composer always intended, on iTunes. Though this particular recording clocks in at just over 100 minutes, the libretto is surprising sparse, encouraging listeners to sing-along.

I love how Handel goes to such lengths to stretch out the lyrics in creative ways. The Mormon Tabernacle singers pronounce “accomplished” as “accomp-li-shed” and turn one- and two-syllable words like “shake” and “desire” into virtual arias of their own: “… and the de-si-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-re of all nations shall come.” He makes it fun to come up with misunderstood lyrics during the few boring parts: “his yolk is over easy and his permanent is light.” Or, “Are we like sheep?” Some of the phrasing is pleasantly cryptic: “He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.” Sing it!

There’s even a bit of frivolity that the Baroque master tosses in near the end, inserting what was meant to be a stage direction — “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised” — that later interpreters have sung as a lyric. (Though I’d love to see someone stage a back-to-the-original performance that actually included bugle-playing zombies).

By the end of “Messiah,” I feel spiritually lifted up, ready to face my modern-day trials with a faith that there is one who is greater than I. Actually, there are probably millions who are greater than I, and just knowing that takes off a lot of pressure.

Even though I may feel guilty spending the Lord’s Day watching piano-playing cats and the evolution of dance, I know that my soul is at peace and that my burden (and my permaent) is light.

Taking a trip into the Sahara

January 31, 2011

A new restaurant opened near my home about a year ago. Locally owned and operated rather than yet another franchise outlet, I figured it would go away soon enough. Folks in my small South Carolina town aren’t exactly the adventurous type when it comes to dining out and, since this place had neither drive-through nor dollar menu, it seemed doomed.

Add to that the fact that the Sahara Restaurant offers “Mediterranean fare” such as falafel, baba ganoush and kabobs both shish and adana, and I’m thinking their fate is sealed. Only if the hookah bar draws nearby college students looking for a high, or rednecks looking for prostitutes, is there a chance it’ll succeed long term.

Surprisingly enough, though, it remains in business, so my family and I decided to give it a try Saturday night.

The owner is wise to present his eatery as Mediterranean. South Carolinians aren’t known for their geography skills — remember that our former governor confused Argentina with the Appalachian Trail — but they know enough about that part of the world to think of Greeks, Italians and Spaniards when they hear that particular inland sea mentioned. Were they to know the truth, that Middle Eastern dishes with a distinct Egyptian theme are on the menu at the Sahara, they’d immediately be thinking of Ay-rabs, and how they weren’t about to try any foods that might be favored by al-Qaida.

“The only thing they know how to barbecue is themselves, in a suicide vest,” many of my neighbors might say. “I ain’t eatin’ that.”

That Egypt has been an ally of America for over 30 years is lost on many in this part of the country. One look at a swarthy wait staff that doesn’t include a single Mexican, and most patrons would be executing a U-turn back to the parking lot, then using the remote start feature on their SUV to make sure it hasn’t been fitted with a car bomb.

When we arrived for dinner around 6 p.m., there were only a few other parties already seated. The atmosphere of the small establishment doesn’t offer much to transport you away to the Levant. It was brightly lit and featured standard-issue tables and booths. There were a couple of hookah pipes to the right of the entrance, and artwork featuring the pyramids, the Sphinx and scenes from the world’s largest desert on all the walls.

Unfortunately, the most overt representation of Egypt came from the wide-screen television hung directly adjacent to the table where we were seated. From there came CNN’s coverage of the developing story about rioting in the streets of Cairo, clashes among protesters, police and army units, and calls for the ouster of the Egyptian president. It didn’t help make for a pleasant dining climate to have the angry face on the TV screen crying “Death to Mubarek!” bear a striking resemblance to the waiter asking if we’d care to try an appetizer.

Still, I’m an open-minded man with some worldwide traveling experience, and tend to have an adventurous streak when it comes to trying the foods of other cultures. I look at the list on the menu and considered the starters. Among the offerings were “foul maddams,” “meggadara,” “fried kibba” and “french fries.” The first of these made me think again of hookers, the second of a heavy-metal rock band, the third of dog food, and the fourth of McDonald’s. None had the appeal I was looking for, so we decided to wait instead to order an entree.

While we considered the other dishes, I got the distinct impression I was being watched by every worker in the restaurant. Or rather, they seemed intrigued by my hair, as none of them met my eyes but instead looked several inches above them. When I saw my wife and son, sitting across from me, doing the same thing, I realized that everyone was being transfixed by the violent images on the screen behind where I sat. The cook, the cashier, the greeter, the dishwashers, all peered out to watch the news playing out halfway around the world. I wondered if an ancient peoples’ desire to throw off the yoke of an authoritarian leader and breathe the sweet air of democratic reforms was going to affect my dinner preparation. I don’t like my lamb overcooked while the chef worries about his imprisoned countrymen and I don’t like tear gas as a spice.

