Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

Traumatic, both physically and psychologically. This is cancer and its “cures”. Pathologically, trauma is a physical wound. Psychologically, it is an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psyche. Battling malignant DNA gone rouge in your own body produces both. The toll of the trauma becomes most telling to me when I must interface with a basic necessity of life: food.

A year ago, I began my treatment for head and neck cancer: a seven-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. [1] The chemo set up a mind-bend on food as it left most smells faithfully resonating with my memory while playing sleight of hand with my taste buds (e.g., looks like potatoes, smells like potatoes, tastes like baking soda). Sights and smells cannot be trusted. No taste is guaranteed. But of the two, radiation has left the most damage in its wake as it wiped out the cancer. My voice is deeper, but my soft pallet is softer; and my throat and tongue are dry enough to strike matches on. The tumor on my tongue made eating difficult. The cure has brought its own host of challenges.

I have grown accustomed to the background tension present at every meal. As I stare at the food and try to determine the appropriate size for my next bite (always smaller than I think, even after I adjust down from memory), I find that my body has folded into a defensive position. My shoulders are hunched over. My brows are knit. My posture is bad. It requires a conscious effort to unwind myself and be open to the experience; to embrace the necessity of the contest. This has become a daily discipline.

Unlike eating, grocery shopping doesn’t happen every day. Furthermore, I am blessed with a wife that manages that function quite well and children who enjoy going along for the ride. I haven’t been bothered with it in a long while. A long while, that is, until a couple of weeks ago when we all headed out together for the grand tour of wholesale clubs, organic food grocers, and traders in tasty treats.

I was honestly looking forward to the outing. Like all growing children, my kids love food and aren’t shy about expressing their discontent when the larders are low.[2] Their excitement was infectious as they discussed what they would sample, buy, and bake. Heedless of eating having been a daily challenge for over a year now, I indulged in a case of temporary amnesia and waltzed into the organic groceries superstore only to be slapped rudely awake by the assault on my psyche in the presence of such beautiful produce and foodstuffs.

“These peaches are huge!” I’m not sure if they will taste like peaches. What if they wind up tasting like prunes instead? “Those spices smell marvelous!” Which of my two tastes will they trigger: salty or sparky? “Look at those baguettes!” Crusty-dusty, death-dealing wads of dough. How much water will I have to down just to swallow one small bite? “Buy this super-blender. You can liquefy your vegetables!” Thanks, pal. Bought one, live on that. Are we having fun yet? And this was only the first stop.

My brain beat on me aisle after aisle, store after store. It wasn’t until the final stop that I started to beat it back. There I stood in the painful recognition that I was not only distressed, but depressed as well. While my family scurried with joy to try treat after treat from the various sample servers in the mega-warehouse store, I barely avoided skinning my knees after tripping over my drooping lip. All I could see were things I used to enjoy that I could no longer eat. That’s when I gave my mind a piece of my spirit.

My counterattack began with a change of perspective. Instead of feeling down because I couldn’t sample the pastrami sandwich, I decided to be thankful that I was even around to look at it. It was a good place to start: I’m alive. Take that, depression! Next, I reviewed several of the items purchased that I consume on a regular basis: all beef hot dogs, coffee, cod, steak. Considering that drinking water was an excruciating experience a mere nine months ago, these were considerable milestones to be grateful for. And then there was the chicken, fresh rotisserie chicken about to come off the spit. No lack of saliva was going to keep me from it.

Like a crack-addict mouse hitting the button for another dose in the lab, I kept going back to the counter to see if they were done. Distress gave way to expectancy, depression to hope. As soon as the cook slid them down the display shelf, I snatched up two of them. I couldn’t get to it quickly enough. We pressed through check out. We pushed out the door. We rolled to the van. I grabbed one of the chickens and jumped into the shotgun seat. While the family loaded the rest of the groceries into the back of the van, I broke open the plastic container and tore a drumstick off the bird. I went after the tasty morsel like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.[3]

As I ate the chicken (chased by copious amounts of water), I reflected on how easy it is to sow the seeds of bitterness and discontent when we decide to only see the ground we’ve lost and none of the ground we’ve retained or regained. Nearly two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy that “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.”[4] Simple lesson, tough battle.

Our minds naturally work through a system of references. Intuitively, the measure of our qualitative state is determined through our frame of reference. For instance, is $25 per hour a good wage? It’s fantastic if you currently only make $15 per hour. If you are used to making $24.25 per hour, it only amounts to a cost of living increase. If you are used to making $100,000 per year, it represents a major cut in pay. But suppose you were accustomed to a six-figure salary, but had been unemployed for nearly two years and were facing the very likely prospect of being homeless? How would the $25 per hour job look then?

The answer may seem obvious, but in practice it is not. Taking a pay cut and staying employed presents the options of being thankful or dissatisfied. Resentment is easy in such circumstances. Loss of health exposes one to the same challenge. I’m better, but not as well as I was before cancer. What I decide to focus on determines the state of my soul. I can mourn the loss or count the blessing. Thankfulness is a battle that must be intentionally waged. And battle I shall.

[1] For more background, see “Dealing with a Death Sentence” from my February 2014 posts.

[2] One of their favorite refrains is, “All we have is rotten milk and eggs”; a reference, oddly enough to one of the main staples of my diet: a protein shake made with kefir and raw eggs.

[3] My previous disclaimer stands: no mention of a movie (or movie character) is an endorsement thereof. That being said, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has some very funny moments, this being one of them: Mr. Fox eating.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:7-8 KJV

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Executing the Innocent: Genetics and the Death Penalty

Most meat-eating Americans pursue their prey down supermarket aisles, oblivious to the primal requirements that transpire prior to the packaging of the cold flesh they’ll soon call supper. Hunters, ranchers, and farmers know better.

