Radishes and radicals

Twice a year, I clear out our chicken coop, piling up the pine shavings and poop against the fence to cure over the course of 6 months. If I were to put it straight on the vegetable beds, the ammonia would burn the plants, so I give it plenty of time to break down before it’s ready to apply to the soil.

This spring I dressed the beds as normal with that nutrient-rich mix a couple of weeks before planting greens, lettuce, beets, carrots, parsnips and radishes. I love radishes. Not just for the crunch and their peppery flavor, but because they’re ready to harvest in 30 days – the first fruits of the soil every spring. They were the first seeds to germinate, and after such a long winter, I felt a little giddy to see those beautiful spring-green shoots start to emerge from the rich loam. And then they just kept growing. And growing. And growing. I’d never seen growth like it. At first, I was excited – how big are the radishes going to be this year?! – but then I began to think something was not quite right. So, I gently pulled back the soil from the base of one plant to check on the growth of the root, and as I did so, the plant began to fall over. I eased it out of the soil so as not to disturb others and found a slender root – not the swelling bulb I had expected to find. I was truly impressed that that tiny root could support that much growth above ground! But all the energy was going into the leaves, and not the root. And what I’m interested in is the root.

Consulting the oracle of Facebook, my friend and farmer Bill Guerrant (author of the delightful novel, Jim Wrenn) diagnosed the problem: too much nitrogen. Now, nitrogen is essential for green growth, and I must say the kale, collards and mustard greens were very happy this year. But the root crops? Not so much. Where had that excess nitrogen come from? Well, we endured a lengthy and very cold winter, and obviously that pile of poop and pine shavings had not cured enough, and so it appears I have ruined any chance of root crops this year.

My garden has much to teach me, if only I’ll pay attention. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, but is only one among many. Clearly when it comes to nitrogen, you can have too much of a good thing. Someone with no knowledge of vegetables may have seen all that leafy green growth above ground and been impressed. But all that visible display was at the expense of the root, which is where the goodness lies.

The garden teaches me more than just how to grow food. It teaches me how to grow a life that is in harmony with the One who creates life, and – for me – a life that more faithfully embodies the radical nature of the Way of Jesus. There are all kinds of good things I can do towards that end, but the danger is always to over-emphasize one at the expense of others. Mine is reading. I would happily spend all the hours available to me to read, and probably still never finish all the books on our shelves at home. But that just fills me with what my dad always called “head knowledge.” Valuable to a point, but not an end in and of itself. To get the true benefit of reading requires taking time to reflect on what I’ve read. To enter into conversation about it with others; to listen to what the Spirit is saying; and then to embody what I’m learning through action. When those things are in balance in my life, it begins to bear fruit that serves more than just myself.

What are you tempted to over-emphasize in your life? Endless discussion (or arguing!) over important things on social media – or in person – without taking time to be better informed about those things? Or maybe you’re prone to action: you’re out there “doing it,” but at the expense of relationships, or your health (physical, emotional and/or mental). Perhaps you’re prone to endless reflection: to the point where you find it difficult to take action, or to contribute to the conversation, “in case I’m wrong.”

Now, people may look on at our lives and be impressed by all our passionate talking. Or our activism. Or our thoughtful reflection. Or even our library. Lots of leafy green to admire in our lives. But if we scrape back the soil, maybe we’ll only find a slender root, barely holding us up. And when something disturbs the soil in which we’re planted, we’re in danger of falling. A productive, fruitful life requires all those things. Such a life truly becomes “radical” (a word derived from the Latin word for root, radix).

What’s your “nitrogen”? What do you over-emphasize in your life that keeps you from growing the strong roots necessary for the sustainable and fruit-bearing growth for which you were made? How might you begin to right-size that, and give yourself to the other things that together make for a healthy, productive life?

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A painless anniversary


A year ago today I was lying on a hospital bed, awaiting a second surgery to address the staph infection that had developed in my knee following a routine ACL replacement procedure. Some surgical thread had been left in my thigh following the original surgery, which had apparently provided a pathway for the staphylococci bacteria on my skin to make its way into my knee joint, eventuating in a midnight trip to the Emergency Room two months later.

My memories of those first few days in hospital are somewhat hazy. Mostly they consist of the electronic sounds of medical machinery, the constant darkness of the room, and people in masks leaning over me to draw blood, give me oral meds, take my temperature and blood pressure, and whatever else is involved in treating a serious infection. I also remember the strong scent of deodorant or perfume that lingered after the nurses left the room, mostly because it triggered the nausea that was a never-distant part of my overall misery.

The one crystal clear memory I have is of a brief period of profound fear when I believed I was going to die. I realize now that, until that moment, I had never seriously considered my own mortality. Sure, I knew that I would die like everybody else who has ever lived, but that was a distant reality, just another piece of information  about life which I possessed (albeit, a significant one), and one that I had never – apparently – truly internalized. I confess that after the intensity of the fear passed, I was shaken by the experience. In the lonely hours of the night, unable to sleep, the echoes of that fear would re-surface like waves lapping at the shore, and as I became more coherent, I began to wonder about these feelings. Didn’t I believe in the resurrection of the body? In “life after life after death,” as N. T. Wright is fond of saying? Had I not spoken of the “sure hope of the resurrection” at funerals at which I had presided? Was I not confident that death does not have the last word in life: God does? And yet there I was, in the wee hours, fighting off the fear of death.