When the waiter returned, we had settled on our orders. My son had the chicken kabob with fries, my wife had the adana kabob (parenthetically labeled as “kofta” on the menu, as if that would help) and I had the mixed grill. We were also brought a complementary plate of hummus, some pita bread and a too-salty salad with cucumbers, a vegetable I hate only slightly less than death itself.

The main courses arrived promptly and were actually quite tasty. My college-age son struggled a bit with the whole kabob concept, uncertain whether to remove the meat from the skewer by sticking it deep into his mouth and impaling his larynx, or simply gnawing at it from the side until it came loose and fell in his lap. My wife’s dish turned out to be a browned, formed cylinder of ground beef, quite tasty if you could get past what it looked like. My mixed grill included chicken, lamb and a third meat I hoped wasn’t camel. It was all a tad dry but became more moist and flavorful when combined with the basmati rice and a white sauce I imagined had yogurt in it.

When we finished our meal, the waiter returned with a shrink-wrapped broadsheet that showed pictures of the desserts available. Baklava, I was familiar with, though I can’t say the same for “harrisa” and “konafa”. The fourth option was New York cheesecake, probably a tribute to all the Middle Eastern cabdrivers in Manhattan. We politely declined the desserts, as news came across the TV behind me that looters had attacked the Egyptian Museum and were carrying off bits of mummy, a distinctly unappetizing development.

All in all, we had a pleasant dining experience I can recommend to anyone in Rock Hill who doesn’t mind having their weekend outing complemented by an armed insurrection that could unbalance the fragile peace of the world’s most volatile region. My only complaint, other than the fact that the staff seemed more concerned with distant family than they did with refilling my water glass, was that the Sahara did not serve alcoholic beverages. I chalked this up to Islam’s intolerance for drunkenness but found out later that it was due to a city ordinance that prevents liquor licenses being issued to businesses located within 500 feet of a church. So it was the righteous Baptists across the street who deserved the blame, not similarly busybody fundamentalists from another of the world’s great religions.

If, God forbid, you ever find yourself in Rock Hill and longing for a good “fattush” (a salad tossed with toasted pita chips, lemon and sumac, not the mashup of a ZZ Top/Sir Mix-a-lot song), please give the Sahara a try.

Revisited: The life of Martin Luther

January 15, 2011

Martin Luther (1483-1546), widely regarded as the father of the Protestant Reformation and a number of unintended babies, was a German theologian and religious reformer who challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He also had a vast influence on European concepts of politics, economics, education, language and hair styling, with his now-familiar bowl cut making him one of the most crucial figures in modern European history.

He was born in Eisleben (later Hitlerville, and then changed back to Eisleben) in what today is Germany. His father, originally known as Hans Luder, had wanted to name his son “Lex” but was convinced by his wife to go with “Abraham Martin and John,” later shortened to simply Martin. The family was descended from peasantry, but Hans made a nice living for himself and his family as a copper miner and part-time fletcher/cooper (roughly equivalent to today’s writer/director).

Martin received his early education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, before enrolling at the University of Erfurt at age 17. Red-shirted during his freshman season, he became an outstanding left tackle for the Fightin’ Furter football team by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1502. He passed on an opportunity for a pro career — he was projected as high as the eighth round by some scouts — and chose to stay in school to pursue his master’s, which he received in 1505.

He began to study law, as his father wished, but didn’t have enough credits to graduate so he fell back on his undergraduate major – monking — and entered the Augustinian monastery. Within a year, he had so impressed his superiors that he was selected for the priesthood, ordained, and conducted his first celebration of mass. (“Celebration” might be overstating the case, as he kept stumbling over unfamiliar phrasing, once mispronouncing “Madonna” as “My donut.”) He continued his studies in theology, including multiple re-takes of basic Latin, until he got his big chance to go to Rome and check out how Catholicism was done in the big city.

To put it mildly, he was not impressed. In fact, he was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy, especially the way they had substituted vodka shots for wine in the communions they conducted. This led him to question other basic tenets of church, and he gradually came to believe that Christians were saved not through their own efforts but instead by God’s grace. The church leadership was making a tidy fortune off the sale of indulgences, which were peddled to the peasants in the form of mugs, posters and t-shirts (“Rome Rules” was a common slogan for this merchandising). This crass effort disgusted Luther to the point where he suffered from nearly constant vomiting, though scholars recently discovered a sixteenth-century Domino’s menu that led them to believe that salmonella-tainted pizza may have been a contributing factor.

Luther finally emerged into worldwide prominence when in 1517 he was named Holy Roman Empire Today’s “Most Pious Man Alive” and became known for some graffiti he had scrawled on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. This posting of the so-called Ninety-five Theses has been greatly misunderstood by historians and only recently was clarified when the old door itself was located at a garage sale in East St. Louis, Missouri. It was long believed that Luther wrote the theses before-hand and then nailed them to the cathedral door as a sign of protest and to show his growing prowess as a wallboard installer.