Joshua was the convict’s name. We were told he was a young one, so we figured it wouldn’t be difficult. Then the farmer pointed him out. Joshua had left being a lamb many moons before and was well on his way to ram status. My son looked at me and said, “I told you we should have brought the gun.” It took us nearly an hour to get him corralled away from the flock and situated for slaughter.

Joshua perched peacefully atop the galvanized pipes we had placed under his shoulders and hindquarters; which elevated him slightly above the ground, making it impossible for him to run away and unwilling to try. I whispered kind and gentle words to him behind his ear while I petted his head. And then, ever so calmly though my heart beat rapidly inside its cage, I raised his muzzle and ran the butcher knife deeply across his throat. The air escaped from his lungs in a rush as his blood splashed down to the ground. It was then that Joshua decided it was time to run. But it was too late. With no possibility of survival, he fought for life anyway; thrashing atop the poles and nearly trapping me against the makeshift barricade.

We pulled the pipes out from under him and laid him down on the ground. Though it felt like hours, it only took a few moments longer for him to expire. All the gutting, skinning, and carving that I did for the next couple of hours couldn’t compare to the difficulty of that first cut. Killing is hard. Life doesn’t die easy.

On April 29, 2014, Clayton Darrell Lockett died in writhing distress as the state of Oklahoma attempted to administer a lethal injection. His lunges against the restrains and the moans of his pain were evidence that he was no more willing to die than Stephanie Neiman; whom he beat, shot twice, and buried alive while she fought for her life. It is unclear as of yet whether the drugs or the trauma of them being delivered subcutaneously caused his heart attack. Regardless, his pain and suffering once again raised the issue of whether lethal injection qualified as cruel and unusual punishment and as such should be deemed unconstitutional. Based on the plethora of our medically supervised industrial infanticide facilities and the level of violence in our movies, one would think that Americans had a stronger stomach for killing. But alas, most have never seen their meat come from anywhere but the market.

The idea that executing anyone could be painless is fanciful at best and delusional at worst. Lethal injection was supposed to resolve the question of the executioner’s cruelty. Death row inmates could go gentle into that good night; the rest of us could sleep comfortably, swaddled in our humane dreams. But lethal injection has the highest botch rate of all execution methods used in the U.S. since 1890.[1] The usual mistakes involve missing or blowing a vein which causes the death-delivering cocktail to burn and push its way through muscle and fat. Even so, the damage and pain caused is a far cry from what the Framers considered “cruel and unusual”; having in mind as they did the English spectacle of being hanged, drawn, and quartered.[2]

But botched executions are the least of death penalty’s problems in America. Due to the serious nature of the sentence, death row cases cost nearly four times as much as criminal cases where the death penalty isn’t sought. And death row inmates are much more expensive to house. The costs are so exorbitant that it is cheaper to give them life imprisonment without parole.[3] And then there is the matter of innocence.

No one was in doubt of Lockett’s guilt, least of all Lockett himself. But since 1973, 144 death row inmates have been exonerated after having wasted a total of 1,485 man years in prison. Nobody knows how many innocent people have been released from death row via the execution chamber, but chances are that it is not a few. Of the 144 exonerations mentioned, only 18 of them were due to DNA evidence. DNA testing, it turns out, plays a more sinister role in conviction than it does a benevolent one in exonerations.

Under the DNA Identification Act of 1994, our federal government has amassed the largest collection of seized genetic profiles in the world.[4] The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a program run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories supply CODIS with DNA samples collected from convicted offenders, arrestees, and detainees.[5] Though DNA evidence enjoys the myth of being infallible, the reality is that neither the science nor the personnel handling it is. With arrests and detentions being disproportionately employed against minorities, the warrantless retention of their genes for continual questioning relative to any unsolved crime only adds to the weight of possible injustice. When false positives occur, which they can do from sheer coincidence, it can make defending the accused nearly impossible.[6]

The greatest indicator of the racial disparity in our justice system is the fact that those accused of murdering whites are more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder blacks.[7] Simply put, our justice system places a higher value on its white citizens. Since 1976, twenty white defendants have been executed for the murder of black victims. In the same time period, two hundred and seventy-one black defendants have been executed for the murder of white victims.[8] I leave it for the reader to discover if these numbers in anyway represent the demographic of our nation.

I believe in the death penalty as a tool of justice. I don’t believe in it because it is cheaper. It isn’t. I don’t believe in it because it deters crime. It doesn’t. I believe in it because it is right: a murder’s life should be forfeit, not extended in incarceration. But the problem arises in its application. We in this country have had a difficult time applying it justly. And the dual specters of racial injustice and the possibility of executing the innocent should give us great pause. I only know of one execution carried out under those conditions that ever turned out to benefit society at large. But that Lamb wouldn’t keep to his grave.

[1] According to a study done by Austin Sarat of Amherst College as cited by Death Penalty Information Center about 7% of all lethal injections are botched. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/5772, accessed 6/8/14.
[2] https://www.rutherford.org/constitutional_corner/amendment_viii_cruel_and_unusual_punishment, accessed 5/26/14.
[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/29552692/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/execute-or-not-question-cost/#.U5UXwvldXLl, accessed 6/8/14.
[4] Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New York: The New Press, 2011), p. 264.
[5] http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/biometric-analysis/codis/codis-and-ndis-fact-sheet, accessed 6/9/14.
[6] Roberts, p. 272-274.
[7] United States General Accounting Office, Report to Senate and House Committees on the Judiciary, “Death Penalty Sentencing”, February 1990.
[8] http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-death-row-inmates-executed-1976

War Stories

I heard them first as a boy; young enough to wonder, too young to understand. They come to you unrefined, simply and how they were first impressed upon my mind.