I didn’t appear to be making much progress physically, and my surgeon became concerned that a pocket of bacteria somewhere on the pathway created by that thread was “re-seeding” the joint, and decided another surgery was necessary. And so, one year ago today, I was taken down from my room to a freezing cold surgical waiting area to await the surgeon’s arrival from another hospital. The nursing staff had stopped giving me pain medication in anticipation of the surgery, but unfortunately the surgeon was delayed, which necessitated my first and only experience with Fentanyl, which truly is a powerful and scary drug. As I look down at the six inch scar which holds the memory of that second (and successful) surgery, I am truly grateful to be alive, to have had access to healthcare, and to have had only a brief brush with opioid addiction during the whole experience (which I wrote about here).

At this point, you might expect me to pen something inspiring, perhaps about my determination to “make every moment count” following that experience. But the truth is, I have made no such declarations. I’m on what is proving to be a long and slow road to a full-ish recovery. I worked hard at physical therapy, and am able to kick a soccer ball around with my kids’ team (though I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to sit back on my heels again, which really bugs me). But it’s the mental and emotional recovery that has been hardest. I didn’t sleep well for three months, and my mental acuity has suffered for it. I often struggle to focus on the task at hand. My short term memory is filled with holes. I find myself fighting off anxiety in lots of areas that I have never had to before. And I allow my inner critic way too much head space. This infection and all that came with it have knocked me far further back than I could have anticipated.

Nevertheless. (One of my favorite words, and the word which Walter Brueggemann says summarizes the entire Hebrew scriptures.) There are other memories from that time that offset the painful ones. Hearing my daughter Maggie play one of the piano pieces she was learning a year ago evokes the memory of her and her brother playing the piano for me while I was in withdrawal from the opioids I had been prescribed, and which eased the misery for a while. Kicking back the leg rest on the recliner my sister-in-law Erin bought for me after she drove from Illinois to care for our kids so Rebecca could be with me. Neighbors who put their hands in their pockets to offset the financial challenge that season presented. Members of First Presbyterian Church who brought meals several times a week in the month after I got out of hospital. And the hundreds of people who left encouraging words on my Facebook wall, and who prayed for me throughout the worst of it. Those memories provide comfort when the waves of fear still lap at the shore on the nights I can’t sleep, and invite me to turn again to the God whose Presence I felt in those acts of kindness.

I still have a way to go. But I am, indeed, going, and that is something I celebrate today.

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Four 3-word sentences that lead to wisdom

It’s no secret that my favourite fiction genre is the murder mystery. And of the many, many detective series I read, my favourite character without question is Louise Penny’s creation, Inspector Armand Gamache of the Québec Sûreté. If you’ve never visited the village of Three Pines, I encourage you to begin with his first outing, Still Life.

The Inspector sometimes invites police officers to join his team who are faltering in their career, because he sees something in them that their superior officers do not. Often they are flawed individuals, wrestling with personal demons. Perhaps that’s why I like Gamache so much. They soon learn that Gamache’s approach to policing begins with four simple 3-word sentences that, in his words, “lead to wisdom.” I think they’re helpful for more than just police officers, and so they’re posted on mirrors in our home as a reminder:

Perhaps you’ll find them helpful as well.

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The Naked Man – pt. 51

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

The awkward silence that fell across the courtyard following Yiftach’s outburst was broken by Rachel. As all eyes turned towards her, her own were turned towards Yiftach, a mixture of compassion and disquiet writ large on her face. As she began to speak, her gaze turned to Mark. “I confess I also find it hard to believe that someone could walk on waves. It is…unprecedented.” Her eyes lost focus, imagining the scene. “But what I find almost harder to believe is that Jesus – seeing their obvious distress – would just walk past them. I mean, he’s the one who sent them out across the lake after all. You’d think if he really could go out there, he’d want to help them!”

Before Mark could respond, Simeon interjected. “Your choice of words is interesting, Yohannan. ‘He intended to pass them by.’ Does that mean what my young friend here suggests? That Jesus was merely taking the shortest route to the other side while his friends in the boat fought the waves and the wind? Or are you possibly alluding to something else?” Mark raised an eyebrow and gestured for Simeon to continue his line of thought. “I’m sure it was disturbing to see a figure above the storm-whipped waves. To be struggling at the oars, and then see someone out there. Someone who intended to pass them by? I hear echoes of our people’s story in those words.”

As Simeon paused to take a quick drink from his cup, Rachel spoke up. “I don’t think I hear those echoes. What do you mean?” Simeon nodded to himself, as he continued. “I’m thinking of Moses, and the time when G_d assured him that G_d’s presence would go with the people as they journeyed to the Promised Land. Do you remember?” Rachel shook her head slowly. “It was the time when Moses asked to see G_d’s glory.” He paused, and the light of recognition came to Rachel’s eyes. She smiled, and said, “And G_d put Moses in the cleft of the rock and covered him until G_d had passed by. Then G_d took G_d’s hand away so Moses could see G_d’s back.”

Adina leaned forward and spoke. “And it’s like Elijah! When he was afraid of Jezebel, and on the run. He was in a cave, and the Lord passed him by – in a strong wind! No, wait, he wasn’t in the storm. G_d was in the gentle breeze that came after.” “Indeed,” responded Simeon. “Both men were afraid, and G_d passed them by, to reassure them.”

“Well,” Mark said, “Peter told me that the twelve certainly were afraid when they saw him walking on the sea. They supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke with them and said to them, ‘Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.’” Yiftach found himself drawn into the story despite himself. “The fishermen in my village often spoke of water spirits – ghosts at night – who could bring disaster upon them in an instant, dragging their boats down into the depths. I’m sure the twelve were terrified!”