In reality, Luther wrote the seminal document on-site, meticulously painting it onto the oak with a fine single-haired brush. What bothered the church elders more than what the manuscript said was the fact that he was always in the way, blocking the main entrance almost constantly during the three weeks it took him to finish. Most of the demands were not that unreasonable – for example, he wrote of the need for sturdier pews to “accommodate the ample Germanic hind.” He also wanted Wednesday night services moved to Tuesday because most members couldn’t TiVo floggings in the public square like the wealthy clergy could. And he wanted the liturgy conducted in native languages because Latin “sounds too much like they’re just making it up as they go along.”

He made it all the way to the next-to-last thesis (“94. Enough with the incense already, it’s giving everybody a headache”) with church officials only mildly curious about the progress of the bowl-headed scribe. On the morning of his final day of work, he began writing the last entry as a crowd of onlookers grew around him. “The pope is not ni…” he began. The throng began buzzing with anticipation. The pope is not what? Nitrogen-based? Nihilistic? Luther slowly added a “c”. Nicene? Nickel-plated? Then he added an “e”. “Don’t get upset everybody – it could still be ‘Nicene,’” shouted one observer, trying to quell the growing distress of the crowd. Then Luther added the punctuation mark that would change European history forever, a period. “The pope is not nice.” The multitude gasped, but soon dispersed when they heard a beheading was being set up across the street.

The Roman Curia, which is kind of like a Senate subcommittee only crankier, began an investigation that eventually led to the condemnation of Luther’s teachings in 1520 and his excommunication a year later. He was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and asked to recant. His famous assertion of conscience in the face of certain punishment – “No Can Do!” – is most likely apocryphal, but still he was spirited away by Prince Frederick the Wise who kept him in virtual house arrest at his castle.

Luther was able to continue much of his other life work, though it paled in comparison to royally pissing off the entire Catholic Church. He made a little money doing some free-lance translations and sticking his nose into the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, where he supported the peasants’ political demands while repudiating their theological arguments, a fine distinction that was lost on all the people who had swords. He married a former nun, a widely acknowledged hottie by the name of Katharina von Bora, and continued his writing as his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe.

By the late 1530’s, his health began to deteriorate and he took on an anti-Semitic bent by accusing the Jews of exploiting the confusion he had caused among Christians. This made him virtually unable to locate a decent doctor, and he died on Feb. 18, 1546. His obituary, printed several days later in the Eisleben Picayune-Examiner, included a long list of his works, an even longer list of his children, and the name of his new religion: Martinism, which was later changed to Luthermania, then Lutheranism.

Revisited: ChristianProphet.org website review

January 2, 2011

Normally, I wouldn’t lower myself to the level where I address a mere “dot-org” domain in my Website Review. I’m making an exception because in this particular case, I almost had to lower myself out of my crushed vehicle and into a “Jaws of Life” following a barely avoided collision with a large, colorfully decorated motor home at an intersection near my house.

The RV that nearly sent me to be with Jesus was, appropriately, owned by “bobgriffin.org” and presumably driven by that self-same Bob. Drawn to its huge decals of the burning World Trade Center towers and a Bob-penned book that purported to tell the “real story” of Sept. 11, I hurried home to go online and learn more about this RV of Death.

The website, which also operates under the name “7flames.org,” is a pretty minimalist affair, mostly spent promoting Griffin, his book called “Standing in the Shadows of 9/11: The Vision” and the hare-brained concept that Bob is a genuine Christian prophet. Anybody can predict The Rapture, but Bob takes his gift a step farther and can predict all types of future events, though apparently not the fact I was running a yellow light while he was making a right turn without first coming to a full stop.

Griffin’s story, described in the “About Bob Griffin” pulldown, is best told by the Living Bob himself.

He grew up in a rough neighborhood of Chicago and faced “many challenges” during his childhood (probably code for bullying and/or polio). “After a series of dramatic supernatural encounters, Bob surrendered his life to Jesus Christ … and discovered he had been given a keen prophetic gifting.” This allowed him to “give thousands of accurate words” during his 15-year ministry, words that apparently did not include “look,” “out,” “we’re” and “crashing” on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

Bob’s “gifting” has taken him to 25 nations where he claims to have met with presidents, prime ministers, senators and, most importantly, celebrities to spread his vision of what lies ahead for their various constituencies. Bob also consults with U.S. and international agencies on matters of national security, and “using his prophetic gifting he has located Al Qaeda terrorist cells.” My own guess is that such consultation takes place mostly in airport interrogation rooms after he’s been detained by TSA officers for fitting the profile of an unbalanced lunatic.

The biography concludes with a line that I bet is a real show-stopper on his resume: “Bob is sent with an apostic and prophetic anointing to break the yoke of bondage over individuals, regions and nation.” And he’s available for parties.