Grandpa Kelly traced his finger over the grainy picture in the book and pointed to a face that vaguely looked like his. “That’s me,” he said with a slight smile. But he wore no smile in the picture. Neither did his companions in the landing craft. It was D-Day and they looked somber. The smell of vomit was what he remembered most. Over 400,000 United States service men and women lost their lives during World War II. I am grateful my Grandpa Kelly wasn’t one of them.

Stories of my uncle’s experience during the Korean War drifted through the family. He was a minesweeper and not fond of the job. He went AWOL. He turned himself in. He made it out alive. Over 33,000 United States service men and women died in combat in the three years of our involvement. I’m glad my uncle wasn’t one of them.

Three of my brothers served during the Vietnam War. They were all volunteers. Only two of them made it to the theater; something the third never truly forgave them for. Only one came back whole. I remember Franklin lacing up the leather braces on his forearms, the funny way the meat on his arm moved under scarred skin. Years later I learned that the magazine of his M-16 took a round of enemy fire while he was on patrol and the weapon blew apart in his arms. He took another bullet in the heel as he crawled his way out of the rice patty. It took many months for his body to heal; many years for his mind. The smell of putrid decay is the memory that troubles him the most. Over 50,000 United States service men and women lost their lives in that conflict. I’m glad that none of my brothers did.

Today, friends and family serve on the front lines of the American War on Terror. They have lost friends, comrades, and brothers-in-arms. I’ve stood at many a funeral and dug graves not a few. I’ve eulogized and preached, comforted and buried. But gratefully, I’ve never been called on to stand strong while taps played long for a departed loved one.

To all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation and to their families that offered them up, I owe undying gratefulness. You didn’t come home. But my family has. And because of you and them, there was a land of the free to come home to. Thank you.

Crawling Out of the Bottle

Beer was an acquired taste. But I took to hard liquor like it was my mother’s milk. The first drinks were mixed: bourbon and coke, vodka and orange juice, PGA and punch. I was fourteen. After a time, the mixer was too sweet for me, the bourbon too smooth. Scotch and water on ice became the standard. The problem with water, however, was that it diluted the liquor. So scotch on the rocks it was. But ice cubes melt and I quickly dispensed with the practice. When I stopped mixing my liquor with a glass, I should have realized I had a problem.

I am not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise. I was a drunk. If you are a parent reading this, please understand that while I abused alcohol from my early teens, I was a highly functioning alcohol abuser. While in high school, I was a straight-A student, acted in regional theater, had a window cleaning business, worked twenty to thirty hours a week in restaurants, lead Bible fellowships, and paid monthly rent to my mother as well as supported most of my personal spending habits. If you were on the outside of my circle looking in, I was one of the “good kids”. If you happened to be in my circle, I was serving you drinks during the weekend wind down. I state this as a warning. Alcohol abuse can occur while folks function normally. Make sure you are aware of what your children are doing.

If you are my child and reading this, you’ve heard some of these stories before but probably not with such detail. I offer them not as a boast, but a recollection of my walk of shame and the goodness of God to save me from it. Our family has a long history of alcohol abuse. Should you dance with the bottle, understand that you won’t be the lead for long.

I could list numerous environmental reasons – causes of nature and nurture – for why I took to drink. Prime among them would be parental and sibling consumption of alcohol. And though it was a factor, it is far from an excuse. Ultimately, it was simply a matter of personal choice. It is amazing to me how small of a disincentive to self-abuse is the observed abuse by others. I watched my father die of his nicotine habit. It didn’t stop me from smoking. I was pained by the emotional damage my mother’s drinking caused the family. I still knocked back shots with her. No one twisted my arm. It wasn’t inevitable. Solid barriers were in my way. And yet, as a teenager living in a dry county I still managed to procure enough supplies to feed my binges and those of my friends. Choice, not chance. Failure, not fate.

Teenagers are renowned for their risky behaviors. I was a champion risk taker, a trait that was exacerbated through lack of immediate consequences. Steal liquor from my employer and get drunk with coworkers? Get promoted to cook. Stay up drinking all night at a cast party? Go to work three hours later, sober with no hangover. Buy out half a liquor store and not be old enough to vote? Get a smile from the pretty cashier and wish she lived in my town. Transport alcoholic beverages underage, across state lines, and into a dry county? Be a hero to your friends and let the good times roll.

While marijuana and hashish always made me nauseous and left me with a hangover, I wouldn’t suffer a head-banger from alcohol until I was in my early twenties. The ability to consume mass quantities and not suffer pain from alcohol toxicity was alarming to me in my youth. But I didn’t heed the warning. It wasn’t until my late twenties that self-induced sickness began to interfere with my work. By then, my habit was fairly entrenched.

Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit[1]documents what he refers to as “the habit loop” with multiple examples of how this loop plays out in our lives and culture. It looks like this:

Image

From a young age, two habit loops formed a vicious feedback cycle in my life that accelerated my descent down the bottle: working and drinking. My cue for working was simple and basic: I needed money. When my father died, only my brother Timothy and I were left at home with my mother. That following spring, she informed us that she needed $100 a month from each of us to make ends meet.[2] It was 1979. Timothy was sixteen, I was fourteen. My summer job was never about college.

My routine was to go to work, early and often. During my sophomore year of high school, I would get up at 5 AM to make it to work by six, Monday through Friday. I ran there. After a two-hour shift of cooking, I would run to school. It wasn’t uncommon for me to put in sixteen to twenty-four hours during the weekend. I was rewarded with money for my work as well as respect from my mother because I wasn’t lazy. But the demands of life and work set off other cues: stress and pain.