“And,” Simeon added, “Jesus’ response is to reassure them with the words G_d so often speaks to the terrified, ‘Do not be afraid.’” He looked at Mark. “I am curious as to the exact words Jesus spoke when he said, ‘It is I.’ Or word, perhaps?” Mark smiled. “Indeed, one word. The word. HaShem.” He turned to Rachel. “Jesus did not abandon them. He got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly  astonished,  for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened. Exhausted from straining against a fierce wind, drained by the terror they had felt, in some ways it’s no wonder they’re astonished. Perhaps they hadn’t taken time to reflect on their experience of that remarkable meal with the crowds on the hillside. Or perhaps they really were just obtuse.

“Whatever the case, as we discussed a few nights ago, they would come to understand the larger purpose of this sea crossing – and the previous one – in the years to come. It prepared them for the conflicts that arose concerning the inclusion of the gentiles. For the pain and chaos caused when people disagree about who belongs.” As Mark said this, he saw Yiftach shift in his seat, a look of anguish flashing across his face. Ah, something has happened. He decided to dismiss the gathering, and, after offering a blessing, strode across the courtyard to catch Yiftach before he could leave…

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Best books of 2017

Here’s my annual ‘best fiction books’ list with suggestions for your next library outing. As always, the list includes books published during and before 2017. A couple of surgeries, hospitalization and a lengthy recovery provided plenty of time to read this year – 88 books in total, and I surpassed 30,000 pages for the first time. (Click here for previous years’ fiction lists: 2014, 2015, 2016).

For the second year running, Fredrik Backman provided my favourite novel: Beartown. Set in a small, dying “hockey town” in Sweden, all eyes are on the junior team who have reached the national semi-finals. If they win the title, the town has a chance of securing the new youth academy, with the attendant much-needed economic boost. All eyes are on the star player to deliver the goods – until he rapes the daughter of the club’s general manager at a team party. As always, Backman’s characters are exquisitely drawn, and his portrayal of what an act of sexual violence does to individuals and a tight-knit community is both unflinching and unsentimental, as the hopes of a town collide with the needs of its wounded. A powerful narrative in the year of #metoo.

A close second is Britt-Marie Was Here by the same author. Another story about a town in economic decline, a character from a previous novel “accidentally” becomes the coach of the local kids’ soccer team, and the narrative unfolds in Backman’s customary laugh out loud and heartbreaking style.

The stand out in adolescent literature was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a remarkable debut novel. High school student Starr is with her friend Khalil when he is shot and killed by a police officer. What could have been a one-dimensional story unfolds instead in a powerful, multi-faceted narrative, exploring the impact of US structural racism on individuals, families and communities. Her portrayal of the struggle for justice is harrowing yet hopeful. Simply stunning.

Libby, the protagonist of Jennifer Nixon’s Holding Up the Universe, enters High School in her junior year following years of being home-schooled. When her classmates discover she was “America’s Fattest Teen” years ago, one – Jack – humiliates her, and then slowly attempts to make it right. I found myself cheering for both of them – Libby’s solid sense of self and dignity offering Jack the chance to so some introspection of his own.

Other enjoyable reads in adolescent lit were Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac, an original take on paranormal powers drawing on First Peoples’ traditions; Turtles All The Way Down by John Green (of course); and Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, a delightful underdog story in which a non-conformist black student athlete in a predominantly white Spokane school forms a swim team (in a school with no pool) so a collection of outsiders have a shot at getting a much-coveted letter jacket.

In the dystopian genre, David William’s beautiful and haunting When the English Fall is unusual in that it describes the beginning of the collapse of civilization. We read about the solar event which plunges the world into chaos through the pages of an Amish farmer’s journal. Gentle, and truly disturbing. I also enjoyed Parable of the Sower, my first experience of powerhouse author Octavia E. Butler’s novels.

In straight up sci-fi, I thoroughly enjoyed a romp through my adolescent geek memories in Ernest Cline’s excellent debut novel Ready Player One. Wade Watts spends the majority of his life inside the OASIS – a massive virtual reality world – trying to solve the puzzles its creator left behind, the prize for solving them being to inherit his fortune and the entire system. But an evil corporation will go to any lengths to get there first, so it can monetize the project. Soon to be a Spielberg movie, with – no doubt – an awesome 80s soundtrack. I also read Red Mars, the first volume in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic and dense trilogy about terraforming Mars, primarily because I knew it inspired my favorite boardgame of the same name. Heavy on the science, but it has certainly heightened my enjoyment of the game.

In fantasy lit, I continue to be impressed with Brandon Sanderson’s remarkable world-making skills. I finished his excellent Mistborn series with The Hero of Ages, the remarkable conclusion to a compelling story. The world is threatened by both the ever-present mists and the now-falling ash, and the final confrontation between the main protagonists and Ruin, the manifestation of evil, is at hand. The messy complexity of individual agency in the age-old narrative of good vs evil: it doesn’t get any better than this.

In murder mysteries, I discovered William Brodrick’s Father Anselm series at the end of the year with The Discourtesy of Death, and I look forward to reading more in the year to come. But once again, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache was the stand out mystery of the year. In his latest outing – Glass Houses – Penny incorporates the current opioid crisis into Gamache’s ongoing narrative, as well as delving into the idea of “breaking the law for the sake of a Higher Law.” Simply superb, as always. If you haven’t visited Three Pines yet, I suggest you run, not walk, to the library and spend some time with its memorable inhabitants.