The rest of the website is not much to look at. The home page encourages viewers to join in a Thanksgiving conference being held on Nov. 25, 2009 and an assembling of the “armies of God” at a Yonkers, N.Y., church for a special New Year’s Eve service. (While Bob’s busy knocking around in the future, I guess his followers instead live in the past.) There’s an “Events” section, where “currently no events are available.”

The “Media” area is mostly links to YouTube videos of Bob and his wife Jayne and their five lovely but extremely embarrassed teenage daughters, featured in clips from his popular weekly internet television show. The video I sampled involved the Griffin family riding around New York City in their RV, talking earnestly to the camera while the wicked streets of Manhattan whiz by behind them.

Filmed the day of that brutal windstorm that took down hundreds of trees in Central Park last summer, the Griffin girls gleefully recount how Dad is interpreting the event as a preview of God’s plan to harvest enough wood to “build an ark in the park.” Other segments show the teens describing how a homeless man tried to break into the van but decided otherwise when divine intervention reared its head; how “demonic spirits” were driving the recipients of free copies of Bob’s book to toss it in the trash can; and how the youngest daughter encountered a Muslim who grilled her about her father’s ideas.

“Soon he will be a witness to scales being removed from his eyelids,” the tween-aged girl says uneasily, knowing how dead she will be when her middle-school friends get the chance to ridicule her on Facebook, while still delighting in the bright future that probably awaits her in the field of ophthamology.

But the whole reason for the website seems to be selling copies of the 9/11 book, the first chapter of which I was able to download for free. It tells, a bit cryptically, the story of how Bob got started in prophecy back in the mid-1990s. One day he was confronted by a “very large face” who told him that “landscapes are changing!” Most of us might simply think a close-talking itinerant gardener was offering to rake our yard. Bob, however, knew this was different.

“It was piercing the night just like traffic lights below were stabbing at the night with their melancholy rhythms, cars sailing through the night traversing the arteries that bring evidence of life to the darkness,” Bob writes. “And why so fast?”

(Again, I might point out the light was yellow.)

Next, Bob was pulled through time to witness the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, then back to Sept. 10, 2001, in what he acknowledges was “a confusing moment for me.” In 2001, he sees the Statue of Liberty crying a single tear, “liquid light sliding down her face,” while twin towers standing next to her go up in flames.

It’s hard to tell if Bob was actually in Lower Manhattan on that fateful day. He talks about a “giant cloud of dust roaring toward me,” then turning to run toward a fire escape which he climbs with “supernatural strength.” A giant ball of choking grit engulfs his vision, then he hears a voice saying “I’ll be with you in a minute” (McDonald’s drive-thru?), then he’s flooded in the bright lights of a television studio and greeted by a producer who says “He is going to do for you what He did for us.”

Bob replied, “What was that?” The producer responded, “Worldwide web, worldwide radio, worldwide television. TELL-A-VISION!”

This is Bob’s cue that he needs to tell people about his visions because the “FUTURE is the place where FEW TOUR,” and now it seems this whole ministry of prophetic giving thing is descending into a play on words.

There’s one last scene from the first chapter that may give us a little more insight into Bob’s rare powers. He’s going out with the rest of the office to a staff lunch at a quaint restaurant near a lake. He’s preoccupied during the lunch with ducks and geese walking on the backs of carp, “the bubble-blowers and the water-walkers” he calls them. He asks the group “has anyone ever cried real tears in your dreams before? I have! I did last night!”

Bob writes:

“Pass the rolls,” I heard them say. I felt the stabbing pain of rejection again, along with the anger which always tries to rise up. I heard one of their thoughts. “Oh boy, here we go again with another dream.”

And you thought your co-workers were weird.

Reading over the website and the book excerpt again, I think I may have figured out the source behind the Griffin magic. The main heading across the home page reads “Let My Love Open the Door to Your Heart.” The book, again, is entitled “Standing in the Shadows of 9/11.”  Another line in the book reads “Here comes that tear again.”

I think Bob may have hit his head while the RV was making a sharp turn one evening, then fell into semi-consciousness while Z-93, playing ALL hits from the sixties and seventies ALL the time, blared from his radio. Fragments of song lyrics from the Who, the Four Tops and Jackson Browne coalesced in his concussed brain and he awoke to believe the future is past, the past is future, and that a fat carp was being lifted from the water and then was no more.

Do I remember a song by Neil Young called “The Fat Carp Was Lifted”? I think I do.

Revisited: Website Review of BillyGraham.com

December 28, 2010

The death last year of televangelist Oral Roberts leaves behind only one other elder statesman of Christianity, if you don’t count God. The Rev. Billy Graham has spent much of his 91 years ministering not only to his Southern Baptist base but to presidents, world leaders and millions of participants in his crusades around the globe. He even found time during the turbulent 1960s to run the Fillmore music venue in San Francisco, introducing the nation to seminal bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

No, wait — that was Bill Graham, promoter and rock impresario.