I began suffering with back pain when I was fifteen. By the time it became chronic in my early twenties, alcohol was already my reliever of choice. My routine to handle the stress and pain was drinking, for which I was rewarded with relief and relaxation. But the payoff came with a price. As I abused alcohol, I lost money and respect. This became my cue to work even harder and around the circle I would go again in an ever increasing, downward spiral. My concentric habit loops looked something like this:

Image

A serious case of sciatica set in within my first year as an office furniture installer. The chiropractor I went to strongly suggested that I find a different line of work. It would take me eighteen years to heed his advice. I’m hardheaded that way. Degeneration in a disk of my lower back put pressure on my left sciatic nerve. It felt like someone had jammed a metal spear through my lower back, down my left leg to my ankle and hooked it up with jumper cables to a car battery. Then they played with the juice and made me dance all day long. Maddening. I gradually turned into a fairly mean bastard.

The first time I herniated the disk, I called my wife and asked her to buy some medicine. It was eight o’clock in the evening. The state-run liquor stores closed at nine.[3] I was at work. My day had started at seven that morning and I still had a couple of hours to go. I came home to a fifth of Maker’s Mark® and killed half the bottle in less than an hour. It allowed me to make it upstairs to my bed without screaming. The Centers for Disease Control defines moderate alcohol consumption as two drinks per day for a man.[4] Half a fifth in less than an hour isn’t moderation.

Years later I was relaxing with my crew after a hard day’s work, enjoying a friendly game of spades as we shot the breeze and drank the booze. I should have known it wouldn’t end well when we threw the cap away as soon as the bottle was opened. I honestly didn’t think I drank much that night. I even bowed out early, heading home in the summer twilight. Trash carts were set out in neat lines along my route home. I recall how funny I thought it was to knock them over with my truck as I rolled down the streets. But then the pick-up headed toward a ditch. I pulled hard on the wheel to avoid disaster…and fell off my couch in the pitch black of night. I had no memory of getting home. To this day, I’m not sure if I knocked the trash carts over or just imagined it. But I am sure I blacked out. And I knew I was in trouble.

That event terrified me. I consumed no alcohol for six months thereafter, regardless the pain. But I didn’t quit. I forgot my wife’s anger. I disregarded my reckless behavior. I took no account of the lives I endangered. Work was stress and pain, alcohol was release and relief. Downward I dove.

Eventually, fun took a back seat to pain management. I commuted forty-five minutes to work and the clutch was torture on the back and leg. One night I stopped at a grocery store well shy of the halfway mark home and bought a six pack. I drank it in the parking lot. It was enough to cool the nerve and get me home to my scotch. A sane man would have sought medical help. A sane man would have slowed down. A sane man might even consider automatic transmission. But I didn’t. I’m hardheaded that way.

The pain became so severe that sitting, let alone driving, became nearly impossible. My wife would drive me to work and pick me up. Not working wasn’t an option. That addiction was stronger than alcohol. The day came when standing was out of reach of my stubbornness. I collapsed in the shower while getting ready for work. I wouldn’t walk for another two months.

Within the first couple weeks of crawling around my house on my hands and knees, I heard the Lord say, “So, is this life of yours working for you? Because it isn’t working for me.” The humble rarely get humbled. Unlike Jacob who earned a limp wrestling with the angel for a blessing, I was a crawling cripple for cherishing the curse of alcohol and the false identity of work. The realization was sobering.

Our third child was born. I went on the operating table. For four hours, the surgeon scraped away at the damage I had done to my back. Once the debris of the disk herniations was gone, my sciatic nerve could breathe again. Ninety percent of my alcohol need went away. The rest was habit.

I no longer got drunk with near the frequency I had. But I still drank. Honestly, I have no issue with drinking. I don’t think it immoral, sinful, or wrong. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is an issue. And so long as I drank, the danger of being drunk was ever present. Inebriation couldn’t be my relaxation. I had to learn to rest in Him. Work couldn’t be the determiner of my self-worth. I had to measure my value by what He was willing to pay for me. Life needed to be temperate if I hoped to drink wine with Him in the kingdom.

I’ve been sober for nearly twenty years now. I no longer hear the bottle calling my name in the dark of night. And I’m thankful for the love of my Lord and my wife who saw me through to the dawn.

 

[1] The full title is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. You can find Duhigg’s web site here: http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

[2] My father died on December 5, 1978. $100 in 1979 had the buying power that $326 has today.

[3] As I am now, I was living in Virginia at the time. We have ABC Stores. Having come from a region that had liquor stores with neon lights (we would travel up to Missouri from my hometown in northern Arkansas to purchase supplies), it took me a year to figure out what an ABC Store was.

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm , accessed 5/18/14.

Love and Tolerance: A Resurrection Post

I grew up in Europe of the late 1930s. Fascism was in power, Communists were evil, Laurel and Hardy were funny, Errol Flynn was an action star, the Generalísimo was in charge, school uniforms were the order of the day, and Jesus was safely affixed to his cross where he could do others no serious harm.

Early 1970s Spain was a time capsule, capped by the Pyrenees and held captive under the tricorn hat of the Guardia Civil. The Luftwaffe weren’t bombing the north country, but the Basques were still violently upset over the last time they had. Terrorist tension ratcheted up to the sound of ETA bombs while Belfast refugees lived in unsettled ease, hiding from their troubles in the heartland of the Inquisition. It was in this country — Franco’s Spain, the land of my first immigration — that culture shock and anachronism became the warp and woof of my life. It was here that I would learn to be a militant Protestant just shy of being Irish.

I still recall the warm waters of my uncle’s baptistery. I was no more than five when I first waded into my official declaration of Christian discipleship. And though as a Southern Baptist minister fighting the culture wars of the sixties and seventies in central California, he was both compassionate and combative; his was a gentler faith[1] than the Protestant stand I learned in the land of revered icons and idols. Saints, signs, and superstitions assaulted us from every corner and crosswalk. I remember the day my brother Timothy joined the queue of children charmed by the nun. As he grew closer to her breast, he was appalled to see that they had lined up to kiss her crucifix. He ran away in shock as she declared him anathema for breaking rank. But simple abstention wasn’t enough.