In “old friends,” my wife Rebecca read one of our favorite novels to me while I was in the hospital. An Alien at St Wilfred’s by British author Adrian Plass is a gentle, humorous and tender story about a small group of parishioners who start meeting weekly with their vicar and Nunc, a strange little visitor, who has something to tell them. Certain passages still bring me to tears. As do many in possibly my favourite novel ever, Skallagrigg by William Horwood, which I re-read over Christmas. Both of these beloved novels are hard to find in the US, but if you ever see a copy, grab it!

Finally, in the “give it a miss” category is The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. This appeared in a list of ‘must read’ books, but having read it, I have to disagree. An annual fundraiser for a Catholic day-school provides the vehicle for human cruelty, focused on one unfortunate freshman. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about the story that ensues, something which the author is unapologetic for, if not even proud.

Well, I hope you find a novel or two that draws your interest in this list, and I hope they provide as much enjoyment for you as they did for me.

(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library.)

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Augmented reality

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a tenuous relationship with technology. I need a lot of help. When you say, “Oh, I just love [x] – it’s so intuitive,” I hear, “Oh, something else Sean will have a hard time using.” I’m not a Luddite. I own a smartphone, I’m typing this on the laptop a friend recommended would meet my needs and budget (which computing power and capabilities I’m sure I’m using about 0.3% of). But I confess that just about the time I’m getting comfortable with one OS, there have been three new versions, of which I finally have to update to the latest because apps stop working, and when I do I can’t find what I’m looking for or it looks different or it’s changed to be more intuitive and my brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s apparently. “They’re just tools,” I hear you say. Well, I know how to use a hammer. Or a screwdriver. Or a table saw, even. But my phone is still a bit of a mystery to me.

I’m a fan of dystopian science fiction. Most such novels are set in futures where technology has reverted to far more primitive forms, and despite the overall horror of the varied imagined future worlds, I take a kind of perverse comfort in the thought that my intuition might serve me well there. Last night I finished “When the English Fall“, which is the rare novel in this genre which describes the beginning of the apocalyptic scenario, rather than its future. The story unfolds through the pages of the journal kept by an Amish farmer before and after an event that wipes out the electrical systems that make modern life what it is. As his neighbors – who do not grow, can and preserve their own food as the plain folk do – run out of food, society begins the slide into violence that characterizes such fiction. But it is the gentle description of the daily activities of this farmer’s family that captivated me, as well as their generous faith when “the English” begin to suffer.

That story stands in stark contrast to the other dystopian novel I read recently, “Ready Player One“, which anyone who was a geek in the ’80s will love, as I did (think, ZX Spectrum 48K, the last time I felt somewhat confident in front of a computer). A current bestseller five years after publication (thanks to the announcement that Steven Spielberg is going to direct the movie adaptation), this story is set in a future where the vast majority of people live in utterly desperate straits, and so choose to “live” in the world of virtual reality. Thanks to free access to a global online network, in which you can ‘physically’ interact with the environment and others through a visor and gloves, the protagonist tries to solve a puzzle left behind by the network’s creator. Given the choice between sitting in squalor in trailers stacked 30 units high, or exploring the virtual world, it’s no wonder most choose the latter.

The power of dystopian fiction – as with most science fiction – is that it takes what is happening now and looks ahead to what that might mean for the future, and the vision is usually quite alarming. A couple of articles I read over the last few months heightened the drama of both these novels for me. Both articles concerned ‘augmented reality,’ “Tech’s next battleground” as the first article claimed (published in ‘The Week – subscription required to read, I’m afraid). The article concluded with a statement made by Apple CEO Tim Cook, following the release of the latest iOS that includes ARKit, which will allow app developers to integrate augmented reality into their products: “AR is big and profound. This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it.” Currently a couple of popular apps allow you to ‘see’ furniture in your home before purchasing it, or – in a companion app to ‘The Walking Dead’ – see zombies walking alongside real people in the street and ‘shoot’ them.

In this article on the BBC’s website, you can read about the app “AR City” which will allow you to view your surroundings through your phone and see information like this:

Not only can it get you from A to B without GPS, it can tell you what’s available to eat nearby, or the history of that building in front of you. All very helpful and fascinating I’m sure. And all designed to keep us staring at our phone screens. Interacting with technology and not the physical environment – or each other. Rather than ask someone for directions, or for a suggestion as to where to get a bite to eat, we can now get that information from a screen – how convenient.

I read the Week’s article just before I left one of the local coffee shops to walk home for lunch. As I walked, I thought about the article. I passed my daughter’s school, and as I saw the wide swaths of grass that are mowed weekly during the summer, in their place I envisioned small orchards of fruit trees, and raised beds of vegetables that could provide fresh produce for the cafeteria, and educational opportunities for the students. And I was suddenly struck by this thought:

“Augmented reality:” what we used to call “imagination.”

When we were kids and walking home from youth group, we didn’t stare at screens and try to avoid animated zombies: we ducked behind actual walls and gates, trying to avoid being ‘seen’ by car headlights. When I walk through my neighborhood, I don’t stare at a screen with an overlay that changes what I’m seeing in some way: I greet neighbors sitting on their stoops, I wonder what that flower is, I notice that the plums on the big tree down the street are almost ripe. I imagine that vacant lot filled with perennial berry bushes and beds of greens. I don’t see the information someone else provides in order to keep me looking at a screen so they can charge someone for advertising products to me I don’t need: I see the world as it is, and imagine what it could be.