See, I could keep these two straight if only I’d visit the Billy Graham Library, a Charlotte, N.C., site that houses memorabilia from the famous minister’s life. Built in 2007, the 40,000-square-foot “experience” allows visitors to discover the life and legacy of America’s pastor. The 20 landscaped acres include the “barn-shaped” library itself, a multimedia presentation about his dynamic journey from farm boy to international ambassador of God’s love, a prayer garden and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring sandwiches, salads, cookies and ice cream (as it is in Heaven, no outside food allowed).

Billboards throughout the Carolinas promote the library with the tag line “No Books to Check Out … Just His Story,” lest potential visitors be scared off by the prospect of having to read something. However, the advertising is probably intended more for those who are just passing through, as those of us who live here are already well aware of the now-retired reverend’s impact on the area. Visitors to Charlotte are still alarmed to find that, in order to drive to the airport, you have to “take Billy Graham,” the parkway named in his honor, not the actual man, who is too frail to do much air travel these days. Locals take the influence for granted.

Now I’m not about to start making fun of an elderly, gentle man of God, even though he may have made some questionable political choices during his career. Despite early associations with right-wing nutcase Bob Jones and a well-known chumminess with Nixon, Reagan and assorted Bushes, Graham did oppose segregation in the South, even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail at one point. So while I may be willing to give him a pass, I reserve no such restraint for the website promoting his library, which is the subject of today’s Website Review.

The home page includes some basic information about the library (obvious things like closed Sunday, no firearms or pets permitted, MasterCard and Visa accepted at the gift shop) and an overview of key features. There are re-creations of historic moments in Graham’s life, “amazing” films and more than 350 photographs, and an opportunity to “submerse yourself” in a special room dedicated to his late wife, Ruth. There’s also a brief video, slickly produced but a little lacking in audio quality, in particular the introduction that at first listen sounds like “experience the journey of one simple mind that impacted millions.” And there’s a description of the site’s centerpiece, the restored Graham Family Homeplace, which was rebuilt using 80 percent of the original materials and, presumably, 20 percent of stuff from Lowe’s.

The home page also includes news releases and testimonials about the power of God as exercised through Rev. Graham. There’s a statement in reaction to Oral Roberts’ death — Graham “loved him as a brother” and “looks forward to seeing him in Heaven” — and one from Billy’s son Franklin, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin, naturally, had spoken to Roberts’ son Richard, and judiciously avoided saying anything about how his father could now beat up Richard’s father.

The testimonials are mostly from average Christians who have visited the library recently. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday other than Heaven,” notes Chrissy from Louisburg, N.C. “I lived across the street from the Smithsonian in Washington for many years and it has nothing on this library,” says Fred from Lexington, S.C. “My son is addicted to meth and was ready to commit suicide,” writes one father, a bit off-topic.

There’s also a long piece from a former atheist and alcoholic (there’s a difference?) who came to Christ after being told by her bartender she should attend the local crusade, then showing up and hyperventilating among 65,000 Christians, then fleeing to the sidewalk outside to catch her breath, then becoming “completely transformed” because the sermon could still be heard in the parking lot. Now she has a radio show and is available through the Captivating Women Speaker Bureau.

There’s a Reservations pulldown encouraging advance arrangements for parties larger than 15 people, so theoretically Jesus’ 12 disciples could just show up unannounced but will be advised to wear comfortable shoes, allow at least two hours for the visit, and need to provide their own strollers and wheelchairs. A Get Involved section solicits volunteer library workers who have prayerfully considered their ability to stand on their feet for four hours at a stretch (no mention of requiring familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system).

The Special Events area describes two recent happenings, a Teddy Bear Tea Party and something called “Bikers with Boxes,” and promotes the currently running “Christmas at the Library” festivities. The latter actually sounds like fun, with a live nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides through a beautiful lights display, strolling carolers and holiday goodies. If you can nudge the Joseph actor to break character and burst into a giggling fit, you might even qualify for a free plate of Mother Graham’s poundcake and hot apple cider, though that’s unlikely since I just made it up.

There’s an extensive Books and Gifts section with some great ideas for holiday giving, such as DVDs, festive cards and the library barn Christmas ornament. A daily prayer journal with insights from Billy Graham will help you keep track of which requests God has already granted and which are on back-order. And there’s a whole collection of resources “equipping tweens to live for Christ” called the “Dare to be a Daniel” series. I checked with my son, who is an actual Daniel,  and he hopes there’d be minimal emphasis on being eaten by a lion and more about going out to movies and Taco Bell with friends.

The pulldown about “Billy Graham, The Man,” is one I will respectfully decline to deride, other than to note that his answer to the question he hears everywhere he goes is that hope in the future is possible “through Jesus Christ,” and that he looks ridiculous in his white wedding  tuxedo.