One day in third grade, we were all given an icon of Mary on cardstock. My Protestant friend, Juan David, and I rolled our eyes as our classmates happily kissed her face in adoration. Recess was called and as was custom, we made our way to the restroom before entering the playground. As Juan David and I stood facing the wall of the group urinal, we came to the same decision in silence. We both flicked our cards into the water trough while still in full stream, showing no mercy to Mary or the boys who fruitlessly tried to save her from our indignation. The next forty-five minutes marked the longest recess I ever experienced in school as he and I alternately ran and fought until the whistle blew and called all boys back into the classroom, Protestant (just he and me) and Catholic (everybody else) alike.

When we moved back to the USA, I was full of fight and argument against a Catholicism few here practiced. Despite the paucity of Catholics in the buckle of the Bible Belt that I now called home, I dove into serious study of the pagan origins of Christian traditions during my early teens which fanned the flames of my anti-papal fire to a degree that it threatened to singe even my Protestant brethren. Babies in the baptistery were thrown out with the water as I surged forward in search a purer truth and practice. Somewhere along that line, I began to forget about the Person and the people he had come to save. I fell in love with dogma and grew cold to Deity.

Christians are often accused of intolerance. We are, perhaps, most intolerant of each other. The history of Protestant persecution and retaliation is well documented. You’ve read some of its remnants in the scraps of my life detailed above. Any Christian that doesn’t meet my level of devotion is nominal. Any fanatic whose faith isn’t as rational as mine is a radical. But that is not the sort of intolerance that the current culture rails on us about. They are mostly incensed at our framework of salvation and assertions of morality.

Hardly any would argue that murder is moral, but many will debate whether abortion is murder. Assert that it is, and you are intolerant, ignorant, and misogynistic. Hardly any would defend the pedophile on the grounds of sexual orientation. But call homosexuality a perversion and you are intolerant, homophobic, and puritanical. Few enjoy being cheated on, but call adultery sin and you are an intolerant prig out of touch with the polyamorous reality of modern man who is subject to his evolutionary inheritance. None care for the company of bratty children. But discipline your child away from his harmful nature, and you are an intolerant, abusive ogre intent on contorting and controlling his life.

Christianity loses its soul without sin. When murder, fornication, adultery, and rebellion become behaviors with no moral consequence, love your neighbor as yourself loses all possibility of significance. Love isn’t simply an undefined bag of sentiment and jumbled emotions. Neither is it the “live and let live” of the worshippers of tolerance. Love involves the discipline of moral behavior, of not crossing my neighbor’s boundary to do him harm. Tolerance demands that when others do, I remain silent. Love also demands that if my neighbor is being harmed, I should rush to his aid. Tolerance demands that I mind my own business. After all, they are consenting adults, right? Perhaps? Maybe?

Sin is why Christianity has a Savior. When Christians proclaim with Jesus that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; our use of the definite article is seen as exclusionary. The central theme of our faith, salvation, brings light to its antithesis, damnation.  This is viewed as our greatest intolerance of all. How can you believe in a God who would condemn people to Hell, they ask. How could I not believe in a God who died and went there to save me from it, is my reply. Love isn’t tolerance. It is truth in action willing to save the perishing. It isn’t dogma, it is deeds. Its highest form isn’t human, it is Divine.

Nearly twenty years ago, a young lady in my church was getting married. She had been brought up Catholic and wanted a priest to officiate the wedding. She and her fiancée rented a small church and invited me to do the Gospel reading for the ceremony. And so it was that the priest and the house church pastor met in a Protestant church to marry a Charismatic couple. On rehearsal night, the priest ran me through the paces. At the appointed time, we would walk up; he to the altar, me to the podium. The music played and he nodded. We met in the aisle and walked forward, side by side. “Bet you never thought you would walk down the aisle with a priest?” Jesus said. For the second time in my life, I heard the Lord’s laughter.

 

[1] Glennon Culwell and my Aunt Jean brought Christ to the Larum clan. His autobiography, My Life in the Potter’s Hands is a candid retelling of the grace of God at work in all the messiness and trauma of life. If your view of Baptist ministers (or Baptists in general) is one of a bunch of stuffed, heartless shirts, you need to read this book.

Membership Has Its Privileges: Cults and Closed Systems of Faith

She was upset and clearly nervous. “I think my daughter is being brainwashed,” she said, “and I am concerned about some of the beliefs she is expressing.” This would be an alarming confession for any minister to hear. What was one to do to allay this mother’s fears? I found myself particularly challenged for several reasons. For starters, I was a young “minister” not much older than sixteen. A grown woman more than twice my age was talking to me about her teenage daughter. Further complicating the matter was the small detail of me being the “cult leader” she was worried about. That’s right, yours truly was the brainwasher.

Cult fever in the populist mind tends to infect in direct proportion with mass suicide or celebrity participation. All it takes is a cybersect ingesting cyanide[1] or Tom Cruise stumping on the Today Show and cults move out of the shadows and into the line-up of water cooler conversations and television news magazine profiles.  In my case, I became involved in 1979 in what many classified simply as a cult and some more gently as a Christian cult.[2] The Jonestown tragedy[3] was barely a year old, the Unification Church was in ascendancy and all God-fearing Christians were on guard against the seduction of these insidious groups. Becoming a militant proselytizer for a fringe religious group in such an era wasn’t for the faint of heart; especially when it meant being confronted by your friends’ parents.