That, to me, is part of what it means to heed the words of Jesus in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which thanks to my childhood church, I will always hear in King James’ English: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” What will be added? Food and clothing, the basic things of life. Things that I take for granted, but which many of my neighbors struggle to find at the end of the month. I could walk around my neighborhood and fight off hordes of zombies, pausing every now and then to watch a video advertising a gadget that promises to improve my life, or make me the envy of my neighbors, or whatever. (An ad which I suspect most people are actually watching the timer telling them how long they have to wait before getting back to the zombies rather than the video itself.) Or I could walk around my neighborhood and imagine more community gardens, more perennial fruit and nut trees, a small business in that boarded up store – that imagination calling forth action from me to work with others to make those things a reality. So our neighbors have better access to things we all actually need.

I’m not sure augmented reality is what we need. What we need is a healthy imagination, a Kin-dom imagination, a vision of a future that works for all of us, a future where we are more present to one another, and not less. So, the next time you go for a walk, keep your phone in your pocket. Look around. See the world as it is – and imagine it as it could be. Then let’s work together to make it a reality.

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Harvest thanksgiving and gratitude

During the month of November, our faith community, the Fig Tree Collective, is exploring the practice of gratitude. We began with an adaptation of an experience that hearkens back to my childhood in England – a harvest thanksgiving service.

Growing up, I have memories from both church and school of tables groaning under the weight of root vegetables, loaves of bread, tinned goods and other food items, which we admired as we sang hymns like ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter.’ Later the food was distributed to “those less fortunate than ourselves.” Those are fond memories, and elementary age children are still creating those memories  in schools today.

For our gathering this past Saturday I invited people to bring a food item that they loved and place it on the table that sits in the middle of our gathering. After our weekly potluck meal, we sang ‘Come, Ye Thankful People Come’ and then participated in an Examen, a practice that our family engages in at the end of every day. An Examen is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the day, and is often structured with these two questions:

  • “What am I most grateful for today?”
  • “What am I least grateful for today?”

Sometimes we change up the questions, asking, “What was your happy thing today?” and “What was your not-so-happy thing today?” Or, “What was the honey in your day?” and “What was the sting in your day?” For our time together in Saturday, I invited people to lift up the food that they had brought, and share why they were thankful for it, and then describe something about food for which they were not grateful.

Our daughter, Maggie, lifted up a Gold Rush apple from our favorite local tree and berry farm, Reed Valley Orchard. Gold Rush are crisp, sweet and long keepers, and our winter staple apple. Maggie’s ‘not-so-happy’ thing was that most of her classmates at school had never tasted Gold Rush goodness, and only knew the (not-so-holy) trinity of waxy Red & Golden Delicious and Granny Smith typically available in most grocery stores. Our son, Seth, brought blueberries from Reed Valley that we picked and froze in July, and which we will add to our hot breakfast cereal throughout the winter.

Some of us brought food we had grown ourselves: figs (of course!), a jar of homemade pesto, volunteer butternut squash from a compost pile. We were thankful for access to land and good soil to grow food, and not-so-thankful for people who are denied that. We were grateful for the people who work hard to grow our food, and not-so-grateful for the abuse this vulnerable labor force often suffers. I brought an empty egg carton, because I am grateful for the eggs our backyard flock provides, although as they’re moulting in preparation for winter, they’ve stopped laying, for which I am not-so-grateful. I am least grateful for the conditions in which the vast majority of chickens that provide eggs for our tables live.

Someone gave thanks for the tomatoes that a neighbor had shared with them. Another brought a bar of Swiss chocolate, expressing gratitude for the luxury of it, while being not-so-grateful for the way that luxuries so easily become necessities, and the consequences that come with that. Another person brought a jar of popcorn, grateful for the daily routine of air-popping a bowlful which he has enjoyed for two decades, not-so-grateful for the harm that industrially farmed corn has done to land, ecosystems and bodies.

Each item of food came with a story, a mixture of the good and the not-so-good, relationships whole and severed, food that provides a living and food that has decimated local economies. And in the midst of them all were the bread and the cup, the Eucharist, the meal we share each week that reminds us that the source of all life underwent death so that all the not-so-good and the downright evil can be restored, redeemed, made new – not least of all ourselves.

Expressing gratitude is a balm for much of which ails us as a society. We are continually encouraged to be selfish, self-centered, judgmental of others, by the actions of those in the highest offices of our country, in the ads that litter our visual space, and across social media. We are continually encouraged to view the world through the lens of scarcity, that there’s isn’t enough for everyone so you better get yours while you can. We swim in an ocean of judgment: of others, certainly, but also of ourselves. It’s all too easy to focus on the little things that need ‘fixing’ in others – especially the ones that push our buttons – while overlooking all the good things about that person. Some of us do this to ourselves constantly, and our perfectionism can be crippling.

Gratitude is a practice that helps us resist these cultural forces. When we’re grateful, we’re often focusing on others: it’s hard to be grateful and selfish at the same time. It’s easier to overlook the things that bug us about a person when we’re grateful for all the things we love about them. The power of the narrative of scarcity is weakened when we’re grateful for what we do have, and not just resentful about what we don’t have. When we practice gratitude, the unrealistic and unfair expectations we often have for others – and ourselves – become right-sized.