Finally, I’ll mention a Special Announcement that will be of interest to anyone who plans to visit the library soon. It will be closed. Despite being in business for only two years since its construction, the facility will shut down for several months of extensive upgrades and improvements beginning Jan. 11 and continuing until spring. Local news reports at the time of the announcement indicated that there are significant issues with acoustics in many of the exhibits, allowing sound from adjacent rooms to bleed through the walls. So, for example, during quiet reflection in a chapel you may suddenly hear what seems to be the Lord Almighty ordering a tuna salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake but is in fact bleed-through from bustle in the Dairy Bar.

But the website will continue to remain in service during construction, so you can virtually enjoy the glory of God as reflected in his humble servant Billy Graham from the comfort of your own personal family homeplace or barn.

My annual interview with the cats: Christmas edition

December 22, 2010

Every year or so, I step away from this blog’s human-centric perspective on the universe and check in with some of God’s lesser creatures. I interview my cats.

We have three — Harriet, 14; Taylor, 5; and Tom, 4 — and in the time I’ve “owned” them, we’ve established a certain language between us. They say meow, I feed them. They say meow, I clean their catbox. They say meow-meow-meow and I presume they’re sick and take them to the vet.

Deeper than any verbal communication, however, is the power of mental telepathy. Now, before you think I’m some kind of psycho pet lunatic, I’m not claiming I can read their minds. Actually, I am, but I don’t do it in a malevolent or intrusive sort of way. It’s just a manifestation of the bond that occasionally develops between one species and another species that sits on top of it. We stare at each other and can just tell what the other is thinking (most days, it’s Me: “You’re a good kitty, yes you are, yes you are”; Them: “This guy is both warmer and softer than any pillow.”)

In previous interviews, we discussed aspects of the relationship between man and his animal companion and, in a landmark December 2009 interview, a range of political issues and current affairs. Two of the three correctly predicted the Obama honeymoon was just about over, and that the GOP would become ascendant and sweep into Congress in 2010 (Harriet, instead, chose to lick herself). Though all three consider themselves Democrats, there’s just enough of an independent streak in them to give any halfway moderate Republican a chance to win their favor in 2012.

But this is the height of the Christmas season, and I was interested to hear what they think about how we humans celebrate our grandest of holidays. I wanted to hear their take on the religion behind Christmas, and whether there were any similar festivities in the cat world. I sat down with the panel near a window sill on a sunny afternoon recently to see what they think about Christmas.

Me: First, let me say Happy Holidays to you all. I won’t use “Merry Christmas” because I presume you’re not practicing Christians.

Tom: No, we’re not. I thought about converting a few months ago but it’s too much hassle, considering you won’t let me out of the house.

Me: Really? You thought about becoming a Christian?

Tom: "I thought about converting (to Christianity) but it's too much hassle."

Tom: Actually, you can do it online. My claws make it pretty hard for me to type, though. And, I needed to get a hold of your credit card, which isn’t easy either.

Me: My credit card? Why would you need that?

Tom: The Methodists had a nice no-money-down, no-payments-for-six-months offer that included a free toaster and I was really tempted. Then I realized, what am I going to do with toast? Probably just push it around the kitchen floor until it ended up under the refrigerator. No, mainstream Christianity is not for me.

Harriet: I toyed with Buddhism in my youth. I have a little Siamese in me, you know. But it’s way back on my mother’s side.

Me: Taylor, how about you? Agnostic, I presume?

Taylor: Yes, that’s right. I don’t believe it’s possible for the living to know for certain what heaven and hell and the afterlife are like. I presume it’s just vast, eternal nothingness, but what do I know? I thought that thread dangling from your shirt the other day was wild prey that I had to kill and eat, so I’m not even a real good judge of reality, much less the great beyond.

Me: Well, Christianity teaches that only humans have souls anyway, so you’ve all probably made the right choices for yourselves.

Taylor: Yeah, I’ve heard that too, and it bothers me. Makes it sound like God thinks you’re better than us.

Me: I think it’s just a matter of you being unable to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord, at least as a conscious choice.

Taylor: How do they know we can’t make conscious choices? Maybe not well-informed choices, but we can certainly act intentionally when we want to.

Me: I don’t know if that’s it, yet I can see … oww! What’s with the biting?

Taylor: Just wanted to prove I can do things on purpose.

Harriet: I think that’s why I was attracted to Eastern religion for a while. You might be a cat in this life but then you get reincarnated into something else in the next one. I was hoping I could make a kind of grand tour of all life forms, sort of shop around for one I liked and when I found it, stop being a believer and just remain what I had become. I was hoping for elephant but would’ve settled for rhino or hippo or really any large hooved mammal.

Tom: That’s not Buddhism, I don’t think. Isn’t that Hinduism?