What is a cult? In simple terms, I would define it as another man’s religion. But such definitions won’t do. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a cult as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.”[4] The problem with the term is that it has been stretched too thin. When the same word is used to brand Heaven’s Gate and the Roman Catholic Church, it ceases to be useful. Instead of a noun that consistently describes a thing, “cult” has become the pejorative of the established mainstream against the counter-culture. It is the n-word of religious and social discourse.

Consider three well known American religions: Christian Science (400,000 members worldwide), Jehovah’s Witnesses (7.96 million worldwide), and Mormonism (15 million worldwide).[5] All three of these organizations have been consistently classified as cults by evangelical Protestant denominations. With one word, over twenty-three million people are placed on a level playing field with The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate. How are we to seriously discuss beliefs with such loose use of semantics?

The case of Mormonism is particularly revealing. The evangelical community has spilled much ink in its fight against Joseph Smith’s creation. Books, pamphlets, and classes are dedicated to explaining his errors from orthodoxy and how one is to witness to a Mormon. Yet, in the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, prominent evangelicals seemed to run over their convictions and theology in their rush to endorse Mitt Romney, a committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). People who had held sophisticated arguments and theological positions seemed to capitulate to a truncated caveman logic, “Romney politics good, religion bad. Me vote politics.”[6]

LDS history illustrates some of the hilarity of the American Christian tapestry. A good argument can be made that the LDS Church owes more to Brigham Young for its shape and success than it does to Joseph Smith’s revelations. But what brought Brigham Young to Joseph Smith’s attention? It was his reputation for speaking in tongues in an impressive and commanding fashion.[7] That Brigham Young spoke in tongues would signify to unprejudiced Charismatics that he was born again and had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But since he was a Mormon, they would most likely conclude that he had evidenced a false gift. I suppose this is preferable to believing in a born again, Spirit-filled Mormon! Evangelical cessationists would say it proved that Brigham Young was no less a charlatan than Joseph Smith as the gift of tongues ceased with the passing of the Apostles. Jehovah’s Witnesses would simply find this fact as evidence that Young was demonized. At least they can all agree that he was in a cult.

And what of brainwashing? Brainwashing, or mind control, is the power tool of cultic organizations. Trained, malevolent operatives capture the unsuspecting and implant aberrant world views to enslave them for the enrichment of the Founder. As a small group leader in The Way International (TWI), I believed much of the bad press Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was receiving. Though people accused us of brainwashing, I knew we weren’t doing the sorts of things the Moonies were to enslave their followers. It was eye opening to me when as a TWI missionary[8] I invited a group of Moonies over to give us their schpeal. There were four of them. There were four of us. They had a video. We had videos. Their founder had a deeper revelation of God. Our founder had a deeper revelation of God. They had volunteered to serve as proselytizers. We had volunteered to serve as proselytizers. They were sober and rational. We were rational and sober (most of the time). For the first time, I realized that they were no more brainwashed than I was. But we had all been indoctrinated.

Brainwashing, like cult, is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I myself have used it (or a form of it) in this article no less than seven times and I’m not finished yet. If a group of people hold to a belief system in spite of social pressure, contravening facts, or majority opinion; they must have been “brainwashed.” Personally, I think it is easier to convince people that they have been victims of brainwashing than it is to actually brainwash someone.

Technically, brainwashing is the forcible indoctrination of someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and accept contrasting regimented ideas.[9] Brainwashing, also known as thought reform, is a severe form of social influence that combines compliance, persuasion, and education while isolating the target and making them completely dependent on the brainwasher, or agent. The target’s basic human needs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, toilet, sleep) are under the direct control of the agent. Through his manipulation of the needs and use of torture, the agent begins to twist the target and mold his mind to the desired shape.[10] This isn’t what happens in most of what people call cults today. And it wasn’t what I had done to the girl at the start of this story.

After ten years in TWI, I began to make forays back into mainstream Christianity. It wasn’t easy. I joked with one of my pastors in those early days that if I had confessed to being a delivered Satanist, they would have had me in front of the church sharing my testimony and teaching seminars on the occult the day after I walked in the door. But mention that you had been involved with The Way International and you were quarantined. “Watch out for that guy, he’s been in a cult!” As my wife and I reintegrated into the greater body of Christ, I discovered some of the reasons that had made TWI and groups like it so attractive to so many people.

Before I continue, I would like to exchange words. Instead of cult, I prefer “closed system of faith.” In a closed system of faith, all the complexities and variables of life are simplified through a standardized grid of dogma. Knowledge of and adherence to the grid is empowerment, superiority, success, and acceptance. All closed systems of faith that I have encountered share this phenomenon. Its adherents express it differently. Some feel sorry for those outside who are called unbelievers, lost, fools, ignorant or Gentiles. Others are antagonistic to the “them” that always seem to be out to get “us”. Many exhibit the arrogance of those in the know amongst the ignorant masses. But those on the inside share an intimacy that those on the outside struggle daily to achieve.

The first note of the siren’s song is the invitation to the Secret Seminar. We have knowledge that you need. To get it, you have to take our class. And thus the indoctrination begins. These training outreaches are generally designed in a way that they deliver more information than can be processed in the time of presentation. And the presentation time can be long, hours a night for weeks or intensive weekends where the audience absorbs (or is bombarded by) the rapid-fire delivery of the instructor. No time is given for questions. Hold those to the end because more than likely, your questions will be answered as we move through the course. By the finish line, most have forgotten what the questions were.

Having been stuffed with new information, the proselyte is now encouraged to master the material. Not through questioning and discourse, however, but through follow-up homework and workshops. Thus the ideas are hammered in and the new perspective grows. Due to the time commitment involved, deep bonds are formed with fellow students who all share a gratitude for the privilege of special knowledge.