So, for the month of November we’re seeking to more faithfully live into our mission, ‘To cultivate the loving way of life through compassionate, creative and collective action steeped in prayer,” with the practice of gratitude. We might choose to begin to practice an Examen at the end of each day. We might keep a logbook of what we were grateful for each day. We might think of people we’re grateful for, and do something kind for them.

To conclude our time together on Saturday, we took time to express gratitude in various ways. With a short playlist filling our ears with songs of gratitude, we took time to write a note to someone expressing our thankfulness for them; we lit candles to give thanks for people who brought light into one of the dark places of our lives; and we ate the bread and drank from the cup, giving thanks to Jesus for the gift of Life and Love that he offers us all. I wrote a note to Trudie and Dana Reed, thanking them for providing us with the fruit that we love, and for caring for the land on which it grows, a note which we all signed.

There are so many ways to practice our gratitude – what way could you incorporate into your own life this month?

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The Opioid Crisis – pt. 2

Last week I wrote about my experience of becoming physically addicted to Oxycodone earlier this year. That post was shared over 400 times on Facebook, and many people shared their own experiences with powerful opioid painkillers on my FB page. My guess is most people living in the US who are reading this know someone who shares my story, or knows someone who knows someone.

Last week the President of the United States declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency, although did not seek to appropriate any additional funds to deal with the emergency, as is typically done with health crises. The Center for Disease Control declared an opioid epidemic in 2011, and it has only gotten worse since then. Currently 142 Americans die EVERY DAY from an opioid overdose: that’s more than die from car crashes and gun homicides combined. Every three weeks, the US loses more citizens to opioid overdoses than died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Since 1999 the number of deaths has quadrupled. The increasing availability of fentanyl, which is up to 80 times more potent that morphine (most of which is produced in China, and often pressed into pill form that resembles Hydrocodone), is having a dramatic effect on overdose deaths. in 2015, 34% of opioid deaths in Kentucky were due to fentanyl: in 2016 that number rose to 47%. In 2013 there were 93 deaths in Ohio from fentanyl overdose: in 2014, that number more than quintupled to 514. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. The American Association of Addiction Medicine estimates that 2.5 million Americans have an opioid-use disorder, all of whom have a significantly increased risk of death by overdose. And with people turning to heroin, or crushing pills in order to inject the drug, we are also seeing a rise in the rate of HIV infection.

These numbers should shock us. The stereotypical image of someone who dies from a drug overdose for many of us is someone in a squalid apartment with a needle hanging out of their arm, perhaps with their dealer looking on unmoved. But now it is just as likely that that person is a stay at home mom in the suburbs who crushed what she thought was an OxyContin pill but instead ingested a lethal dose of fentanyl. Or who shot up heroin for the first time and died. Or it’s a miner in West Virginia living with chronic back pain who developed tolerance for the prescription he’s been taking for 3 years, and tried crushing it to remove the time release component in the hope of finding relief, but instead overdosed. Four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription opioids. And if you live in Ohio, where in 2016 one in five people received a prescription for an opioid, your chance of using an illicit opioid is significantly higher than someone living pretty much anywhere else in the world.

How did we get here? The answer is unambiguous: the over-prescribing of opioid painkillers in the United States. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in the US – one for every adult. In Kentucky, 128 prescriptions were written for every 100 people. The US consumes 99% of the world’s supply of Hydrocodone, and 71% of the Oxycodone.  You’ve probably heard of so-called “pill mills” which have now just about been eradicated: the most infamous was in Kermit, West Virginia (population 400) where 9 million pills were shipped in a single year. Why is the situation so much worse in the US than other countries? The BBC has a helpful article, the main points of which can be summarized:

  • Insurance typically does not cover alternative treatment for pain (e.g. physical therapy): its preferred modality is medication, which is much cheaper
  • Advertising: only New Zealand and the United States permit advertising for prescription medication on TV. For that reason, patients in the US are much more likely to request a particular drug from their doctor. This obviously works, as advertising costs rose 64% from 2012-2016, when the industry spent $6.4 billion.
  • Gifts to doctors by pharmaceutical companies have a direct correlation with their prescribing company’s products
  • Most doctors have little training in pain management beyond medication, and with the effects that medication has on patients
  • We live in a culture of medication: 97% of doctors in the US treat acute pain with opioids: by contrast, in Japan, that number is 47%.

My own experience bears this out. Following surgery, my surgeon prescribed Oxycodone without saying anything about the risks associated with opioids. After I was hospitalized, I met with my surgeon weekly, and at the end of every meeting he asked me if I needed another prescription for pain meds. When I began to experience severe withdrawal symptoms he admitted he didn’t know much about that side of the drug, and referred me to a pain management specialist.

Ultimately, as this lengthy article in the New Yorker describes, this national emergency can be laid at the feet of one family-run company. Purdue Pharmaceuticals developed OxyContin (for “continuous release”) and released it in 1995. They began to market their product aggressively in 1996, sending out over 1,000 reps to doctor’s offices around the country. Their primary task: to downplay if not outright deny the addictive potential of this new drug. Within 5 years, OxyContin was generating a billion dollars a year for the Sackler family. Purdue marketed it’s benefit as continual pain relief from just two pills a day. Their 80mg and even 160mg pills meant people could get a solid 8 hours sleep without being woken by pain. A wonder drug indeed. But from the earliest days of testing, the company knew that not all, if even most people actually experienced 12 hours relief. “Prescribing a pill on a 12 hour schedule when, for many patients, it works for only eight is a recipe for withdrawal, addiction and abuse.” And that was exactly what unfolded.