Taylor: No, you’re thinking of Zoroastrianism.

Taylor: "I can do things on purpose, you know."

Harriet: No, that’s the one where they put your body in a tower when you die and the vultures pick your carcass clean. They do that instead of burial. I didn’t like the sound of that one.

Taylor: You’re an idiot. That’s not what they believe.

[Brief spat erupts between Taylor and Harriet, with much hissing and batting but no one gets hurt].

Me: Okay, okay, maybe I should change the topic away from something as contentious as religion.

Tom: I think you’re trying to make us fight amongst each other. Last time, it was all political questions and now we’re talking about what we believe spiritually. These are emotional questions and we all obviously have strong feelings about them.

Me: Well, let’s take it out of the spiritual realm and talk instead about the “reason for the season,” as we like to call it. You can at least acknowledge the birth of a very wise man, and how it’s probably a good thing that so many people structure their lives to emulate his good works and loving philosophy.

Taylor: Or pay lip service to it anyway.

Me: No, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it at all. I’m a lapsed Christian myself, and yet you can’t help but admit that a lot of good gets done in Christ’s name.

Harriet: The only time I hear you mentioning “Jesus” or “Christ” is when you stub your toe on your way to pick up the TV remote.

Me: That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to all the charity and the fellowship and the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Tom: So that’s why you make us get down from the kitchen table while it’s perfectly okay for you to eat your breakfast up there.

Me: I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy. I’m just trying to keep you from tracking cat litter into my cereal. I’m talking about the compassion for other living creatures that brought you guys into our home in the first place.

Taylor: Oh, here we go. The noble human plucks us from the wild, civilizes us, makes us eat that crappy Science Formula, and we’re supposed to be eternally grateful for your kindness. Did you ever stop to think maybe we liked being feral animals? Just because living on birds and squirrels and sleeping under the deck isn’t for you, don’t assume other species want your kind of life.

Tom: He’s right. You Western European descendants were always out to save the savages of the world, not stopping to think maybe the aboriginal lifestyle of American Indians and native Africans and the bushmen of Australia was something that worked just fine for them.

Me: The bushmen? You’re bringing our treatment of the bushmen into this?

Harriet: The bushmen are totally relevant to what we’re talking about.

Me: Alright, I think we’re losing focus here a little bit. Let me ask you this, then: Is there any equivalent myth in the feline world to the ones we have, about God’s son coming to earth to die for our sins so that we’ll have eternal life in Heaven?

Taylor: No, we couldn’t come up with anything that creative. Remember, we’re simple beasts driven only by hunger.

Tom: What about that story we all heard growing up about a glorious kitten being born to a virgin, growing up as a simple cat, assembling a core of disciples, then threatening the power of the human legions and ultimately being put to sleep at the Animal Shelter only to rise from the dead three days later?

Harriet: I believe your thinking about that zombie movie Beth was watching that time.

Harriet: "The bushmen are totally relevant."

Tom: No, no. You know the story I’m talking about. A group of Wise Tabbies come from the East bringing gifts to the young kitten, they follow a star to find him, he’s got a halo on his head …

Taylor: Again with the Wise Tabbies, huh? You made up that story yourself just to make you and your kind look good.

Harriet: Everybody knows Tabbies have a mean streak. That story doesn’t hold any water.

[Again, a fight ensues, this time with all three chasing each other up and down the hallway.]

Me: Look, it’s obvious you’re all a little out of sorts at the moment. Let me feed you your dinner and we’ll finish our discussion when saner heads can prevail. Kitty, kitty, kitty! Who wants some cat food? Kitty, kitty, kitty.

[All telepathy is temporarily halted as Harriet, Taylor and Tom rush to their food bowls, and wolf down their meals.]

Tomorrow’s installment: We discuss the secular side of Christmas.

Revisited: Getting into the Christmas spirit

December 18, 2010

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m definitely starting to get into the Christmas spirit. But if being joyful and merry means I have to start being nice to people, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to make that commitment.

See, I have a problem with goodwill toward men. I’m usually too impatient going about my daily activities to take the time to stop, chat, and have something akin to normal social relationships. It seems that if you took every opportunity during the course of a day to “chew the fat” with every acquaintance you met, your arteries would be hopelessly clogged and you’d never get anything done, except perhaps an emergency balloon angioplasty, and you’d have to squeeze that in.

Take, for example, my almost-daily stop at a cafe near my house, where I’m working right now. There are several regulars that join me each afternoon, and by “join” I mean that we share approximately the same coordinates on the face of the globe. (Once, we shared exactly the same coordinates, but that’s only because they didn’t look behind themselves before sitting down). I’ll exchange at most a nod with these folks, because I’ve seen what happens when you do anything more.