The song has hit its bridge. No longer do we ponder what should be done. We have standard formulas for conduct that guarantee results. The daunting confusion of the world has been tamed. We have the answers and this gives us confidence. People on the outside wonder why people on the inside stay in the face of leadership failures, manipulation, and spiritual abuse. People on the inside wonder why people on the outside would ever expect them to leave a place that assures them that they are right and cannot fail; where friends can be had at a glance and people are trusted because we believe the same things.

As we approach the coda, accomplishment chimes in with accolades few on the outside will know. Small victories figure large in our fish bowl. The world may not notice, but our colleagues reward us with recognition. We are important. We matter.

I’ve seen this cycle played out in the dojo, in The Way International, in multilevel marketing schemes, in corporate America, and in major para-church ministries like Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles. Acceptance is a basic need of the human heart. Closed systems of faith can provide it in spades. It’s what makes them dangerous. Having provided it, they can take it away. Membership, after all, has its privileges.


[1] On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect were found dead in a mansion in the San Diego area. They were trying to catch a ride on the Mother Ship.

[2] The organization was The Way International. I was involved with them from 1979-1989.

[3] Jim Jones led his People’s Temple to mass suicide on November 18, 1978. 918 people died drinking poisoned Flavor Aid. But in the popular mind, it was Kool Aid everyone had. The event turned into a proverb. To this day, when we advise people against following organizations or ideas blindly we tell them “Don’t drink the Kool Aid!”

[5] Figures cited are from Wikipedia, accessed 3/16/2014. Figure for Mormonism is actually the figure for the LDS Church, the largest group of Mormonism.

[6] For those tempted to make it a white/black thing, a higher percentage of white Protestants voted for Obama than black Protestants voted for Romney.

[7] The Mormonizing of America, Stephen Mansfield, © 2012 by Stephen Mansfield, Worthy Publishing, Brentwood, TN, p. 171.

[8] We were called Word Over the World Ambassadors or WOWs. The commitment was for a year of service in an assigned community. We were obligated to proselytize 40 hours a week and work a job no less than 20 hours a week. We were self-supported. The dedication level was high, though only half as long as the Mormons’.

Dealing with a Death Sentence

“Will the accused please rise.” The command fills me with trepidation. “You will now hear the verdict and I order it to be recorded by the clerk. We the jury, being duly impaneled and sworn, do hereby find by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. We therefore unanimously recommend the sentence of death be imposed upon Nikolas Larum.” I’m in a nightmare. I can’t believe this is happening.

An involuntary scan of my recent life plays before my mind’s eye. How could this be happening to me? I’m not a criminal. I’ve played by the rules. I haven’t taken unnecessary risks. How does this happen on a sane planet? My wife grabs my arm and we both hold the tears back as best we can. The warm sands of Bermuda, remains of which can still be found in our shoes, seem to be from a lifetime ago. Was that only the week before last? But the Judge is still speaking, talking about the possibility of a commuted sentence. I force myself to pay attention, even though at that moment I’m tempted with a violence toward him that could seriously foil this potentiality.

The first paragraph is drama, the second reality. The scene isn’t a courtroom but an examining room. And the Judge wasn’t a judge or even a lawyer. He’s my doctor. My wife and I had recently returned from a (very nice) business trip to Bermuda. We had come to finally hear results of tests they had performed on me and the doctor can’t find them. He has his back to us and we are as close to a polite argument as one can get. “The files aren’t here.” “No, they are here. I asked your staff. They said you had them. It’s the only reason we made the appointment.” He looks at his screen, scanning past multiple file names.

In retrospect, I almost wish the scene had been as dramatic as my first paragraph attempts to be. The reality was actually almost anti-climactic and nearly comical. “Oh, here it is,” he says, his back to us and eyes on the screen. “Lymph fluid contained evidence of squamous cell carcinoma. There is a tumor 2 by 2.5 centimeters at the base of the tongue…” and then he remembered that we were in the room. I wish I had taken a picture of his expression as he turned to look at us over his shoulder. The look said, “Oh, $#@&! I just said that out loud, didn’t I?”

How does it feel to hear you have cancer? Have you ever been kicked real hard in the groin when you didn’t even know you were in fight? It felt something like that. The wind went out of me. There was a palpable physical pain and a numbing mental shock. Where did that come from? Did I hear that right? What are you talking about? A tumor on my tongue? But it’s my lymph node they biopsied! I have a sore throat, that’s all. Squamous cell carcinoma? I’ve never heard of it! Did you just make that up? What do you mean I have cancer? I don’t get cancer, other people do!

I am very thankful that my doctor quickly recovered his usually great bedside manner. He slowed down. He explained the results. He showed compassion. My general practitioner got to work and fast-tracked me with some of the best specialists in town. His actions were instrumental in saving my life. And I wasn’t even fully aware that I was dying.

Over the course of the next few months, I would learn more about squamous cell carcinoma than I ever cared to know. But the day that I learned I had the disease; I did what I have so often done. I didn’t stop to reflect. I didn’t go home with my wife to allow us time to process. I ran to work and busyness, the grindstone my preferred head-burial sand. You would expect the specter of death to bring out a greater sense of altruism in me. Nope. I reacted with a visceral selfishness. Run. Hide. Work. It would not be my last mistake.

The next kick in the teeth I was better prepared for, though it still hurt. We had made our way through the oncologist[1] who referred us to the ENT[2] oncologist. He used his tongue depressor and flash light. He pulled my tongue forward and pressed it down. He stuck a hose up through my nose down to my throat and took a look. “What type of therapy did the oncologist recommend?” he asked. I informed him that he had given us a general idea of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that were typically applied, but that he was deferring to the ENT and awaiting staging diagnosis, which would come with the CT/PET results. “I’ll tell you right now they are going to stage it as Stage IV. No one wants to say it, but that’s what it is.” His back wasn’t turned. His eyes were on me. No pulled punches. Just the facts, man.