Fast forward ten years, and in 2006 Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misbranding, acknowledging that it had marketed OxyContin “with the intent to defraud, or mislead.” Three company executives received probation and paid nearly $35 million in fines. Purdue paid an additional $600 million. But given the billions of dollars their product had already made, many critics saw this as an (expensive) slap on the wrist, given the level of misery their product has caused American families.

In 2015, the state of Kentucky brought a case against Purdue for deceptive marketing that had initially been filed in 2008. The trial was set to be held in Pike County, but Purdue sought to have it moved, believing they could not get a fair trial there. They financed a demographic study to bolster they claim, which only proved the case for the state: 29% of respondents reported that they or a family member knew someone who died from using OxyContin. Nearly half of the 1997 Pikesville High School football team had died of overdoses or were addicted to opioids. The judge in the case ruled it could not be moved, and Purdue settled for $24 million, without admitting liability. That amount is utterly incommensurate with Pike County’s need because of the epidemic they are experiencing. Currently ten other states are bringing cases against Purdue.

Purdue now acknowledges openly that patients will likely develop physical dependence (as I did) but they claim this is different from addiction. But if people find themselves unable to stop taking a drug for fear of crippling withdrawal, “at a certain point that might as well be addiction.” With the market shrinking in the US, Purdue are now turning their sights to the global market, which means, tragically, that the US may soon not be in a unique situation regarding our opioid epidemic.

But it’s not only Purdue. Another company has brought a new opioid painkiller to the market – Zohydro. When abused, it is up to 10 times stronger than any other version of Hydrocodone available, which begs the question, why on earth do we need this drug? And why did the FDA approve it, given the resistance from multiple medical organizations, and the current national emergency?

So, what is to be done? Clearly it begins with addressing the points the BBC article makes. And with providing long-term treatment for those suffering from opioid addiction. With no additional funds for any of this being requested by the current administration, where should we look? Perhaps to the companies that have made billions of dollars from the misery of their fellow citizens.

(Much of the statistical material in this post came from a lecture I attended recently given by Rich Wheeler, LPCC, who works in an in-patient drug treatment facility in Kentucky.)

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The Opioid Crisis – pt. 1

As I entered my fiftieth year of life, I decided I would take up indoor soccer again. A few months later, that decision led to a torn ACL and meniscus injuries, and in March this year I went under the knife to have the ACL reconstructed. My surgeon prescribed a 30 day supply of oxycodone for pain relief. As I sat in a chair or lay on my back over those first few days post-surgery, I was grateful for the relief, and that the drugs also allowed me to get straight into physical therapy.

Around day 4 or 5 I noticed a difference. Every six hours I popped a pill, but on this particular occasion, within a short time I was feeling something new. A focusing of the mind that I had not had because of sleepless nights from my inability to sleep on my back. I suddenly felt like all those writing projects bouncing around in my head were possible. And I felt a feeling I can only describe as something like euphoria.

And I really, really, liked that feeling.

But then the feeling went away. Just thirty minutes later and I was back to my fatigued, incapacitated self. Where everything looked bleak, when all those ideas that had come into sharp focus returned to their jumbled selves, and all I wanted to do was watch hours of original programming on Amazon Prime (The Grand Tour, actually, of which my daughter observed, “Since when have you been interested in cars, papa?”). As I glanced up at the mantelpiece in our bedroom and saw the line of orange bottles containing all the prescription medication I was taking, the smallest – the one with the Oxycodone in it – began to take on an almost mystical glow. “I could feel that feeling again, if I just took another one of those.” I didn’t need it for pain in that moment, but I wanted that feeling back. And then I had a moment of clarity: This is why people get addicted to opioids.

Many of the victims of the opioid epidemic in the USA are people not that different than myself. Perhaps they, too, had surgery, or began to experience chronic pain, and a doctor or surgeon prescribed a 30 day supply of opioids, and just like that, they began to chase that same feeling. Because, I confess, it is pretty wonderful. And I am familiar with all the mental games we can play to shut down the voice that suggests this might not be a good idea. “The doctor prescribed them, so they can’t be that bad, right?” “I’m heading out and need to feel OK, so why wait another 3 hours for the next dose?” “Look how much work I can get done – I’ll just keep taking them till I catch up…” Yes, I understand why people can become addicted to opioids.

I also understand why people stay addicted.

I developed a staph infection post-surgery, and ended up in the hospital for a week, with a couple more surgeries to try and deal with the infection. I was still taking Oxycodone, but also receiving morphine through an IV “as needed” following the third surgery. The pain in my knee from both the infection and the surgeries was pretty significant, and again, I was glad to experience the relief the drugs provided. When I was discharged, IV drugs were obviously no longer available, and my surgeon increased the amount of Oxycodone I was taking “to compensate.” I was now taking three times as much as when I first began taking it two months earlier.

The pain dropped off pretty quickly, and about 10 days after I was discharged, I reduced the amount I was taking to the initial dose. And immediately went into withdrawal, as I had become physically addicted to the drug. I can only describe the experience as similar to a really bad bout of flu. My body ached, I had chills, I stumbled rather than walked and my speech became slurred. I was curled up in a ball on the couch, utterly miserable. And I didn’t understand what was going on. It didn’t cross my mind at first that I was in withdrawal as I was still taking the drug. But the dropoff in dosage had been precipitous, and that triggered withdrawal. What I did understand all too well was that when I took the next dose, I felt so much better within just a few minutes. Until it wore off, and I felt like death warmed up again. And sometime in the next few days I had another moment of clarity: This is why people must find it so hard to get off opioids – because I know that this misery will go away if I pop another pill or two.