This one guy in particular is also working on his blog, as well as a book about why African-Americans should be flocking to the Republican Party (talk about a Christmas miracle). I’m not sure how he gets any work done, as he’s constantly shooting the breeze with baristas, cashiers, and anybody else that comes within a six-foot radius.

“Are you on Facebook?” he asks the blood-spattered EMT tech who stopped for a quick double espresso. “What’s your email address again?” he inquires of a passing toddler.

The other day he sighed loudly and said, to no one in particular, “I’m so glad I’m almost finished writing this book.”

“Oh, you’re working on a book?” the friendly man sitting behind him might ask, though it’d probably be the last thing he says for the next half-hour.

I am not that friendly man. I’m the bitter curmudgeon who responds in one of two ways when I see a familiar face enter the store — I switch to the other side of the table to put my back toward the door, or I’m suddenly transported into ultra-focused concentration on my work, internally debating the merits of comma or semicolon, dashes or parenthetical aside, new paragraph or yet another run-on. (Oh, damn, here he comes anyway.)

However, it’s Christmastime, and even I am experiencing a buoyant spirit that pushes me beyond my normal inhibitions. I want to do something to reach out to others and share in the seasonal cheer, but I don’t want it to be mistaken for anything more than a limited-time offer. Don’t expect this kind of amity when January rolls around, because I’ve got the whole month penciled in for being dour.

Maybe I could just hand out twenty-dollar bills. I tried that once with the homeless guy off the interstate exit ramp, however I ended up beaten in a culvert three states over.

What I’m considering now is, for me, a radical step. I’m thinking of attending a holiday church service. This would allow me to kill two birds with one stone: devote a concentrated period to fellowship then get on with my life, and also soak up a little of the yuletide pageantry that I seem to be lacking in the broken 1989 Mannheim Steamroller cassette that continuously loops through the same song and a half. Three birds, actually, if you count saving my soul from eternal damnation.

I come from a Christian family tradition, and regularly attended church as a youth, until I was confirmed at age 15 and promptly found better things to do. I have extremely fond memories of those times, as they’ve now become a colorful blur that fortunately excludes those excruciating sermons about how it’s good to be good, and bad to be bad. The music and decorations and family warmth, though, were wonderful.

So I made a tentative recon sortie this past weekend, attending a “cookie walk” at the local Methodist church. Not exactly a formal date on the liturgical calendar, the annual sweets sale on the second weekend of December does provide a great opportunity to get a quick taste of the season with minimal human interaction. For $6, you get a small box from a friendly-but-distracted church lady, then walk down a row of decorated tables, pointing at the baked goods you want to be stuffed into your box. It’s a little like communion, only these dispensers handle the goods with sanitary gloves and don’t mumble quite as much.

I made my way down the aisle with limited conversation, mostly a mix of “that one,” “this looks good” and “are those chocolate chips or raisins?” I was friendly without being grating, sincere without being affected, and completely superficial, just as I like it.

When my box was full, I headed to a cake table where another slightly more eager Methodist stood watch. As I admired the Amish friendship bread, I heard the question I feared: “What church do you attend?”

“Uh, none locally,” I stammered, hoping she’d think I was from a land far away.

But now, I’m thinking I might be ready for a deeper experience that centers more on my eternal soul and less on my weakness for red-sprinkled shortbreads shaped like Santa. I’m looking at the church directory in our local newspaper for a house of worship that might possibly accommodate my belief that it’s possible a single small South Carolina parish is not the only group to have cornered the market on everlasting life. As you might imagine, there are many that don’t look particularly hopeful: the Real Life Assembly of God, the New Vision Freewill Baptist Church and the Calvary Ultimate Life Shield of Faith Evangelical Ministry, to mention a few.

These don’t sound especially flexible in their theology (though I bet all the jumping up and down they do makes them quite agile physically), so I harken back to my Lutheran heritage. There’s a Missouri Synod branch called Epiphany Lutheran, though I believe I read that this synod maintains a strict belief in bad pro football teams (the Kansas City Chiefs, the St. Louis Rams, etc., hardly what you’d call solid rocks on which to build a church, especially their offensive lines). There’s Emmanuel Lutheran on Main Street, probably the town’s old-school congregation with old-school parishioners.

I think I’m going to choose Grace Lutheran, not far from the local college. It offers both traditional and contemporary services and has a pastor named E. Ray Mohrmann, a great name for a Lutheran. They do claim to have communion at all services, not something I’d necessarily brag about but not a deal-breaker for me. Maybe there will also be communion in a larger sense, and I’ll get the chance to fraternize with cheerful, Christmas-addled types and consume wheat-based foodstuffs at the same time.

“Take and eat, for this is the Body of Christ,” I imagine E. Ray will ask me. And I’ll be ready to respond: “Thanks for the snack. Hope you’re ready for the holidays. Have you gotten all your shopping done? I can’t believe those lines at the post office. I hear we might get some snow next week. Give my best to your family.”