“Stage IV?” OK, I’d had an inflamed lymph node for nearly nine months by then. But in less than a month, I’d gone from a sore throat to a potentially calcified lymph node to squamous cell carcinoma on my tongue and three lymph nodes to Stage IV? It wasn’t exactly a sucker punch, but I was reeling. “Yes, Stage IV, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.” “Not as bad as it sounds? You’ve got worse than Stage IV?” Stage IV was get-your-house-in-order stage, sign-up-for-trial-drug-study stage, we’ve-got-nothing-left-for-you stage. “Yes, at Stage IV we start giving it letters: Stage IVa, Stage IVb, Stage IVc. You’re Stage IVa, very treatable.” I was laughing. This was a sit-com. Where’s the live audience? Someone pay the writers more, they’re brilliant.

For seven weeks I received a weekly infusion of Cisplatin[3] and daily doses of radiation. The treatment was more challenging than the disease. I am still recovering from the effects of the drugs and the high level x-ray exposure. But I am happy to report that I had a dramatic response to therapy and all doctors involved expect a full recovery. The tumor is gone, the lymph nodes have shrunk, and I am healing. But this post isn’t about that part of the story. It’s about dealing with a death sentence.

I am a Christian of the faith healing camp. I believe in miracles. I don’t read the Gospels or the book of Acts as the fanciful inventions of man. I’ve laid hands on the sick and infirm and seen them recover.[4] And I confess that being diagnosed with a terminal illness and holding to a theology of an actively intervening God can have its own particular challenges. Were I one who believed that God only worked through doctors (or, worse yet, that only doctors worked) then I could just lay back and take my medicine quietly. But I happen to be a Charismatic. And we don’t do much of anything quietly.

Why am I sick? Is this a test? Should I submit to treatment or boldly stand for a miracle? How do I process this with my children? My church? Oddly enough, if you believe in miracles, your options for response to bad news are a bit more complex. But upon reflection, the answers weren’t that difficult.

Why am I sick? I had involved myself with risky behavior for years during my youth (tobacco being a prime culprit). I am a broken man living on a broken planet and the activities of my youth did violence to the genetic code in my mouth. God is not mocked. You reap what you sow. The miracle was that I hadn’t gotten sick sooner.

Is this a test? Of course it is. All of life is a test. Our small journey here determines our quality of life for eternity. What is momentary suffering in the face of eternal glory?

Should I submit to treatment or boldly stand for a miracle? I asked the ENT what would happen if I did nothing. “You’ll be dead in a year. And it will be a horrible death.” I considered that I had spoken to the inflammation, commanding it to go away. I had prayed. I was eating right and exercising. I was taking my supplements. It had not gotten better, only worse. Though I know God lacks no power or willingness to heal the sick, I had to confess that at that moment, I lacked the faith to see it happen with this disease at this time. I was not ready to die. I submitted to the needles and the rays. After all, I am a Charismatic Christian, not a Christian Scientist.

How do I process this with my children? Honestly, forthrightly, and one day at a time. I had to balance my optimism that God would see us through and I would be delivered with the real possibility that I might die sooner than any of us were ready for. I’ve raised my family in the faith. We have seen our share of miracles and tragedies. They’ve watched me officiate more funerals than weddings. They deserved to know what we were facing with no sugar coating. Faith isn’t denying your circumstances. It’s moving forward in spite of them.

How do I process this with my church? The facts are the facts, the Truth is the truth. Fact: I had cancer. Truth: YHWH-RAPHA, the LORD who heals me. No condemnation, no suffering in silence. All the cards were on the table. A more compassionate group of people one could not ask for.

I know that there are people of faith whose convictions are challenged in the face of adversity, as if belief in God exonerates them from calamity. When the trials hit, they wonder where God could be and why they are suffering. I also know that there are people without hope beyond what man can offer; folks who live their lives under the sun and expect nothing more than this life. How either of these manage to come through a storm intact, I know not. I personally shudder to think of a single day lived outside of the sure knowledge of the abiding presence and care of Jesus.

A dear friend of mine recently asked me how this experience has changed my perspective and personality. I don’t have that answer yet, at least not completely. I know walking through this has made me very thankful for the simple things in life, like brushing my teeth without throwing up. I know that though workaholism is a real danger that still needs to be guarded against; I’ve become much more intentional about my family. I thought I already knew time was short. I know it better now.

Like anyone who has lived, my time of travel in this world hasn’t been trauma-free. We live in a broken world and its shards cut us all. The wonder isn’t in that we bleed. Everybody does. The wonder is that any of us heal at all. And that wonder belongs to Him.


[1] As so often happens in life, the oncologist wasn’t an unknown entity to me or my wife. We first met him a year before during a family conference in which I was the medical power of attorney for my wife’s best friend who was battling brain cancer. I was there to make sure her wish not to proceed with the next treatment recommendation was honored. It meant that absent a miracle, she would die. She went home to the Lord not long after.

[2] ENT – ear, nose, and throat doctor. An ENT is a specialist. An ENT Oncologist is a specialist’s specialist. Mine is very special. Best doctor I’ve ever met.

[3] Cisplatin is a chemotherapy drug. Its molecular structure is a central platinum atom with two chlorine atoms and two ammonia molecules attached to it. I usually treat my poison ivy by lancing the sores and pouring bleach straight in. Early on in this adventure, my wife facetiously commented that it was too bad that I couldn’t treat the cancer like I did my poison ivy. Lo and behold, that’s essentially what they did!

[4] We’re talking fevers-broken, bones-mended, deaf-hearing, dumb-speaking, paralyzed-moving healings. Not on television, not on stage. With my own two eyes, under my hands, by the power of God, in the name of Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!