I ended up seeing a pain management specialist, who helped wean me off the drug gradually over a period of six weeks or so. I was highly motivated to stop taking them, but when I finally stopped taking them, there were definitely moments in those last five days of misery when I thought about taking a pill, “just to take the edge off.” But I didn’t, and have not taken one since. And I’m pretty determined that should I ever need that kind of pain relief in the future, I won’t be using opioids or any other narcotic to seek it.

I took my first dose of Oxycodone on March 2, and my last on July 2. Four months of daily putting opioids in my body, several weeks of which were long after I actually needed them for pain. I understand – in a way I didn’t before this experience – why people both get addicted to opioids, and why they find it so hard to get off. But there’s so much more contributing to the epidemic of people experiencing opioid addiction than what I’ve described here.

In my next post I’ll explore why this is indeed a national crisis.

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“Do not withhold wages from your workers”

We were squeezed into the back of my friend Steve’s car, on the way to deliver a letter to a tobacco grower’s home in Garrard County, Kentucky, in support of seven of his laborers. The grower was illegally exploiting them, and they had made the courageous decision to join FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and go on strike in protest. One of them, Adolfo, had just shown me a picture of his 2-month-old daughter, at home with his wife in Hidalgo, Mexico, whom he had yet to hold in his arms. He is here in Kentucky on an H2A visa for six months of work to provide for his family. This was his third year to work on this particular farm, and he and six of his fellow laborers had had enough.

The H2A program links farmers with laborers from outside the U.S.A. and provides a legal contract: so many hours work a week, for so many weeks, at a fixed hourly rate. In Kentucky, that rate is $10.92 (which may sound like a lot, but only six states offer a lower rate). The farmer reimburses the travel expenses of the laborers: the laborers have to pay for the visa application process. The farmer provides accommodation, and the tools for the work. Or, at least, they are supposed to. But many do not abide by the contract, and that is why my daughter Maggie and I, along with about 20 other allies from Lexington, Louisville and Berea made our way towards Paint Lick this past Sunday, to stand in solidarity with these seven young men.

We crowded into their basic cement block accommodation, and began by sharing a simple meal of beans, rice and chicken chimis, sent by La Casita Center in Louisville. Then we listened for an hour as the men told their story, Felix Garza from the National Farm Worker Ministry translating for those of us who didn’t speak Spanish. The first year they worked for this grower, he had only paid them $7 an hour, instead of the contracted $10.92. The previous year he had paid them $8 an hour. This year, he had changed their wages from hourly to piece work – 15 cents per stick of six plants. If they worked as fast as possible they could make about $7-$8 an hour, but at that speed, accidents happen, and they could all show us scars on their arms from an errant blade, or from the sharp metal spike atop the sticks. Whenever they complained to the grower about the reduced hourly rate, they told us his consistent response was, “If you don’t like what I’m paying you, go back to Mexico.”

But reducing their wages is not the only way he exploits them. He doesn’t give them enough hours of work. Some weeks they may only go out for a few hours every other day. Or he may decide he needs them to work 12 hours a day for two days, then nothing for three. At the end of the week, he sits down with them individually to endorse the back of their pay check – which he has left blank, so they do not know how much he actually draws from the bank for them. They just see the cash he gives them when he returns. This may be so the bank records show he has paid them the $10.92 an hour as per the contract, and then he pockets the difference. He also made them bring their tools with them, and provides no safety wear for this difficult and sometimes dangerous work. If they handle tobacco for 10-12 hours a day, the amount of nicotine they absorb through their skin prevents them from sleeping.

Besides seeing the photo of Adolfo’s beautiful baby daughter, the moment that will remain with me from the three hours we spent with these exploited young men was after we had signed the letter to deliver to the grower. We were ready to drive to his home when Adolfo said, “He won’t be there yet. He’s still at church.”

“He’s still at church.”

I wonder what kind of church he attends. One of the “bible churches” liberally scattered across rural Kentucky perhaps? If so, I wonder how he has managed to avoid the dozens of passages throughout the bible that address treating your workers well. Because the bible was written in an agrarian culture, and between the two horizons of the text and this grower’s situation, agricultural laborers have remained some of the most vulnerable people for millennia. In Torah, it is written, “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 24.15) James writes, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5.4) Well, these exploited laborers had cried out to their church-going employer, and he had refused to listen to them. So they cried out to the Union, and the Union responded.

We are hoping that with pressure from the Union and one of the companies that buys this grower’s tobacco, he will decide to act justly and give these seven men the backpay he owes them, as well as provide enough work for them moving forward. Ultimately that they will win a Union contract with this grower. They are afraid he may report them as “bad workers”  which could prevent them from gaining a visa next year – the Union will provide protection from that kind of retaliation.

After this situation is resolved, I’d like to believe that the grower will sit in his regular pew one Sunday and ponder his actions. Or perhaps that he’ll be reading his bible during his regular quiet time, and stumble across one of these passages, and ask questions of himself. Or that his pastor will, from time to time, preach to the farmers in his congregation about treating your workers with respect.

I’d like to believe that.

(These young men are running out of money to buy food and basic living supplies. If you’d like to support them during this time, you may do so by contributing to FLOC here)

Photo credit: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus

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